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Tanzania’s anti-gay crackdown is sending people into hiding

The regional governor of Dar es Salaam is seeking to identify and arrest people believed to be gay.

John Magufuli stands at a red lectern with a crowd in the background.
Tanzanian President John Magufuli
Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The regional governor in charge of Tanzania’s most populous city is ramping up an anti-gay crackdown.

Governor Paul Makonda said last week that he’s forming a task force to identify, track down, and arrest gay people in Dar es Salaam — a region in the East African country of Tanzania with a major city by the same name that’s home to about 4 million people. Makonda has encouraged citizens to report on those they believe to be gay, and said officials had received more than 5,000 calls or messages so far, naming about 100 individuals.

“I have received reports that there are so many homosexuals in our city, and these homosexuals are advertising and selling their services on the internet,” Makonda said in a video last week, according to CNN. “Therefore, I am announcing this to every citizen of Dar es Salaam. If you know any gays … report them to me.”

Fear is the prevailing mood in Dar es Salaam right now, James Wandera, the founder of LGBT Voice Tanzania, told me. He said many people have gone into hiding to avoid arrest, with some relocating to different areas to protect themselves.

“We try to find safe places until things cool down,” Wandera said of his organization, which was founded in 2009. The group has also staffed lawyers to defend those who may be arrested.

The Tanzanian government has distanced itself from Makonda’s harsh policy in the wake of international pushback. Officials have said the crackdown is not official government policy and just Makonda’s opinion — although activists point out that Makonda was appointed by the Tanzanian president and is seen as a close ally of the current leader, John Magufuli. Arrests of suspected gay men have also reportedly happened outside his jurisdiction.

The European Union recalled its ambassador from Tanzania on Monday because of the “deterioration” of human rights and rule of law in the country.

The United States condemned the “deteriorating human rights situation” in Tanzania on Friday. “We are troubled by the continued arrests and harassment of marginalized persons, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and others who seek to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, association and assembly,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement. “Legislation is being used to restrict civil liberties for all.”

The US State Department had previously issued a warning to US citizens traveling or living in the country and urged them to “remove or protect” social media images that “may run afoul of Tanzanian laws regarding homosexual practices and explicit sexual activity.”

Human rights groups have condemned the repressive policies in Dar es Salaam. “This could turn into a witch-hunt and could be interpreted as a license to carry out violence, intimidation, bullying, harassment and discrimination against those perceived to be LGBT,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement last Friday.

The anti-LGBT crackdown in Tanzania is part of a bigger, more alarming pattern

Tanzania has witnessed an increasingly aggressive targeting of gay people in the country in recent years under President John Magufuli, who was elected in 2015, activists told RTE, an Irish outlet.

In 2016, the government banned lubricant, claiming it encouraged homosexuality and that banning it would help stop the spread of HIV. It also suspended US-funded HIV/AIDS programs that provided outreach and health care to gay men.

President Magufuli said last year that “even cows” should condemn homosexuality and threatened to deport or arrest gay rights activists in the country.

Makonda — the regional governor who’s leading the current crackdown in Dar es Salaam — has been among the most vocal anti-LGBT leaders in the country. He’s used harsh anti-LGBT rhetoric in the past and promised clampdowns against the gay community, including, in 2016, threatening to arrest people who were connected to gay men through social networks.

Tanzania still has anti-sodomy laws on the books, a vestige of British colonialism, though homosexuality itself is not criminalized. And Tanzania’s policies weren’t as repressive as those in other countries in the region, such as Uganda, which sought to pass a strict anti-gay law in 2014. But Tanzania has, in recent years, trended toward more persecution of gay communities, not less.

This latest crackdown in Dar es Salaam, then, is part of an increasingly hostile climate for gay people in Tanzania.

Hundreds of Tanzanian LGBT activists have now gone into hiding. People are trying to avoid arrest, Wandera told me, where they’re often subject to humiliating physical examinations.

The police chief of the south region of Zanzibar, an island off Tanzania, told the Associated Press that authorities had arrested 10 men suspected of participating in a gay marriage ceremony at a hotel. Suleiman Hassan, the police official, said those men will undergo a physical to attempt to determine if they’ve had same-sex relations.

Wandera’s all-volunteer organization is now trying to help protect those who might be targeted and to connect those who’ve gone underground or relocated with emergency resources

Wandera said his group will continue to operate. He won’t go into hiding, and he isn’t afraid of getting arrested. “You go to the front line, you die or come back. Risking means doing the work, because you can’t do it unless you risk.”

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