“Everyone is afraid. We’re all afraid. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Nobody knows.”
So says James Wandera Ouma, director of LGBT Voice Tanzania, a Tanzanian queer rights organisation. His comments followed a recent announcement by Tanzania’s Home Affairs Minister Mwigulu Nchemba that the government would be cracking down on queer rights activists and organisations.
Speaking at a rally in Dodoma on Sunday June 25, Nchemba said: “Those who want to campaign for gay rights should find another country that allows those things. If we establish that any organisation registered in our country is campaigning for gay rights, I will deregister that organisation. If a Tanzanian national is doing that campaign, we will arrest him and take him to court and if it is a foreigner, we will immediately order him to leave the country.”
Homosexuality carries a maximum sentence of 30 years’ imprisonment in Tanzania. Nchemba, however, has extended the country’s limitation on queer rights to organisations which campaigned for queer rights.
“I would like to use this opportunity to remind and warn all organisations and institutions that campaign … to protect homosexual interests, that we are going to arrest whoever is involved and charge them in courts of law. If we find a foreigner conducting this campaign, he or she will be deported within no time. They will not have even the time to unplug their mobile phones from the socket.”
This attitude from the government is not new. Deputy Health Minister Hamisi Kigwangalla, for example, has previously been an outspoken opponent of queer rights.
Ghoshal, a Human Rights Watch researcher, says that the anti-queer sentiment reaches right to the top of government.
“There was never any public disavowal of the statements made by the deputy minister of health. The fact that the president allowed for it – or never spoke out against it – shows that he sees nothing wrong with it,” says Ghoshal.
In a speech delivered a few days prior to Nchemba’s statement, President John Magufuli said: “Those who teach such things do not like us, brothers. They brought us drugs and homosexual practices that even cows disapprove of,” he said.
A 2013 Human Rights Watch report, Treat Us Like Human Beings, noted “dozens of grave human rights violations by the police, including torture and rape, assault, arbitrary arrest and extortion” faced by sex workers, people who use drugs, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, including men who have sex with men, at the hands of Tanzania’s police.
In 2015, members of the Tanzania Key Populations and Sexual Minorities Working Group made a submission to the United Nations, which noted “several cases of human rights violations within the health sector affecting key populations. These violations include denial of services, verbal harassment, abuse and violation of confidentiality”.
“Discriminatory treatment, combined with the absence of clear messages from the government that no one will be arrested or persecuted for seeking services, leads people to stay away from health services. When police or semi-official vigilante groups mistreat or arbitrarily arrest members of any marginalised group, or when health workers deny them services, their actions also violate clear international human rights principles and also often violate Tanzanian law,” it stated.
This situation worsened when, in February, the government announced the closure of 40 HIV/Aids facilities that provided services to transgender people and men who have sex with men. This followed a ban on the provision of lubricants and condoms to public health facilities providing services to these groups.
For Ghoshal, the fact that Nchemba’s statement threatened not only the country’s queer communities but also those who work towards improving their lived realities, is “a grave concern”.
“His statement flies in the face of the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and association – and people are afraid to speak up. But we must remember that Tanzania would never have become independent were it not for the voices and actions of people who were opposed to the government at the time.”
Determined to continue his organisation’s work, Ouma says: “We’re not going to hide. We’re not scared, but we are praying.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian