A mob has ransacked the headquarters of Ivory Coast's most prominent gay rights organisation, underscoring the dangers confronting such groups even in the few African countries where homosexual acts are not crimes.
The violence followed days of anti-gay protests in Ivory Coast, which is sometimes considered a safe haven for homosexuals fleeing persecution elsewhere across the continent. It contributed to a growing sense that activists championing gay rights are under siege in Africa, where countries are working to strengthen existing laws that criminalise homosexuality. A new law in Nigeria bans all gay associations, and lawmakers in Uganda may well override their president's opposition and approve a bill imposing life prison terms for consenting same-sex partners who engage in repeated sexual acts.
Some human rights activists view the crackdown as a backlash at pressure from the United States and European countries that say they will use their leverage to promote the human rights of gay people around the world. Britain has threatened to cut aid to countries that outlaw homosexuality, and the Obama administration two years ago instructed "all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons."
In response, African governments say they will defend their people's religious and cultural convictions that homosexuality is evil and un-African.
The attack in Ivory Coast took place Saturday afternoon but was not publicised until Monday. Nearly 200 people stormed the offices of Alternative Cote d'Ivoire in an upscale suburb of Abidjan, the commercial capital, flinging stones to shatter windows and stealing computers, said Claver Toure, the group's executive director.
Others heaved sacks of garbage over the property's exterior walls and left trash and broken glass at the entrance. Signs hung on walls demanded "Stop the homos!" and "Pedes get out!" The word "pede" is short for pederast or paedophilia, and is commonly used in West Africa to insult gay men.
"Everything they could take was taken, and the rest was broken," Toure said, adding that a private security guard was hospitalised with wounds to his face.
Toure criticised what he described as a deliberately slow response by security forces, saying police did not arrive until the French ambassador contacted government officials. Ultimately, he said, about 10 officers came with a half-dozen UN peacekeepers.
"When we call, the police need to come right away and protect us because we are Ivorians," Toure said.
Interior Minister spokesman Bazoumana Coulibaly said the government was not prepared to comment because it was still collecting information.
The attack was not unexpected.
In a statement last Friday, the Ireland-based human rights organisation Front Line Defenders detailed what it described as "coordinated" attacks against Toure's group last week. It warned that "rumours are circulating that a more virulent attack is envisioned" for Saturday.
On January 20, neighbours gathered outside Toure's home to chant anti-gay slogans and issue death threats against those inside, Front Line Defenders said. Two days later, a mob targeted Alternative's headquarters, placing signs demanding that the organisation leave.
Local media reports quoted residents last week expressing fear that the presence of a gay rights organisation would jeopardise their children's safety, highlighting the widespread belief throughout Africa that gay people target children for recruitment.
Toure said his landlord confronted him on January 5 after neighbours complained that more than 20 people were staying in his home and that "condoms could be found throughout the neighbourhood each morning" — accusations Toure denied.
'SHOCKED AND SADDENED'
US Ambassador Terence P. McCulley said he was "shocked and saddened" by Saturday's attack.
"Even if one is not in agreement with the point of view of an organisation or its people, we have an obligation in a democracy to support the right of people to organise and express themselves," he said in a statement posted Monday on the embassy's Facebook page. "I hope that Ivorians will understand that these attacks are not consonant with democratic values."
Violence targeting gays in Africa drew worldwide notice earlier this month when President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria signed a law banning gay associations and gay marriage. Dozens have been arrested since then throughout Africa's most populous country.
The new law carries penalties of up to 14 years in prison. But in some northern Nigerian states that also have Islamic Shariah law, a homosexual can get the death sentence just for being gay.
Outside a courthouse in the northern Nigerian city of Bauchi this month, protesters tried to stone seven men accused of belonging to a gay organisation, demanding they be stoned to death. A week before in Bauchi, a 28-year-old man was punished with 20 lashes after pleading guilty before a Shariah court to an act of sodomy committed seven years ago. He said he was led astray by a high school principal.
Days after Jonathan signed the law, activists in the neighbouring country of Cameroon confirmed that a man once jailed for sending a text message saying "I'm very much in love with you" to another man died after his family removed him from the hospital where he was seeking treatment for a hernia. The family said he was a curse who did not deserve to live.
'KILL THE GAYS'
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has voiced opposition to a bill approved by lawmakers last month imposing life imprisonment for gay sex involving an HIV-infected person, acts with minors and the disabled as well as repeated gay sex acts among consenting adults. The bill, dubbed "Kill the Gays," initially called for the death sentence.
But gay rights activists drew little encouragement from Museveni's letter to legislators, in which he said homosexuals are "abnormal fundamentally because the hormones malfunctioned." And despite Museveni's stated opposition, parliament still could muster enough support to make it law.
While the Ugandan bill criminalises "promotion" of homosexuality, the Nigerian law makes it illegal to have any kind of gay meeting, potentially rendering illegal the work of rights groups and organisations dealing with the epidemic of HIV/AIDS among homosexuals. That would include programs funded by USAID.
Ivory Coast is generally seen as more moderate on the issue, and Alternative has worked increasingly closely with the government on programs to combat HIV/AIDS.
But Matthew Thomann, an anthropologist at American University who has worked extensively with Abidjan's gay groups, said it would be "naive and dangerous" to portray Ivory Coast as an oasis of freedom.
"We must remind ourselves that the lack of anti-gay legislation in a country like Ivory Coast is not the same as LGBT individuals having actual legal protection or recourse when victimised," Thomann said of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender minorities. "There are high levels of impunity for attacks such as those experienced by Mr. Toure and Alternative."