Gay Tanzanians remain fearful despite government denouncing LGBT+ crackdown

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - LGBT+ people in Tanzania on Monday welcomed a move by the government distancing itself from a planned crackdown on sexual minorities in the city of Dar es Salaam, but said it did not go far enough - with many still fearful of attack or arrest.

Tanzania’s foreign ministry said on Sunday a plan by the city’s administrative chief Paul Makonda to set up a committee to identify and arrest homosexual people did not represent the national government’s position.

But LGBT+ people in the port city told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the government was late in speaking out, and had stopped short of condemning Makonda’s public call to report gay people - fuelling homophobia in the country.

“Where was the government for all these days when Paul Makonda was calling on (the) public to report the names of suspected gays to be rounded up?” said one gay man, who declined to be named, via Whatsapp messages from Dar es Salaam.

“People are still scared and we are keeping a low profile. We remain on edge and are waiting to see if any arrests will happen as they were expect to start from this week.”

Gay sex is illegal in Tanzania and punishable by up to 30 years in jail. The law is rarely enforced, but activists say homophobia and attacks and arrests on sexual minorities have risen since President John Magufuli’s election in 2015.

Makonda’s planned anti-gay campaign has prompted the European Union to recall its envoy in Tanzania as it reviews relations with the east African nation.

The United States has warned its citizens to be cautious and “remove or protect images and language that may run afoul of Tanzanian laws regarding homosexual practices and explicit sexual activity”.

The United Nations, as well as LGBT+ campaigners, urged the Tanzanian government to do more and also punish those guilty of targeting sexual minorities.

“We welcome the statement by the government. However, we understand that LGBT individuals in Tanzania remain fearful,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN’s human rights office in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We call on the authorities to take concrete action to ensure the safety and protection of LGBT people, and to hold accountable those who carry out acts of discrimination, harassment, violence against them.”

LGBT+ people said they had gone into hiding after Makonda’s statement last week - some had either stayed in their homes during the day for fear of being pointing out by their neighbors, while others had left to seek refuge elsewhere.

“We aren’t safe here at all,” said David, 24, who did not want to give his full name, by phone from Dar es Salaam. “We need guarantees that no one is going to come after us.”