Does the WPS Agenda Matter for Emergent Grassroots LGBTQ+ Movements in Ghana and Nigeria?

An activist from the LGBT community holds up a rainbow flag inside the courtroom at the High Court in Nairobi, Kenya Friday, May 24, 2019. Kenya's High Court on Friday upheld sections of the penal code that criminalize same-sex relations, a disappointment for gay rights activists across Africa where dozens of countries have similar laws. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

State-sponsored homophobia and homophobic violence are security issues of critical concern for LBGTQ+ individuals in African countries; few countries have legislative protections for LGBTQ+ people and same-sex relations are legally prohibited in at least 32 out of 54 African countries. Studies also suggest that there is no sign of a societal shift toward greater acceptance for LGBTQ+ individuals among younger age groups. Recently, protests around the treatment of LGBTQ+ communities in Nigeria and Ghana have amplified calls for the protection of LGBTQ+ people by providing platforms for LGBTQ+ youth to demand human rights.

The growing visibility of LGBTQ+ issues in these two countries has revealed how the under-resourcing of emergent LGBTQ+ movements impacts their ability to protect and advocate for their members. The absence of an overarching framework for embedding LGBTQ+ rights into government- and non-governmental organization-led work around human rights and gender equality contributes to this under-resourcing. Moreover, some African countries, including Nigeria, have implemented restrictions around the registration and activity of sexual orientation-related non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Although the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and its national action plans provide a structure for efforts to ensure the protection and inclusion of women in peace and security processes, its current narrow interpretation of gender makes it ill-equipped for use as the basis of a legal or policy instrument aimed at addressing violence against LGBTQ+ people.

Limitations of an Expanded WPS Agenda in African Countries

The exclusion of LGBTQ+ rights in the WPS agenda should be viewed as a factor that inhibits its successful implementation. As noted by Jamie Hagen, most peace processes and national action plans continue to use a narrow framing of gender that excludes diverse groups of women—including lesbian, bisexual or transgender women. In its efforts to address gender inequalities, the WPS agenda is largely failing to account for the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and the pervasive and particular forms of violence they face, both in African countries and globally.

Although there has been some progress towards the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the WPS agenda—including greater reference to LGBTQ+ people in the UN secretary-general’s annual reports on conflict-related sexual violence or the inclusion of references to LGBTQ+ people in the national action plans of at least seven UN member states—it remains slow.

While there are many WPS policymakers and practitioners who see the potential of the agenda for the advancement of the rights of gender and sexual majorities, in most African countries the effective implementation of a more inclusive WPS agenda is constrained by the impacts of entrenched systems of homophobia at the state, legislative, and cultural levels. As a result, for there to be any chance for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ related issues in WPS national action plans, LGBTQ+ rights first need to be recognized and provided for by African governments.

#QueerAfricanLivesMatter: Emergent LGBTQ+ Activism in Nigeria and Ghana

LGBTQ+ rights movements on the continent are the first frontier in the journey toward having African governments recognize the human rights of LGBTQ+ communities. In 2021, protests and activism in Nigeria and Ghana highlighted the diverse strategies being deployed by LGBTQ+ activists in these countries—both online and offline—in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. It is worth highlighting these strategies, which are geared toward the provision of protection through the cultivation of collective welfare practices, and whose success relies on the building of pan-African and transnational networks of solidarity and support with LGBTQ+ communities and allies around the world.

The use of hashtag activism is a popular approach for online mobilization and awareness-raising. In Nigeria, #QueerNigerianLivesMatter represents the online debate that emerged following the harassment of LGBTQ+ #EndSARS protestors who sought to highlight the experiences of queer Nigerians with police brutality and homophobia.

In Ghana, the hashtags #QueerGhanaianLivesMatter, #Killthebill, and #LGBTRightsGhana are being used to raise awareness about the harsh crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights in the country, particularly following the introduction of the “The Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values” (“Family values”) bill in 2021, which proposes a prison sentence of up to ten years for any person who advocates for LGBTQ+ rights.

Beyond Twitter, the video-sharing app Tik Tok and Instagram have emerged as relatively safe spaces for young queer Nigerians to create content that reflects their lived experiences and to engage with a broader community of queer content creators. Creating and sharing content on the app enables queer Nigerians to feel joy and pride, which in itself is an act of resistance and subversion. Notably, international media is also playing an important role in amplifying activism in response to recent surges in discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in Ghana and Nigeria.

Physical organizing around LGBTQ+ rights in African countries is important for the gradual process of movement-building and for ensuring that the attention drawn by hashtags is grounded in strategies that, over time, seek to change the ways LGBTQ+ people are treated. The emergence of LGBTQ+ movements in Ghana and Nigeria online has, where possible, been supported by the physical coming together of LGBTQ+ communities.

For example, LGBT+ Rights Ghana, run by a team of 12 LGBTQ+ individuals, is an organization with five specific aims: to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ people in Ghana; to ensure equal rights for all LGBTQ+ people; to ensure that all LGBTQ+ people’s rights are respected and protected; to develop activities that will empower the LGBTQ+ community; and to create a strong alliance with pro-LGBTQ+ individuals, activists, organization, institutions, and movements. However, in February 2021, three weeks after the organization had opened its doors, the office in Accra was raided by police and forced to close. Members of the organization’s leadership team went into hiding for fear of being targeted by the government, and have relied on online networks to continue their activism.

The decision by the leaders of LGBTQ+ Rights Ghana to go into hiding also illustrates the dangers of physical organizing around LGBTQ+ rights in African countries, and shows online mobilization is an important complement to offline organizing due to the intersection of state repression and homophobia.

Online Communities and Collective Welfare

Online activism has been extremely effective in supporting LGBTQ+ people in African countries to foster communal bonds and to cultivate collective welfare. This is of critical importance due to the pervasiveness of perceptions of LGBTQ+ people as immoral, anti-African, or irreligious in African countries, which contributes to their exclusion from access to public goods and basic services.

The core idea of collective welfare is that members of a community contribute resources that benefit individuals within that community who happen to be in need. The community support fund established by LGBTQ+ Rights Ghana to provide long-term financial support for members of the country’s LGBTQ+ community is an example of this.

In Nigeria, during the #EndSARS protests, collective welfare strategies were employed in the formation of a non-profit organization called Safe Hquse whose main objective is to “cater to the needs of queer #EndSARS protestors in Nigeria.” The organization was formed after queer activist Adaeze Feyisayo expressed concerns on Twitter around the need to provide housing and food for queer Nigerians whose safety was in danger during the protests.

Collective welfare and transnational solidarity

Feminist scholar and researcher, Dr. Awino Okech, describes transnational solidarity as the global connections between groups of people that exist through shared experiences—oftentimes living, surviving, and attempting to thrive under oppressive structures and systems.

The value of transnational solidarity is that it allows people from different geographical contexts to see themselves in each other and locate themselves within each other’s struggles against oppression. For example, in February 2021, Black Lives Matter UK issued a statement of solidarity with LGBTQ+ Rights Ghana and oppressed queer and transgender people in Africa after the LGBT+ Rights Ghana offices were closed by Ghanaian authorities. In Ghana and Nigeria, online activism has enabled the organizers of LGBTQ+ protests and emerging movements to forge pan-African and transnational relationships that are a critical source of both material and moral support.

Transitional solidarity is especially important due to the lack of support for LGBTQ+ rights among domestic communities in Ghana and Nigeria. For example, according to the findings of a 2020 poll by Pews Research, only seven percent of Nigerians believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

LGBTQ+ Rights in Africa and an Expanded WPS Agenda—We Need Both

Until African governments recognize LGBTQ+ rights as human rights, it is unlikely that WPS national actional plans in Ghana, Nigeria, and other African countries will include language around LGBTQ+ issues. In the absence of this, LGBTQ+ communities in African countries are unlikely to benefit from an expanded WPS agenda. Since attaining LGBTQ+ rights in African countries is a priority, it is important for emergent LGBTQ+ movements on the continent to be protected and for their calls for an end to state-led homophobia to be supported.

Although experts from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recently condemned the Ghanaian government’s proposed ‘Family values’ bill—describing it as attempting to establish a “system of State-sponsored discrimination and violence against the LGBTI community”—the extent to which the organizations at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in Ghana are engaging with UN structures is unclear. Similarly, it is unclear how or whether an expanded WPS agenda features on the list of priorities for other emergent LGBTQ+ movements on the continent.

However, to the extent that transnational linkages continue to provide support networks for emergent LGBTQ+ movements, the individuals leading these movements stand to benefit from building connections with efforts at the global level to lobby for greater recognition of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities under the UN’s peace and security pillar, and for a more inclusive WPS agenda.

It goes without saying that achieving meaningful progress on expanding the scope of the WPS agenda or improving LGBTQ+ rights in Nigeria, Ghana, and other African countries will be slow. Achieving both will require collaboration between LGBTQ+ movements, women’s movements, NGOs, and policymakers to gain traction.

This article is part of a series reflecting on the current state of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.

Wadeisor Rukato is a Zimbabwean researcher and co-founder of From Africa to China. Her work focuses on youth, politics, and peace and conflict in Africa, including queer rights movements led by African youth.