by Dane Degenstein
Tanzania has recently started a campaign to identify, track down, and arrest gay people, an unprecedented move in a previously more tolerant country. The regional governor of Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, announced a task force to “identify, track down and arrest gay people.” Makonda asked the public to assist in this by reporting any suspicious activity, making the situation for gay and bisexual men in Tanzania extremely tenuous.
This persecution campaign is the unfortunate outcome of the trend towards greater repression and top-down control, developing over the past few years under the tenure of President John “The Bulldozer” Magufuli. Magufuli’s “morality campaign” has so far targeted people who use drugs, barred pregnant girls from attending school, and labelled women as lazy for using birth control. Now, using outdated colonial laws, this campaign has zeroed in on members of the LGBTQ+ community. As Patience Akumu points out, this desire to “police women’s bodies and punish homosexuals” is too common in many African countries and Magufuli is re-asserting it with vigor.
Why Magufuli is so intent on targeting these groups is unclear, but the results are very real. Gay and bisexual men live in fear, having seen any support for them melt away. They face an unprecedented level of discrimination in the country, including arrest. While this crackdown deserves attention, it is not an isolated campaign. The government of Magufuli has been steadily reducing access to health services for vulnerable populations over the past several years. The current crackdown is yet another part of a campaign aimed to restrict human rights, including the right to health, of Tanzanian sexual minorities.
Colonial era laws outlawing sodomy, unchanged since independence, were not aggressively applied previously in Tanzania. Gay and bisexual men, labelled as men who have sex with men (MSM), were stigmatized and discriminated against, but still had some services in place. These targeted services were driven by the recognition that MSM face a 25% risk of HIV/AIDS infection, as compared to 4.5% among adults aged 15–49 in Tanzania.
Tanzanian organizations, mainly funded by foreign donors such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), provided support in the form of lubricants, condoms, education, and HIV testing and treatment for MSM. More controversially, drop-in centres allowed gay and bisexual men to access services and engage with their peers. Such programs are some of the most effective interventions for reducing HIV/AIDS among MSM.
The Magufuli government, however, took issue with these services. In 2016, it began to review guidelines for key vulnerable populations (KVP), a term referring to people at higher risk of HIV/AIDS infection including MSM, people who inject drugs, and female sex workers. Services for KVP were interrupted for several months as the heavily government-driven review process took place. The review discovered that “despite the good intention of the Government and its HIV and AIDS partners to start provision of HIV and AIDS services at community level … some implementing partners were promoting homosexuality, contrary to the laws of the land.” Further, the statement said that reports had “provided detailed evidence of existence of homosexuality promotional activities.”
As a result, organizations were forced to purge their lubricant stocks for fear of being raided. Drop-in centres were closed and many gay and bisexual men went into hiding. The question of how to provide this population with HIV/AIDS treatment was not considered. International NGOs working on HIV/AIDS can ostensibly serve MSM, but with the increasingly discriminatory environment, offering services is difficult and much riskier.
In this context, Makonda’s recent crackdown, which has almost certainly been approved by Magufuli (despite his denials), reveals a fraught political atmosphere in Tanzania and a depressing reversal in services for vulnerable populations. I was in Tanzania when this began, and local news provided little coverage beyond Makonda’s incitement to report gay and bisexual men. No critique or analysis was offered of the call despite it being a major story in Western news outlets.
Soon after Makonda’s announcement, the European Union recalled its ambassador, citing the “deterioration of human rights and rule of law situation in the country.” The only coverage of this diplomatic protest in Tanzania was a statement from Foreign Affairs Minister Augustine Mahiga, who noted that “he [Ambassador Roeland van de Geer] is back at the EU who perhaps have another job or other duties for him … it is normal.” This embarrassing double-speak is becoming more common in Tanzania, where the government recently outlawed citing statistics not produced by the government, causing a media chill.
These recent actions have drawn criticism from many foreign governments and donors. However the Magufuli government seems unmoved by this criticism, even when it endangers some of the funding upon which Tanzania remains dependent. For example, earlier this year when the president declared pregnant girls would be barred from school, the World Bank delayed voting on a loan of $300 million for the education sector, which is desperately needed. Magufuli has neither responded to this nor changed course, a worrying precedent for other sectors that may be impacted by the whims of a president with little patience for girls with supposedly lax morals, drug users, or members of the LGBTQ+ community. As countries that support Tanzania become nervous, the suspension of aid would likely only reduce existing services or make the situation worse for vulnerable populations.
Having just returned from Dar es Salaam, it is clear to me that the government is more than willing to hinder programs that have worked to reduce HIV/AIDS among already vulnerable and marginalized target populations. The recent actions reveal an increasingly repressive government intent on an anti-human rights agenda. Tanzania is quickly changing for the worse.
Dane Degenstein is a PhD Candidate at the University of Ottawa. He researches the war on drugs, harm reduction, and drug policy in East Africa. Previous research has included work on democracy and single-party systems in Rwanda and Tanzania and the politics of aid in Sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, he is studying anti-drug policies and harm reduction in Tanzania.