“Every day it gets worse,” says James Wandera Ouma, an activist speaking to SBS via Skype from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s biggest city. “It’s not how it was seven years back, five years back. People who come out now risk their life, they can be killed any time. There are threats of killings, especially from family members.”
Under a new crackdown on LGBTQIA+ rights in the east African country, part of a recent string of wider abuses by the authorities, even those speaking and posting on social media are now being targeted.
Same-sex acts are already illegal in Tanzania, and offenders can be punished with up to life in jail.
Another activist named Wenty - who did not want to give his last name or the name of his organisation to SBS - says that the latest move against the LGBT+ community was in December, when police raided a training meeting for health figures at a Dar es Salaam hotel. The meeting was set up to work with men who have sex with men (MSM) and LGBTI issues. Those arrested over the “promotion of homosexuality” are said to still have to report to police.
"The raid of a health meeting has left a chilling effect and many individuals are now less willing to access services including getting tested or receiving medication if they are HIV positive,” Nguru Karugul, a health and rights consultant at The Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA), tells SBS.
“This has dire consequences for HIV management in the country and will mostly affect national prevalence rates over time."
In October, Tanzania’s health minister Ummy Mwalimu announced HIV/AIDS programs targeting gay men were being suspended. LGBT+ non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had already been purportedly banned.
A month earlier, deputy health minister Hamisi Kigwangala said in a statement that the government had deregistered NGOs and banned programmes which “violated the requirements of the laws of our land, customs and traditions, with respect to issues around LGBTI people”. He said some NGOS had been “promoting homosexuality”.
HIV prevalence in Tanzania is estimated at 5.1 per cent among people aged between 15 – 49, according to the Tanzania HIV and Malaria Indicator Survey (THMIS) 2011/2012. The HIV rate for gay men is believed to be about 20%.
The director of the UN’s program for HIV/AIDS has reportedly raised concern about the crackdown on programs targeting gay men, according to the Washington Post.
The wave of homophobia which has swept Tanzania this year has also included a ban on the import and sale of lubricants, and a crackdown on social media by the regional commissioner for Dar es Salaam, who said that anyone befriending a gay person was also a criminal. Paul Makonda threatened to use social media to arrest gays.
“Some people have gone totally off Facebook. I even deleted my account,” says Ouma, the founder and executive director of LGBT Voice Tanzania, the country’s biggest and oldest gay rights NGO.
In August, a newspaper notice summoned Ouma to the office of the deputy health minister with registration documents among others.
“The government says they’ve shut us down but there’s no legal platform they can use that prohibits organisations that serve LGBTI people,” Ouma says.
The police had questioned the charity for about three or four weeks, while about six officers had raided their office.
“They said that we train people to become homosexuals,” says Ouma, who notes that this year's crackdown was "not a surprise".
“Tanzania has never been tolerant of gay people,” he adds.
But the 43-year-old tells SBS that when he came out in 1994 there were no politicians in the country talking about homosexuality publicly.
In 2011 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the then Tanzanian foreign affairs minister warned his nation was ready to cut ties with the UK over gay rights.
Three years later, after neighbouring Uganda enacted a law further criminalising same-sex acts, an MP came out with similar legislation, but it was shelved.
“There was no police harassment (years ago) but in recent years the hate, discrimination, rejection and all the homophobic attacks have increased,” says Ouma.
In the past six months alone there have been more than 23 people arrested in Dar es Salaam, where LGBT Voice are based, and Arusha, another main city, according to the NGO.
“The situation in rural areas is worse, but all incidents go unreported,” Ouma notes.
In the last year, opposition rallies have been banned and activists and journalists arrested in land wrangles under the regime of John Magufuli.
Ouma says that when police suspect that someone is gay, they want to make money out of the person and “follow bribes around town”.
“So they arrest you. But no-one has ever been prosecuted in court,” he says.
Wenty agrees that this has been happening.
“People have been using these statements given by officials to take matters into their hands and LGBTI people, especially gays and transwomen, fear to report these cases to the police,” he says.
Ouma tells SBS that young people have also been expelled from school and evicted from their homes over their sexuality, and this is fueling the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“They run to cities and big towns and look for places to stay but the best thing they can do is sex work,” he says.
LGBT Voice have prepared a file against the government. But after finally finding a lawyer willing to represent them, they’re now struggling with funding. Meanwhile, their landlord was threatened by police officers and they are being forced to move.
The activist says there needs to be more external pressure on the government over the violations.
“In Tanzania everyone is silent, but everyone is afraid of what might happen tomorrow. If I write something will I be penalised for this?” Ouma asks.
However, his motto is “the more silent we remain, the more we die”.
“I’ve been through a lot but I always say I was born to die but I was born gay and I’ll die gay,” says Ouma.
America is Tanzania’s largest donor.
A US State Department official tells SBS that they “have been consistent in expressing concern on the statements and actions taken by certain Tanzanian officials targeting health care providers and civil society organisations that provide services to key populations at risk of HIV/AIDS
“We urge Tanzania to continue to engage with all stakeholders and to maintain its prior commitments to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and to serve all of its people and populations equally without bias or discrimination.”
“The US highly values our longstanding partnership with Tanzania in the health sector, including a decade of collaboration to curb HIV transmission and create and AIDS-Free Generation."
Tanzania’s State House communications director Gerson Mswigwa told SBS he had “no comment”.