In Tanzania, a Crackdown Sends LGBT People Into Hiding


A neat house behind a thick security gate in a middle-class neighborhood of Dar es Salaam has become a hideout for lesbian, gay and transgender Tanzanians fleeing an aggressive crackdown in the East African holiday destination.

For the past month, as many as seven men and women have cowered here behind drawn yellow curtains, one of many haphazardly arranged safe houses set up in Tanzania’s economic capital after Paul Makonda, commissioner of the Dar es Salaam region, called on citizens to report suspected gay people under the country’s antigay legislation. Those reported would be rounded up by an “ad hoc team” and taken into custody, he said in late October.

Gay sex acts are illegal in about 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Botswana, Ghana and Zimbabwe. Sudan and a few others impose the death penalty, Amnesty International says. In 2013, Uganda passed strict legislation that made being gay punishable by life imprisonment, while Nigeria in 2014 instituted punishments for same-sex marriages or civil unions with up to 14 years in prison.

Diminished Rights

Gay sex acts are banned in much of Africa and punishable by death in four countries.

Countries where

gay sex acts

are illegal

Countries* where

gay sex acts are

punishable by death

In Tanzania, gay sex is illegal and can carry a life sentence, although the colonial-era law had rarely been enforced.

Days after Mr. Makonda’s announcement, police raided a popular beach on Zanzibar, a resort island close to Dar es Salaam, and arrested 10 Tanzanian men who were lounging on the white sand on suspicion of being gay. Amnesty International warned that the men might be subjected to forced anal examinations, which human-rights organizations claim the government often performs to prove same-sex sexual activity among men. The government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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The crackdown has provoked an international backlash that has seen hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and investments frozen or withdrawn from the country known for its turquoise waters and lion-filled savannas. The European Union recalled its ambassador, following escalating pressure from the government over his engagement on human-rights issues, and the U.S. Embassy warned Americans in Tanzania to review their social-media profiles to remove or protect anything that might run afoul of local laws.

In 2013, Uganda passed strict legislation that made being gay punishable by life imprisonment. Above, members of Uganda's gay and transgender community yell ‘we want peace’ after police forced them to leave the gay-pride festival in Entebbe in September 2016.

In 2013, Uganda passed strict legislation that made being gay punishable by life imprisonment. Above, members of Uganda’s gay and transgender community yell ‘we want peace’ after police forced them to leave the gay-pride festival in Entebbe in September 2016.


Photo:

Katie G.Nelson/Associated Press

The clampdown comes amid a pronounced shift in U.S. foreign-policy priorities, three years after former President Barack Obama admonished neighboring Kenya for its poor record on gay rights during a visit.

President Trump wants to bar most transgender people from U.S. military service. U.S. health officials are expected to soon release a rule rolling back Obama-era protections for transgender people under the Affordable Care Act.

The Tanzanian government “maybe wouldn’t have said those kinds of things when Obama was president,” said Jared Jeffery, an analyst at NKC African Economics.

Tanzania’s foreign ministry distanced itself from Mr. Makonda’s call for rounding up gay and transgender men and women, saying the commissioner’s views were his own and not the government position. Mr. Makonda didn’t respond to a request for comment, and officials in several ministries didn’t return requests for additional comment.

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Still, the antigay threats mark only the latest step in what some analysts are calling an alarming shift toward authoritarianism in Tanzania under President John Magufuli, in office since 2015. Mr. Magufuli has enacted harsh new defamation laws, shut local media outlets and arrested opposition members. Several government critics have disappeared.

Although the 10 men arrested in Tanzania were released without charges after five nights in custody, scores of gay, lesbian and transgender people there remain in hiding.

“My government does not recognize me as a human, but [as] a curse and a sin,” said Vivian, a 24-year-old transgender woman living in the Dar es Salaam safe house. “I cannot walk to the city center to interact with others because people will start shouting ‘Makonda.’ ”

Vivian said she has deleted photos of herself dressed in women’s clothing and wigs from her Instagram account to protect herself.

Some analysts say the frozen aid dollars, including a planned $300 million loan from the World Bank, and a potential decline in tourism, which contributed 9% to Tanzania’s total gross domestic product last year, imperil one of sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing economies.

Still, activists say the central government’s response has been slow and halfhearted.

“I don’t think the government really meant what they said when responding to Paul Makonda. They are talking so as to please the general public, especially international organizations,” said Tivan, a 24-year-old lesbian who says her neighbors reported her to the police. She has been hiding in the Dar es Salaam safe house and says she is running out of money because she is unable to work.

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Those in the Dar es Salaam safe house have little hope of resuming their regular lives soon. Shukuru, a 25-year-old gay-rights activist and sex worker, says he was raped by military police officers while in custody for having sex with another man a few years ago.

“I cannot access any of my social-media accounts, because I am scared,” he said after cooking rice, beans and fish for his new roommates. “I had to delete all of my pictures because anyone can access my name and forward it” to the authorities.

Write to Alexandra Wexler at alexandra.wexler@wsj.com



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