In an unprecedented move for Gabon, Gabonese lawmakers in the country’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday voted to decriminalise homosexuality, becoming one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa to reverse colonial era laws that criminalizes sexual relations between people of the same sex and gives the state the right to punish them for their orientation.
It was a close call as the legislators voted on the referendum. Forty-eight members of parliament backed the proposed initiative by the government to revise an article of the 2019 law that criminalised homosexuality. Twenty-four voted against, while 25 others abstained. But what does it actually mean for same sex relationships to be decriminalized in Gabon.
To provide some context, decriminalization is very different from legalization. When an action is decriminalized, it simply means the police and the legal justice system can no long single out and penalize people for performing said action. What the lower parliament in Gabon has mainly decriminalized is homosexual activity, meaning sex between all kinds of homosexual people. Legalization however would not just stop at decriminalization, it would also require the state to write in protections for LGBT people, and severe punishment for anyone who tries to violate those protections. Decriminalization of Homosexual activity in Gabon is an important step in the right direction because Gabonese bigots can no longer use the police or the justice system to intimidate gay people, but they are still susceptible to other kinds of informal discrimination.
This is why, in addition to decriminalization, Gabon must also strengthen its human rights law and invest more in enforcing them. If human rights laws are enforced properly, it will protect LGBT Gabonese citizens from targeted harassment, give them the tools to protect themselves and seek legal redress if they are targeted and force everyone else to mind their business.
A huge congratulations to the LGBT Gabonese citizens. This is a huge win for West Africa and a sign that the continent is well and truly shedding colonial mindsets and embracing the humanity of all its citizens.
Edwin Okolo is an author and journalist who has worked with YNaija, TheNativemag and the Naked Convos.