September 18, 2015
NAIROBI, KENYA — Vincent Kidaha speaks so softly that his voice barely rises above the buzz of a noisy restaurant. The leader of Kenya’s Republican Liberty Party is slender and mild-mannered. He speaks of human rights and good governance, then stops to clarify his beliefs.
“Gay rights are not human rights,” he says.
Kidaha’s party is pushing for a law that, if passed, would jail Kenyan gays and lesbians for life; gay and lesbian foreigners would be stoned to death. Kidaha says the proposal is meant to protect African family values, but it has gay and lesbian people fearing for their lives. They say Kidaha and his party are pursuing political relevance through their anti-gay campaign.
The party doesn’t include any elected officials, and it’s not clear whether Kenyans will rally behind its platform.
Most Kenyans disapprove of gay people. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center showed that 90 percent of Kenyans do not think their society should accept homosexuality.
Kenyan law criminalizes gay acts, dictating a jail sentence of 14 years for offenders. But Kidaha and other Republican Liberty Party leaders say that’s not enough. They want a law that addresses all issues related to gay people.
“We have laws such as the Sexual Offences Act specifically criminalizing rape and incest and clearly spelling out penalties for offenders and remedies for victims, but we do not have a similar law for same-sex acts,” party member Zachariah Momanyi says.
The party sent its proposal to the Kenyan Parliament’s Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs in August 2014, but it has yet to be considered. No member of Parliament has agreed to support it, even though Momanyi’s party has tried all means to push it through.
“We wrote to the speaker of the House, the National Assembly majority leader and the president about why it has not been discussed yet, but we have not gotten a response,” Momanyi says. “We are currently consulting with our lawyers to determine whether we should move to court to challenge this.”
Parliamentarian Irungu Kang’ata, a member of the Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, says the party needs to persuade one member of Parliament to move the bill on the party’s behalf. Kang’ata says he is interested in ensuring that the country’s laws against gay sex are enforced but not in moving the party’s bill forward.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s High Court ruled this year that gay-rights activists can formally organize into political and welfare groups. The decision, which categorized lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as protected minorities, was a response to a 2013 petition by the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, which had unsuccessfully tried five times to register as a formal group.
Kidaha says his fight against gay people defends Kenya’s Constitution, particularly Article 11, which recognizes culture as the foundation of the nation.
“We are defending ourselves from neocolonialism,” Kidaha says.
Kidaha’s road to political activism started when he was orphaned in 1996, at age 14. He says he had to fight with relatives to gain hold of his parents’ property, tracking legal documents that could prove that he and his siblings were the rightful heirs of the estate.
“As the eldest child, I was tasked with taking care of five siblings,” he says. “Politics began as a way of life as I wrestled to find ways for us to survive.”
In 2011, Kidaha joined the Unga Revolution, a movement that led protests over the rise in the cost of basic foods such as corn flour (unga), a staple for most Kenyans. He was one of the main community mobilizers during the campaigns.
He then joined the Republican Liberty Party in 2012 and became its leader in 2014. He says the party has about 1,500 members. Opposing gay rights quickly became a primary platform.
“There is no naturally born homosexual in Kenya,” he says.
Kidaha says sex workers are asked by their clients to engage in homosexual acts.
“We consider these groups as victims, and they should be rehabilitated so that they can become normal,” Kidaha says.
Young people need to be economically empowered so they don’t engage in such behavior, he says. Kidaha and other Republican Liberty Party leaders say they plan to create programs to help young people learn business skills.
Homophobia feeds on ignorance, says Solomon Gichira, the policy and advocacy adviser and acting general secretary of Pembizo Christian Council, which advocates for LGBT people.
“Kenyans have been taught about male and female relationships; they are not told about same-sex relationships,” Gichira says. “So because of how we are socialized, once we do encounter members of the LGBTI community, we fear them.”
That changes, Gichira says, when LGBT communities work together to change perceptions. Africans need to reconsider how they perceive families, he says.
“Times have changed, and there are a lot of factors that challenge the dominant view of what a traditional African family is,” he says. “Aside from same-sex relationships, we also have households headed by women or by grandparents. Should they be excluded from the African context as well?”
Kidaha and the Republican Liberty Party have been organizing events to spread the word about the party’s proposed laws.
A week before U.S. President Barack Obama visited Kenya in late July, the party and the anti-gay parliamentary caucus held a demonstration to warn Obama not to talk about gay rights during his visit. Kidaha announced after that demonstration that members of his party would stage another one – this time while naked – to drive the point home.
That second demonstration was canceled at the last minute after a phone call and a meeting with government officials who assured Kidaha that gay issues would not be part of the agenda during bilateral talks with Obama, Kidaha says.
If Obama were to discuss gay rights in Kenya, Kidaha says, then he should also promote polygamy as a traditional family value in the U.S.
The U.S. president did talk about gay rights during his visit and asked Kenyans to respect people’s rights regardless of orientation. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta responded by saying that his government would not force citizens to adopt practices they say they oppose.
“We are very happy with what our president said,” Kidaha says.
Kang’ata, the MP and leader of the anti-gay caucus, says the march before Obama’s visit might have informed Kenyatta’s statement on gay rights.
“Because of the protest, the president was able to see that Kenyans are vigilant on such issues,” he says. “If we had not held the march, he might have simply said that his government would consider gay rights.”
The demonstration was also meant to counter growing pro-gay actions, including a July statement by the Kenya Human Rights Commission denouncing homophobic rhetoric.
Momanyi, a Republican Liberty Party member, says his group wants a more punitive anti-gay law passed to avoid a generational gap that might occur if Kenyans are legally allowed to engage in same-sex acts.
“We believe our values are ahead of those of Western countries,” he says. “In my own language, we do not have a word for homosexuality; therefore it is something introduced by Westerners.”
Momanyi is from the Kisii tribe. It’s not clear whether his tribal language, or many other tribal languages, has a specific word for being gay.
But gay-rights activists say the Republican Liberty Party is looking for political relevance through its anti-gay campaign.
“You cannot win votes by attacking a minority group,” says David Kuria, a gay-rights activist. “They (the Republican Liberty Party) are irrelevant. Why else don’t they have representation in Parliament or in the counties? It is simply because Kenyans have no faith in them.”
Kuria does, however, admit that the gay population is apprehensive about the proposed bill, saying it is like a noose hanging over their necks.
“The bill has not been taken up by an MP, but it has been presented to the Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, who can forward it at any time,” he says.
Kidaha’s claim that gay people are paid to choose their orientation smacks of ignorance and arrogance, Gichira says.
“It is very unfortunate when someone makes such comments,” he says. “The most saddening part for us, as a Christian organization, is that most of these people who are stigmatizing LGBTIs claim to be Christians. When Kidaha says that members of the LGBTI community need to be stoned to death and must be left out of the country’s decision-making process, what authority does he have to make these statements?”
Kidaha says that even if the current Parliament fails to move the bill, he will push it through in the next one. His party plans to field candidates for parliamentary and county assemblies’ seats in the 2017 elections, he says.
But before then, the party is working on a petition to ask for the court’s interpretation of minorities and request that gay people be excluded from that category.
“A group cannot declare themselves a minority on the basis of behavioral change,” he says. “It means that drunkards or even robbers can declare themselves minorities and say they need a union to protect their rights.”