Even without a special committee searching for LGBT people, Tanzania is already a difficult place to be gay. Under the country’s anti-homosexuality legislation, those found guilty of having “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” could spend decades in jail.
Then in late October, Paul Makonda, the regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam, announced he planned to form a team that would seek out and identify gay people to prosecute them. At a news conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s economic hub, he told reporters he had “information about the presence of many homosexuals in our province,” claiming they “boast on social networks.”
“Give me their names,” he said. “My ad hoc team will begin to get their hands on them next Monday.”
The suggestion prompted near-immediate backlash from human rights groups, and the Foreign Ministry later backtracked on Makonda’s suggestion, saying it didn’t reflect the official government position.
But Amnesty International announced Tuesday that 10 men had been arrested on the island of Zanzibar during the weekend, after police were tipped off about a possible same-sex marriage ceremony.
Seif Magango, Amnesty’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said the arrests came as “a shocking blow” after the government’s assurance there would be no targeted arrests over sexual orientation.
“We now fear these men may be subjected to forced anal examination, the government’s method of choice for ‘proving’ same-sex sexual activity among men,” he said. “This must not be allowed to happen — these men must be released immediately.”
It was not immediately clear whether the men’s arrests were directly related to the threat from Makonda in Dar es Salaam, on Tanzania’s mainland, but Amnesty said the arrests show “the danger of inflammatory and discriminatory rhetoric at senior levels of government.”
Amnesty previously had urged that the idea of a task force to round up LGBT people “be immediately abandoned as it only serves to incite hatred among members of the public.”
Human Rights Watch had also raised alarm about Tanzania’s use of “forced anal exams” on men suspected of being gay. The watchdog said in a statement that Tanzania’s “anti-homosexuality law is among the world’s harshest” and that since President John Magufuli was elected in December 2015, the country has “had a marked decline in respect for free expression, association, and assembly.”
After Makonda’s announcement, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned in a statement, “This could turn into a witch-hunt and could be interpreted as a licence to carry out violence, intimidation, bullying, harassment and discrimination against those perceived to be LGBT.”
CNN quoted LGBT activist James Wandera Ouma as saying he had closed his office and “will not be operating for a while” over fears of being targeted by the government. Other LGBT people are in hiding, the news network reported.
Tanzania is a popular tourist destination, boasting beautiful beaches and safari excursions. But the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania issued a travel warning after Makonda’s news conference, suggesting LGBT Americans visiting Tanzania delete photos or language from their social media accounts that “may run afoul of Tanzanian laws regarding homosexual practices and explicit sexual activity.”
Tanzania has historically arrested a large number of people on suspicions of being gay.
Last year, police announced they had arrested 20 people for homosexuality, stopped at a training for HIV/AIDS programming. “They are implicated in homosexuality. We arrested them and are busy interrogating them,” the BBC quoted regional police commander Hassan Ali Nasri as saying on national television at the time. “The police cannot turn a blind eye to this practice.”
In 2016, the country banned the import and sale of personal lubricant, claiming it encouraged homosexual behavior.
In June 2017, Tanzania’s then-Home Affairs Minister Mwigulu Nchemba said at a rally that “those who want to campaign for gay rights should find another country that allows those things.” He also said those who continued to work for LGBT rights would be arrested or deported and could have their organizations shut down.