ABIDJAN, Cote d’Ivoire — A mob has ransacked the headquarters of Ivory Coast’s most prominent gay rights organization, underscoring the dangers confronting such groups even in the few African countries where homosexual acts are not crimes.
The violence followed days of anti-gay protests in Ivory Coast, which is sometimes considered a safe haven for homosexuals fleeing persecution elsewhere across the continent. It contributed to a growing sense that activists championing gay rights in Africa are under siege, with countries working to strengthen existing laws that criminalize homosexuality.
A new law in Nigeria bans all gay associations, and lawmakers in Uganda may well override their president’s opposition and approve a bill imposing life prison terms for consenting same-sex partners who engage in repeated sexual acts.
Some human rights activists view the crackdown as a backlash at pressure from the United States and European countries that say they will use their leverage to promote the human rights of gay people around the world.
Britain has threatened to cut aid to countries that outlaw homosexuality, and the Obama administration two years ago instructed “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”
In response, African governments say they will defend their people’s religious and cultural convictions that homosexuality is evil and un-African.
The attack in Ivory Coast took place Saturday afternoon but was not publicized until Monday. Nearly 200 people stormed the offices of Alternative Cote d’Ivoire in an upscale suburb of Abidjan, the commercial capital, flinging stones to shatter windows and stealing computers, said Claver Toure, the group’s executive director.
Others heaved sacks of garbage over the property’s exterior walls and left trash and broken glass at the entrance. Signs hung on walls demanded “Sto p the homos!” and “Pedes get out!” The word “pede” is short for pederast or pedophile, and is commonly used in West Africa to insult gay men.
“Everything they could take was taken, and the rest was broken,” Toure said, adding that a private security guard was hospitalized with wounds to his face.
Toure criticized what he described as a deliberately slow response by security forces, saying police did not arrive until the French ambassador contacted government officials. Ultimately, he said, about 10 officers came with a half-dozen U.N. peacekeepers.
The attack was not unexpected.
In a statement last Friday, the Ireland-based human rights organization Front Line Defenders detailed what it described as “coordinated” attacks against Toure’s group last week. It warned that “rumors are circulating that a more virulent attack is envisioned” for Saturday.
On Jan. 20, neighbors gathered outside Toure’s home to chant anti-gay slogans and issue death threats against those inside, Front Line Defenders said. Two days later, a mob targeted Alternative’s headquarters, placing signs demanding that the organization leave.
Local media reports quoted residents last week expressing fear that the presence of a gay rights organization would jeopardize their children’s safety, highlighting the widespread belief throughout Africa that gay people target children for recruitment.
Toure said his landlord confronted him on Jan. 5 after neighbors complained that more than 20 people were staying in his home and that “condoms could be found throughout the neighborhood each morning” – accusations Toure denied.
U.S. Ambassador Terence P. McCulley said he was “shocked and saddene d” by Saturday’s attack.
“Even if one is not in agreement with the point of view of an organization or its people, we have an obligation in a democracy to support the right of people to organize and express themselves,” he said in a statement posted Monday on the embassy’s Facebook page. “I hope that Ivorians will understand that these attacks are not consonant with democratic values.”
Violence targeting gays in Africa drew worldwide notice earlier this month when President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria signed a law banning gay associations and gay marriage. Dozens have been arrested since then throughout Africa’s most populous country.
Ivory Coast is generally seen as more moderate on the issue, and Alternative has worked increasingly closely with the government on programs to combat HIV/AIDS.
But Matthew Thomann, an anthropologist at American University who has worked extensively with Abidjan’s gay groups, said it would be “naive and dangerous” to portray Ivory Coast as an oasis of freedom.
“We must remind ourselves that the lack of anti-gay legislation in a country like Ivory Coast is not the same as LGBT individuals having actual legal protection or recourse when victimized,” Thomann said.
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