It’s a triumph for supporters of homosexuality decriminalisation, including the law’s most prominent activist, Gabon’s First Lady Sylvia Bongo Ondimba. On 23 June, Gabonese MPs passed the proposed revision of an amendment added to the Penal Code one year ago that criminalised homosexuality as “an offence against morality”.
“Parliament has restored a fundamental human right for its citizens: that of loving, freely, without being condemned. Say yes to dignity and no to hate,” the First Lady tweeted in response to the vote.
Sharp divide in opinion
Despite the victory, the breakdown of the vote shows that the country is sharply divided on the issue. Forty-eight MPs voted in favour of the text, 24 voted against and 25 abstained.
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A lawmaker and member of the current president’s Gabonese Democratic Party (Parti démocratique gabonais – PDG), Blaise Louembe makes no apologies for breaking with his party’s voting instructions: “I have just voted against the measure to decriminalise homosexuality. I [nevertheless] continue to stand by the rest of the text, but my religious convictions and my attachment to the constitution and our ancestral values do not impel me to authorise or encourage homosexual practices.”
With this vote, Gabon has become one of just a few sub-Saharan African countries to have moved to decriminalise homosexuality. Despite all outward appearances, this social reform initiative is unsurprising.
As a matter of fact, homosexuality was neither permitted nor prohibited in Gabon until July 2019, when a new Penal Code entered into force. This legal vacuum led to a tradition of tolerance towards minority sexual preferences. The reform of 23 June sanctions the removal of Article 402, paragraph 5 of the Penal Code, in effect since July 2019, which made homosexual practices illegal.
Next step: on to the Senate
The text is now set to be put before the Senate, although the date has yet to be determined. It’s likely that the passionate debate that played out in the lower chamber of parliament will repeat itself in the upper chamber, and that the same fault lines between those who are for and against the measure will appear across party lines.
Although the PDG holds a majority in the upper chamber, the party will once again have to fight to enforce party discipline on its recalcitrant senators. Each of their votes will count as much as a vote of a member of the opposition party, meaning that the vote “against” the measure will probably win the day. Jean-Christophe Owono Nguema, a senator from the National Union (Union nationale – UN) opposition party, sets the tone: “My religious convictions, my education and the vision I have for my country do not allow me to accept such an abomination.”
If the text is rejected in the Senate, the two chambers of parliament will be required to meet in congress to harmonise the text ahead of the final vote.
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