Senegal: Why the opposition wants to toughen the law against homosexuality

By Mawunyo Hermann Boko
Posted on Wednesday, 29 December 2021 15:12

Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-homosexuality protest outside Dakar's main mosque
Demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-homosexuality protest outside Dakar's main mosque on February 15, 2008. REUTERS/Normand Blouin (SENEGAL)

A bill criminalising acts deemed "unnatural" has been introduced by opposition deputies. In a country where same-sex relations are already a crime, the presidential camp is calling it a "false debate" for electoral purposes.

In the National Assembly, the proposed law to criminalise homosexuality has divided Senegal. On Saturday 25 December, in a press release Aymérou Gningue, President of the parliamentary majority “Benno Bokk Yakaar” described the initiative as a “false debate”. He believes that it hid “unavowed political objectives in this pre-electoral period” – local elections are due to take place on 23 January 2022.

But for the group of eleven deputies, the majority from the opposition, who initiated the proposal and headed by Mamadou Lamine Diallo, the initiative “echoes the legitimate concerns of the overwhelming majority of believers in this country and many religious authorities in Senegal.

Tabled in Parliament on Wednesday 22 December, the bill amends paragraph 3 of article 319 of the penal code by punishing “anyone found guilty of unnatural acts faces a sentence of five to ten years imprisonment and a fine of between 1m and 5m CFA francs” (around 7,600 Euros), without the possibility of granting mitigating circumstances.

The move is part of a much broader movement spearheaded by the collective “And Samm Jikko Yi” (Together for the Safeguarding of Values, in Wolof), which brings together several Islamic associations, including the highly influential and conservative Jamra, who depict themselves as a guardian of religious morals and values. At the end of May, at the call of the Jamra, a march brought together several thousand demonstrators in Dakar who were in favour of the greater criminalisation of homosexuality.

‘Protecting the Senegalese nation’

The penal code already makes criminal “indecent or unnatural acts between two individuals of the same sex” by sentencing them to a prison term “from one to five years and a fine of 100,000 to 1,500,000 CFA francs (about 2,300 euros). “Senegal’s legislation, which dates from 1966, is clear on this subject. There is no need to add or remove a comma,” said Aymérou Gningue in his statement.

This is not enough for Mamadou Lamine Diallo and his colleagues who, in their presentation, present homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality or transsexuality as “sexual deviances”. Classified as necrophilia and zoophilia, these practices [which] offend “morals and beliefs, border on indecency, undermine social cohesion and destroy the fundamentals of this country of values,” they say.

“The penal code in its current state is evasive. It is not precise,” says Cheikh Bamba Dieye, a deputy who signed the bill. “And what we are talking about is not simply the criminalisation of homosexuality. It is about giving meaning to a national project according to which the Senegalese people have chosen a way of life that seems to be the most in line with their moral, religious and historical convictions.”

According to him, Senegal feels threatened by the values of a Western society that “wants to impose itself on all citizens of the world. Hence the urgent need to “protect the Senegalese nation,” the deputies wrote.

The influence of Muslim brotherhoods

However, some people are questioning the timing of this new law, less than a month before the local elections of 23 January, in a country with a Muslim majority, where political and social life is influenced by Muslim brotherhoods. “We must question the political purpose behind this initiative. The debate on religious issues is being used as a tool, whereas there are other priorities than another law condemning homosexuality,” said a member of the presidential majority.

“The opposition wants to use this to rally marabouts and imams to its cause for the sole purpose of electioneering, by preaching falsehoods and lies,” said Djibril War, a member of the APR, the presidential party. “It is easy to see an electoral purpose when we are asking a fundamental debate on our society. It makes no sense – the law has just been introduced, and it will not be examined until well after the elections. Where is the political gain in electoral terms?

‘Values of culture and civilization’

More than half of African countries have banned same-sex relationships. In February, President Macky Sall, when asked about the issue, said that “the norms, which are a summary of our cultural and civilisational values,” did not favour the decriminalisation of homosexuality. He added that “those who have the sexual orientation of their choice are not excluded”.

Senegal will never accept homosexuality. No one can impose it on us.

However, in the wake of the May protests, several cases of assault were reported by members of the LGBTQ+ community. And in early June, four videos emerged on social networks showing alleged homosexuals being attacked because of their sexual orientation.

According to the French channel France 24‘s ‘Les Observateurs’, the men assaulted in the videos were subsequently arrested and detained by the police. On 21 December, Foreign Minister Aïssata Tall Sall reiterated Senegal’s opposition to homosexuality before members of the National Assembly. “Senegal will never accept homosexuality. No one can impose it on us.”

The proposed law must be examined by the Bureau of the National Assembly. It will then be sent to the President of the Republic for his opinion. It can then be debated in plenary and voted on if deemed admissible. But with the Parliament overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling coalition, there is a good chance that the bill will not pass.

“A parliamentary group has no authority to reject a proposed law with a simple political press release,” the Islamic NGO Jamra warned on 25 December. It is the plenary session, which is public, that voters are looking forward to.

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