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Why such silence amid Zambians’ anti-gay storm?

"Minister Lungu and Bishop Chomba peddling anti-gay hate speech in Zambia" is the caption for this graphic from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

“Minister Lungu and Bishop Chomba peddling anti-gay hate speech in Zambia” is the caption for this graphic from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

Sowing poisonous seeds in Zambia

Human rights worker Chivuli Ukwimi has harsh words for human rights organizations that stood silently by as a “storm of homophobic bigotry and hate-speech” broke out in Zambia this month shortly after the European Union invited proposals for grants to support human rights there.

He is similarly critical of religious leaders who have either remained silent or added their own anti-LGBT provocations.

The trigger for the homophobic storm was a widely publicized and possibly fraudulent attempt by four allegedly gay couples seeking to register as married on Easter weekend.

Paul Kasonkomona (Photo courtesy of Muvi TV)

Paul Kasonkomona (Photo courtesy of Muvi TV)

Soon afterwards, Zambian human rights activist Paul Kasonkomona was arrested immediately after he appeared on television calling for homosexual relationships to be decriminalized.  LGBT people in Zambia were confronted with a wave of  violence, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, blackmail and extortion.

In a commentary for the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA), Chivuli Ukwimi cites three reasons for the anti-LGBT outburst:

Political manipulation:

Firstly, the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) government is slowly losing popularity and is now trying to play the anti-homosexual card – as Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime successfully did in neighbouring Malawi – to divert attention away from a host of problems and solidify support among the ‘Christian’ majority in Zambia. Homosexuality is an issue that seems to override other concerns and bridge political and economic divides in Zambia – and the PF government is taking full advantage.

Incitement from visiting American evangelicals:

Secondly, there has been an increase in the number of visits to Zambia by notable American evangelical leaders calling upon Zambian leaders to reject ‘anti-biblical’ practices like homosexuality and abortion and uphold and retain the status of Zambia as a ‘Christian nation’. Of course, many of them have come with sizeable cheques to ‘support’ various churches and religious institutions. And opportunist religious leaders – like Bishop Edward Chomba, who was actually ex-communicated by the International Communion of the Holy Christian Orthodox Church in the US in 2007 – are happily jumping at the chance to make friends with their wealthy peers from across the sea by trying to out-do each other’s anti-gay rhetoric.

If you think you have heard this process before, it is because you have – in Uganda. And we know where that ended up – in legislation calling for the death penalty for homosexual acts, vile and vitriolic press ‘coverage’, and the murder of an LGBTI activist.

Fears that a new constitution might protect LGBT people:

And the third reason for the flare up in bigotry is the ongoing National Constitutional Conference (NCC), which is tasked debating the final draft of a new constitution. It is quite clear that the anti-gay rights movement has closely studied the draft constitution and, just like us, found the ‘loopholes’ that may render the sodomy clause in the current penal code unconstitutional – and thereby lead to the decriminalisation of same sex sexual conduct in Zambia.

Of particular interest to the delegates at the NCC are Articles 9 and 27 of the Bill of Rights. Article 27 guarantees protection from discrimination based on sex, religion, race etc. and ‘on any other grounds’. Delegates have called for the deletion of this final clause claiming that it would afford protection to homosexuals. Article 9 calls for the protection of marginalised groups and minorities – another red flag to the anti-gay bulls.

Who’s to blame?

He had little good to say about the response of religious leaders:

Edgar Lungu, Zambian minister of home affairs

Edgar Lungu, Zambian minister of home affairs

Sadly, as always, religious leaders were close behind – intensifying their usual anti-gay rhetoric and demanding an audience with government. [Minister of Home Affairs Edgar] Lungu rapidly agreed and after the meeting both Church and State agreed to come out strongly against homosexuality.

On a radio programme after Paul’s release, religious leaders from American-funded and supported radical evangelical churches and one Muslim Imam called for stiff action against homosexuals – even urging the public to take the law into their own hands should the government fail to respond to this vice adequately. Just think about that for a second – religious leaders calling for mob justice, inciting people to violent criminal acts since that is what ‘take the law into their own hands’ typically means. …

It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church and its highly influential council of bishops have been noticeably silent during this current debate. While they are unlikely to rally behind LGBTI rights, at least they have not joined in the scapegoating.

He is particularly bitter about the inaction by human rights organizations working in Zambia:

While those preaching hate, spoke out loudly – what I heard most clearly was the deafening silence of so many civil society organizations and human rights groups. Instead of standing up for the rights of their fellow Zambians – including the most basic right of all: the right to life – many human rights activists and defenders have sat down and watched silently from the sidelines. As many of their peers did in similar circumstances in Malawi.

I will eventually forget the latest drumbeat of anti-gay rhetoric in Zambia. But the silence of so many human rights groups will forever ring loudly in my mind – and the minds of all the Zambian LGBTI people who they have betrayed.

Zambian-born Chivuli Riva Ukwimi is the marginalised populations coordinator for the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa.

For more information, read his full commentary “Sowing poisonous seeds in Zambia.”

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