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Vol 62 No 23

Published 18th November 2021


Populist anti-gay bill divides churches and activists

Advocates of a draconian anti-gay law are piling pressure on President Akufo-Addo and have sparked a rift with the Anglican church

The Ghanaian Family Values Bill is likely to sail through Parliament if it is voted on in the coming weeks. The main opposition and governing parties are broadly united in support, backed by local churches and United States evangelical groups, but criticism from civil rights activists, business people, diplomats, and now the Anglican church, is growing.

The Bill aims to criminalise LGBTQ+ sexual relationships and associations and any advocacy for or in support of LGBTQ+ rights. It also seeks to increase jail terms to up to a decade and force some to undergo 'conversion therapy' (AC Vol 62 No 19, Who judges the judges?).

The committee tasked with scrutinising the bill has received over 120 memoranda from civil society organisations, human rights groups, professional bodies and religious groups. Ghana's Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) has also submitted a memo to the Committee opposing the Bill.

The opposition National Democratic Congress, led by Parliament Speaker, Alban Bagbin, believes that the bill will earn them more public support (AC Vol 62 No 20, Anti-gay bill heads to house). In an apparent breach of protocol, the Speaker is supposed to be neutral in the legislative process, Bagbin says that voting on the Bill in parliament will be made public.

With this he's attempting to pressure the minority of MPs, on both sides of the house, who question the constitutionality or the fairness of the bill. Bagbin, previously seen as a more progressive politician has hitched his political ambitions to what he thinks is a strong populist cause. And he hopes to score points against the ruling New Patriotic Party in the process.

'This Bill will protect Ghanaian culture and identity… we will want to know where each MP stands', Bagbin told Parliament when it reconvened on 26 October.

Bagbin's stance has drawn criticism from civil society groups, including Executive Director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), Professor Kwasi Prempeh, who say that there is nothing special about the Bill that justifies special treatment for it in Parliament. Respected lawyer, Akoto Ampaw, has also criticized the Speaker's position saying '…it's a political bait… so the vast majority of Ghanaians who are opposed to homosexuality will use this as a benchmark for elections.'

Lead sponsor of the Bill, NDC MP Sam George, continues to pressure President Nana Akufo-Addo to declare his stance on the Bill. 'He [President Akufo-Addo] has seen the Bill. Is he for it, is he against it, is he for it with amendments or he is totally against it?', Sam George asked on national TV.

That appears to have drawn NPP parliamentary leaders to publicly declare their support for the bill. Osei Kyei Mensah Bonsu, the majority leader in Parliament for the NPP, has indicated that his deputies will support the bill, and accused 'the western diplomatic community' of attempting to intimidate MPs by refusing to issue them with travel visas.

Alhassan Suhuyini, one of the sponsors of the Bill, was recently denied a visa by the Dutch Embassy in Ghana, though it is unclear if his sponsorship and promotion of the Bill was a factor. 'It is not going to be one person being a martyr in this,' he added, warning lawmakers that they should expect further criticism and pressure from diplomats which may include travel bans.

However, that strident tone is in stark contrast with the language coming from President Akufo-Addo. Aside from a public statement in February that he would not legalise gay marriage as President, Akufo-Addo has refused to be drawn on the Bill. In a recent interview on national radio, he called for tolerance.

'What I would hope for is that the debate itself be civil, that we will recognise the need for us to be tolerant of each other even when there are opposing views,' Akufo-Addo said in an interview with radio station Peace FM.

The President has also commended a group of 18 pro-LGBTQ+ lawyers and academics led by Akoto Ampaw (who represented the President in the 2021 presidential election petition at the Supreme Court) for submitting a memorandum to Parliament critiquing the Bill.

Many government officials have stayed silent on the bill but influential cousin to the President and Senior Partner at Africa Legal Associates, Gabby Otchere-Darko, commented recently, 'Gay+ activities are already illegal in our country. But we aren't known to hate. This Bill only serves one purpose: to get Ghana blacklisted for promoting hate.'

The diplomatic community continues to lobby Parliament leaders and individual MPs, and they have now been joined by the Anglican church whose leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, last week said that he was 'gravely concerned' by the bill.

'On numerous occasions the Primates of the Anglican Communion have stated their opposition to the criminalisation of same-sex attracted people,' stated Welby, adding that he would 'remind our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church of Ghana of these commitments.'

The row also appears to be having an economic effect. Ghana's Eurobonds suffered a decline in October – in the immediate aftermath of Sam George's CNN interview defending the Bill – according to Ghana's most recent Eurobond Trading update. Local analysts have warned that by criminalising homosexuality and advocacy related to LGBT rights, the bill risks making it harder for foreign companies, non-governmental organisations and diplomatic missions to do business and operate in Ghana.

They argue that, should the Bill pass, it would also make it harder to secure residency or work permits. Amid concerns that passing the bill could trigger restrictions from western governments, a group of business leaders have submitted a memorandum to Parliament, cautioning MPs on the implications of the Bill's passage for the country's economic development. These concerns follow advice from critics of the government's economic strategy and rising costs of servicing foreign debt that it should seek a new stabilisation programme with the International Monetary Fund.

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