An aide would later say that the whole exchange happened “very quickly.” On the morning of Feb. 23, 2015, Tulinabo S. Mushingi, the American ambassador to Burkina Faso, met with Chérif Sy, who is heading the country’s interim parliament in the run-up to elections following the toppling of President Blaise Compaoré last year. According to news reports, the meeting focused primarily on American support for the political transition. As he left, however, Mushingi disclosed to a gaggle of reporters that he had also sought updates on two proposed pieces of legislation: a revision to the country’s mining code and a draft law that would, for the first time, make homosexuality a crime.
Addressing the anti-gay bill, which had been submitted less than two weeks before by a minor political party, Mushingi took pains to note that the United States does not seek to “impose” its values on other countries. Then he said, “The basic principle is that universally accepted human rights… need to be part of this discussion, regardless of origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.”[i]
Though the line was mere State Department boilerplate, it proved by far the most newsworthy aspect of the ambassador’s remarks, sparking a discussion in the Burkinabé media on the merits of the bill and whether the U.S. would seek to block its passage.
The comments posted to an article on Lefaso.net, a local news website, captured a range of opinions. Some readers said the issue was not a priority and that gays should be left alone; some encouraged the United States not to meddle in matters of “culture”; and others, as tends to happen when American officials take on this issue, accused Mushingi of “blackmail”— concluding, in the absence of evidence, that the Ambassador sought to make American assistance contingent on a progressive, government-led gay rights agenda in Burkina Faso. Johanna Fernando, the political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou, said the “big lesson” from the fallout was that when U.S. officials raise the subject of homosexuality, people will seize on their words and interpret them however they like.
While the incident did not rise to the level of a major controversy, Mushingi’s decision to comment on the bill rankled one constituency in particular: Burkinabé LGBTI activists. To them, the Ambassador risked drawing unhelpful attention to a proposed measure that, prior to his remarks, had generated little attention. One activist with the Queer African Youth Network (QAYN), an Ouagadougou-based collective of LGBTI organizations working in West and Central Africa, said Mushingi’s approach, and especially the fact that he had not first consulted activists on the ground, represented a harmful example of “American arrogance.”
The day after Mushingi’s meeting with Sy, members of QAYN met at the Embassy with U.S. diplomats to voice their frustration. By most accounts, the meeting was tense. The activists were particularly worried that Mushingi could undermine their efforts to put a stop to the anti-gay law through behind-the-scenes advocacy. Not long after the text of the bill became public, a group of 11 organizations that work with sexual minorities, including QAYN, prepared a 14-page document detailing how the legislation was incompatible with Burkina Faso’s laws and treaty obligations. Instead of inviting a public debate, their strategy was to meet with transition officials capable of influencing the draft law’s progress and privately enumerate its flaws. Brahima[ii], an activist with Association African Solidarité, a public health organization that works with sexual minorities living with HIV/AIDS, said it was essential that, at least in the early stages, this conversation be led by local, not foreign, voices. “Everyone says each time that [homosexuality] is ‘a story of the whites,’” he said. “If voices start coming in from the outside, it will prove they are right.”
This stance is no doubt informed by the failure of global campaigners and foreign governments to derail the passage of anti-gay laws signed last year in Nigeria and Uganda. In those countries, strongly worded public statements from abroad boomeranged, allowing supporters of the law to exploit resentment over foreign interference.
Nevertheless, whether local activists like it or not, outside developments will inevitably be part of the conversation as Burkina Faso revisits its position on sexual minorities. Those in favor of the anti-gay bill, including politicians and religious leaders, point to advances for sexual minorities in Europe and the United States as evidence of why restrictions are needed. A new law, they say, is a necessary response to an increasingly emboldened homosexual menace emanating from the West. Meanwhile, activists trying to shut the bill down receive much of their support from Western donors and are heavily influenced by discourses on alternative sexualities originating outside Africa. Therefore, as much as this debate goes to the question of what comports with local values, it also raises broader questions about Burkina Faso’s relationship to the rest of the world.
A “transition toward hell”?
Burkina Faso is one of just eleven countries in sub-Saharan that have never criminalized homosexuality.[iii] Yet Brahima, the activist with Association African Solidarité, drew a sharp distinction between his country and places like Cote d’Ivoire, where the freewheeling nightlife of the economic capital, Abidjan, allows gay bars and drag shows to flourish. Despite the absence of legal sanctions in Burkina Faso, Brahima said many people in his country view homosexuality as “a sickness” or “a curse” and even believe gay people “need to be killed.”
Several incidents in the past few years have highlighted this hostility, delivering a clear message that gay people are unwelcome even though the country has refrained from formally taking action against them. In 2013, the imam at the Grande Mosquée in Ouagadougou used his sermon marking Eid Al-Adha, or Tabaski, one of the biggest Muslim holidays of the year, to stress that homosexuality, and gay marriage in particular, was against the country’s values. “Men who marry men, just like women who marry women under the pretext that it’s the law, we do not agree,” said the imam, Aboubacar Sana. “The Muslim community does not agree and will never agree.”[iv]
The previous year, a case of anti-gay harassment caught the attention of the U.S. government. According to the State Department’s Human Rights Report for 2012, on March 18 of that year, hundreds of people from the Ouagadougou neighbourhood of Wemtenga “demonstrated to demand the departure of a gay couple within seven days,” claiming “the couple set a bad example for neighborhood children.” After two weeks, the couple left, and “no legal action was taken against the perpetrators.”
Thomas, an events planner in his 20s who lives in Ouagadougou, was friends with the couple — a Belgian man in his 40s and a Burkinabé man closer to Thomas’s age — and remembers the incident well. Residents of the neighborhood became alarmed, Thomas said, after the couple hosted a gay-friendly party attended by men dressed in drag. Two weeks later, while the Belgian was on vacation in Europe, a group of young people staged a demonstration outside the couple’s home that, in Thomas’s telling, was even more hostile than reported by the State Department. Some young men brandished machetes in a clear attempt at intimidation, and they also called local media outlets over to cover the spectacle, making it impossible for the couple to stay in Wemtenga.
Thomas described “L’Affaire Wemtenga” as the worst incident of anti-gay discrimination he’s witnessed. But both Thomas and Brahima said more dramatic incidents of mob violence — resulting in injury and death — were possible. Some may even have occurred already, Brahima said, noting that families would likely have declined to report them because of the stigma associated with homosexuality. For this reason, Thomas largely avoids the gay milieu. There is just one bar in Ouagadougou that is considered somewhat gay-friendly, but he says even that is too dangerous, as straight men are known to react violently if gay men try to flirt with them. “You need to be discreet,” he said.
Thomas, Brahima and other Burkinabé activists expressed concern about what will happen now that the democratic space has opened up for the first time in decades. While ex-President Compaoré, who clung to power for 27 years before last year’s uprising, had no apparent interest in targeting sexual minorities, there is no guarantee the new authorities will be as permissive. One activist based in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second city, captured the general wariness of the current period when he told me, “It’s a transition toward hell, but I remain positive.”
The anti-gay bill’s origins
So far, the only tangible expression of anti-gay sentiment since Compaoré’s fall has been the draft anti-gay law, which was submitted on February 11 by the Party for National Renaissance, known by its French acronym, PAREN. The document is a curious one. In addition to “sexual relations with someone of the same sex,” it also criminalizes bestiality, pedophilia and same-sex marriage. (As local LGBTI activists have pointed out, both pedophilia and same-sex marriage are already criminalized under Burkinabé law.) The bill neglects to spell out penalties for any of these crimes, saying that a state decree could decide on those at some later date.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the bill comes in the introductory “explanatory statement.” These few paragraphs highlight the extent to which PAREN’s leaders see themselves as engaged in a clash of cultures. They cast themselves as defenders of “traditional society,” which values “cohesion and solidarity,” taking a stand against the imperialistic West, which they say has become dangerously extremist in its embrace of individual liberty. “This conception of individual freedom carries with it monstrous errors,” the bill reads. “It ignores that human reason can be incompetent and that human conscience can be misguided by birth, taste and destination.” The proof can be found in Western societies themselves, which, the bill says, have turned homosexuality into a human right. “The patient claims his sickness as a freedom!” the bill reads.
PAREN was founded by Laurent Bado, a respected Burkinabé intellectual notorious among the country’s LGBTI community for his strong anti-gay views. By the time of Compaoré’s ouster last year, the party had no elected lawmakers, and party leaders say its current supporters total no more than 30,000 (Burkina Faso’s population is around 17 million).
The current head of the party is Tahirou Barry, who works in human resources at a gold mine five kilometers outside Ouagadougou. Though less prominent than Bado, last year the State Department selected him to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program, the department’s “premier professional exchange program” which allows “current and emerging foreign leaders” to travel to the U.S. and “cultivate lasting relationships with their American counterparts.”
When Barry and I met in a public garden across from Ouagadougou’s City Hall, he reflected fondly on his visit to the U.S., which he said lasted three weeks and took him to Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Seattle. He met several gay people during his stay, including a professor in New Orleans. “It didn’t bother me to discuss with them,” he said. “I discussed. We exchanged. I respect their state, and I respect their rights.”
However, these meetings did not alter his view that homosexuality must be eradicated in Burkina Faso. “It is different from our practices,” he said. “It’s their practice, it’s their right, but in our country it’s not the same.” Nor was his position affected by Ambassador Mushingi’s recent remarks. “According to me, that’s just his view that he gave,” Barry said of Mushingi. “It’s not an injunction. It’s not an order that he gave. It’s his view that he expressed. We respect his point of view… There is a right to difference. His point of view is different from our point view, and that’s democratic debate.”
PAREN’s point of view, he said, is that Burkina Faso is a “fragile” country with values that need to be preserved. He said recent government surveys conducted by officials engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS showed there were already thousands of homosexuals — or at least people engaging in same-sex sexual acts — in the country. Moreover, he said, Burkina Faso is threatened by the large number of foreigners that visit for cultural festivals (Fespaco, a pan-African film festival, is one of the region’s biggest cultural draws). “We have a lot of foreigners, and when it’s like that, there is an openness,” Barry said. “But we need to make sure that a certain number of exterior practices will not be imposed because of these activities. We need to protect our values. When I say protect our values it’s because in our society homosexuality is forbidden.”
Though most people are preoccupied with badly needed economic reforms, Barry said the fight against homosexuality should be a national priority, as the country will go nowhere if its citizens lose touch with their culture. “If we renounce our values,” he said, “we’ll be in a situation of trauma.”
It is on this point that Barry and PAREN’s other leaders seem to diverge from the majority of their compatriots. There is little evidence that the average Burkinabé views homosexuality as a top issue for the country, especially in the midst of an unprecedented transition that could, if managed properly, herald a new era of opportunity after decades of corruption and misrule on the part of the ruling elite. Even LGBTI activists who described the population as homophobic said ordinary people need to be provoked in order for that homophobia to manifest itself.
Serge Bambara, aka Smockey the rapper, a leader of Balai Citoyen, the grassroots movement that proved instrumental in organizing the protests that led to Compaoré’s ouster, said most people simply don’t have the luxury of obsessing over social issues the way some politicians do. “It’s a subject that sparks a debate, and because it sparks a debate certain people sometimes use it to create a buzz that helps them advance,” Bambara told me. “But honestly, homosexuality, pedophilia, zoophilia… sincerely, these are the last worries of Burkinabé society, which is in need, simply, of self-sufficiency in food, roads, electricity, water, etc. We have real priorities.”
At one point during our interview, which took place at Bambara’s Ouagadougou studio, the power went out in the neighborhood, cutting short a recording session. Bambara used the moment to drive home his point. “How can we talk about homosexuality when there is no power?” he said, laughing. “If people really want to get rid of homosexuality, they should provide power, because you can get away with anything in the dark.”
“It’s God who knows everything”
Shortly after submitting the anti-gay bill to the National Transition Council, PAREN’s leaders quickly identified their most important allies as they tried to drum up popular support: the country’s Muslim leadership.
In early March, Muslim leaders in Bobo-Dioulasso convened a meeting of representatives from the country’s western provinces. The purpose was to clarify the Muslim community’s position on homosexuality in general and PAREN’s bill in particular, and to encourage Muslim leaders to promote that position in their prayers and sermons, said El Hadj Mahama Sanou, a top Muslim official in the west of the country. In the conference room of the main mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso — which was decorated with a banner that read, “In the name of morality and common sense, no to homosexuality, yes to its ban in Burkina Faso” — speakers laid out in stark terms the troubles that would befall Burkina Faso if it didn’t outlaw same-sex sexual acts. At a press conference, El Hadj Amadou Sanogo, vice president of the Coordination of Islamic Associations in the West, said homosexuality was the source of diseases including AIDS and Ebola.[v]
Sanou said that ever since this meeting, imams throughout western Burkina Faso had raised the issue of homosexuality in their Friday sermons, something that several Bobo-Dioulasso residents confirmed. He added that he believed the message appealed to all Burkinabé, regardless of religion, contending that all faiths explicitly condemn homosexuality. “God created man and woman for what purpose?” he asked rhetorically during our interview. “And it’s God who knows everything!”
Like PAREN’s leaders, Sanou described the country as fragile. The Compaoré regime, he told me, had been guilty for years of accepting bribes from Western supporters of gay rights who urged the ex-president not to criminalize homosexuality. He claimed there was even a free telephone hotline that offered information to residents of Bobo-Dioulasso who were “interested in becoming a homosexual,” though he said those who financed and operated the hotline kept their identities closely guarded.
During the political transition, he said, American and French politicians looking to bolster their pro-LGBTI credentials would likely take advantage of Burkina Faso’s poverty to push for further gains. “We know that when we are in need, you people come with things, but you also come with conditions,” he said. “And we will be obligated to accept those conditions without thinking about the consequences.”
For this reason, Sanou said Muslim leaders hope the National Transition Council will take up PAREN’s bill before the October elections. If not, he said they will push for its passage under the new government, and will only endorse political parties that support it. Thanks to PAREN, which he said was the first party to muster the “courage” to raise the issue of homosexuality at the political level, “Nothing will be like it was before.”
Sanou also said that dealing with the problem of homosexuality with legislation would be more humane than if religious leaders tried to deal with it themselves. After all, he said, the Quran teaches that homosexuals should be marched to the top of the highest building in sight and thrown off. “That’s the justice of God,” Sanou said. “He created us, and he is more just than anyone.”
Instead of resorting to this form of punishment, Sanou said Muslim leaders would give space for government officials to act. “God said, ‘Listen to your officials, respect the recommendations of your officials,’” he said. “So we are listening to them. We are waiting to see.”
“A natural humility”
Even though no official action has been taken on PAREN’s bill, the rhetoric it has inspired has the potential to put individuals at risk. An 18-year-old boy named Didier, a high school student in Bobo-Dioulasso, has already had his life uprooted, and he blames the virulent anti-gay messaging pouring out of the country’s mosques.
One morning in March, Didier’s uncle, who raised him, knocked on his bedroom door before dawn and told him to leave the house. His uncle silently watched as Didier packed his things into a suitcase, then hailed one of the first taxis to drive by that morning.
Though his uncle gave no reason for kicking him out, Didier immediately assumed the problem stemmed from his homosexuality — an assumption that his grandmother, who lives in the same house, later confirmed. Didier has known he was gay since he was a child, and while he tried to suppress his more effeminate mannerisms when he was at home, he often had friends over who were less careful, and who probably fueled his uncle’s suspicions. These suspicions, combined with the increasingly clear directives from Muslim leaders that gays are unwelcome in the country, likely motivated his uncle to take action. “I think it’s maybe because they’ve been speaking about that at the mosque. He’s very religious,” Didier said. “Because he is Muslim, a homosexual cannot be permitted to stay in his home.”
Didier soon ended up at the headquarters of Alternative Burkina, an LGBTI group formed in 2012. At the time of my visit, he had been there for three weeks, sleeping alone in the headquarters’ sparsely furnished guestroom. He was unsure what his next step might be — or how he would come up with the money for school fees so he could finish high school.
Unlike Burkina Faso’s other LGBTI groups, Alternative aims to focus on human rights in addition to public health, meaning its leaders are as interested in engaging with the politics of alternative sexualities as they are in promoting measures to prevent HIV/AIDS. At a recent meeting, a member who had recently attended a training in Ouagadougou reported back about some of the concepts and terms he had learned, including the word “queer,” which he pronounced like “skewer” without the “s.” “They’ve developed a new term that is very interesting,” he said, before explaining its definition. “This is the new trend in the United States.”
Yet Thierry, Alternative’s president, said the organization was most urgently in need of resources to support emergency cases like Didier, who often lack money even to feed themselves, let alone get their lives back on track. Thierry was one of several activists who expressed concern that PAREN’s proposed anti-gay law was an indication that the situation for gay people in Burkina Faso could soon deteriorate further. “I don’t think it will pass, but the fact that they even have the courage to introduce it is maybe a sign of things to come,” he said. “You can’t take it lightly.”
Like the QAYN activists in Ouagadougou, Thierry said Ambassador Mushingi’s comments were not the best example of a helpful intervention from outsiders. “It’s a bit ambiguous to have foreigners speaking about this,” he said. “It comforts people who think that [homosexuality] is something imposed, that comes from the outside.”
But not everyone at Alternative was equally critical. Sula, another activist, noted that Mushingi’s statement had received a lot of attention in Bobo-Dioulasso, and said many people — including both supporters and opponents of the law — believed American opposition would doom it. “For me, it’s the result that counts,” Sula said. “It’s the result that is the most important. And so, if it gives a good result and voilà, the law doesn’t pass, that’s super.”
He agreed, though, that if the overall goal was to foster tolerance among the general public, a softer approach was needed. “Burkinabé, in their mentality, they have a natural humility. When people have a natural humility, they don’t like when you impose anything at all,” he said. “They want to collaborate. The Burkinabé, generally, they like when you discuss with them, when you explain, when you help people understand. If you try to impose something on a Burkinabé, it won’t work.”
[i] Appui aux autorités de la transition: L’Ambassadeur des Etats-Unis en parle avec le président du CNT. Lefaso.net. Feb. 23, 2015. Accessed: http://www.lefaso.net/spip.php?article63382
[ii] Note: Names of Burkinabé activists have been changed to protect identities.
[iii] “Making Love a Crime.” Amnesty International. June 24, 2013.
[iv] Prière de l’Aïd El-Fitr: L’imam de Ouagadougou fustige l’homosexualité. Fasopress.net. Aug. 9, 2013. Accessed: http://www.fasopresse.net/societe/2498-priere-de-laid-el-fitr-limam-de-ouagadougou-fustige-lhomosexualite
[v] Homosexualité: le niet des musulmans de Bobo-Dioulasso. Aouaga.net. March 10, 2015. Accessed: http://news.aouaga.com/h/46921.html.