World Congress of Families Descends on Africa

Poster for next week's African Regional Conference on Families.

Poster for the African Regional Conference on Families scheduled to take place in Nairobi next week.

Next week, the World Congress of Families (WCF) will host a regional conference in Nairobi, Kenya. For several years, PRA has tracked and reported on the WCF’s role in the U.S. Religious Right’s global export of homophobia and sexism, and the organization’s increasing focus on Africa is of grave concern.

WCF’s international convenings function as key sites of right-wing strategy development and dissemination. From its headquarters in Rockford, Illinois, WCF and its member organizations use deceptive “pro-family” rhetoric to promote conservative ideologies that dictate who counts as “family,” and who doesn’t (that is, any and all “nontraditional” families such as those constructed by single parents, same-sex couples, grandparents, non-biological guardians, etc.). These ideologies are then codified into regressive laws and policies that criminalize LGBTQ people and abortion, condoning and promoting the ongoing persecution, oppression, and violence experienced by women and LGBTQ people around the world.

WCF’s presence in Kenya has the potential to do real damage in a country that has been in the crosshairs of the U.S. Christian Right for many years. In 2010, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) opened an office in Nairobi, just as Kenya was debating a new constitution that included controversial addendums to its penal code regarding abortion. As Mother Jones reported, the ACLJ, founded by American televangelist Pat Robertson, “was among the most vocal opponents of the new constitution,” pledging to spend “tens of thousands of dollars” on the effort to defeat the constitution. Speaking to Christianity Today about the establishment of the “East African Center for Law and Justice” (ACLJ’s Nairobi branch), the group’s then-director of international operations, Jordan Sekulow, explained, “We’re looking long-term in Kenya because it’s such an influential country throughout Africa.”

Though abortion remains illegal, the new constitution—which was approved by a 67 percent majority—carved out exceptions if “in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law.” Despite these allowances, quality maternal health care and safe and legal abortion services remain largely inaccessible in Kenya.

Reporting on the aftermath of Kenya’s constitutional referendum, the progressive group Catholics for Choice warned, “[E]xternal forces, predominantly US evangelists, maintain a disproportionate level of influence in Kenya, beyond the debate on abortion. Ample political and financial resources allowed U.S. fundamentalists and anti-reproductive rights groups to establish offices in Kenya and recruit local staff. This presence might yet prove to be a springboard for more aggressive action in other parts of Africa. The activities of these outside religious groups should be closely watched, as they are placed to continue advancing their agenda to deny access to sexual and reproductive health services needed by many.”

Indeed, the influence of the U.S. Christian Right continues to wreak havoc in Kenya. As PRA’s senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma notes, WCF’s upcoming African Regional Conference on Families “may be called African in name only.” As Kaoma argues, “It is a U.S. conservative conference on African soil.”

The African Regional Conference on Families is scheduled to take place at the Hotel Intercontinental in Naiborbi, Kenya on September 22-24, 2016. (Image: conference promotional video available at https://youtu.be/CCw4Z9KqDdo)

The African Regional Conference on Families is scheduled to take place in Nairobi, Kenya on September 22-24, 2016. (Image: Conference promotional video available at https://youtu.be/CCw4Z9KqDdo)

The headlining speakers at WCF events are typically high-profile leaders of the U.S. Christian Right who are uniformly pursuant of an international anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ agenda. In the case of the upcoming Nairobi conference, Sharon Slater, President of Arizona-based Family Watch International, and Don Feder, WCF’s Director of Coalitions, will both be speaking. Additionally, Michael Hichborn, President of the right-wing Lepanto Institute, will present on behalf of the Population Research Institute. Hichborn, a Catholic anti-abortion activist based in Virginia, has referred to homosexuality as a “disordered condition” comparable to kleptomania and alcoholism and warns, “Western civilisation is on the brink of a moral implosion.”

In his foreword to Kaoma’s 2012 exposé, “Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa,” PRA’s Executive Director Tarso Luis Ramos wrote:

In Black Skin, White Masks French-Algerian psychiatrist and anti-colonial activist Frantz Fanon famously wrote of the colonized African’s aspiration to imitate the culture and manners of White colonizers. Sixty years later, we find White Christian Right neocolonialists seeking legitimacy through a process of Africanizing the local leadership of their operations and leveling charges of neocolonialism against Western governments and international human rights groups when they advocate for the human rights of women and LGBTQ people. This tactical inversion of the colonial relationships described by Fanon might aptly be characterized as “White skin, Black masks.”

As Kaoma observes, “The upcoming WCF conference confirms PRA’s research on the Christian Right’s attempts to hide behind African faces. By whitewashing its activities with African masks, U.S. conservative organizations are transforming African sexual politics. ”

Ann Kioko is WCF’s newest mask-wearer, joining Theresa Okafor, WCF’s African regional director. Kioko, who describes homosexuality as a “learned behaviour” imported from the West, is president of the African Organization for Families and WCF’s lead conference organizer. She has worked for U.S. Christian Right groups such Culture of Life, Human Life International, and previously worked as the Program Manager for the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum, a partner organization of the East African Center for Law and Justice.

Another concerning speaker on the schedule is Stephen Langa, founder and executive director of Family Life Network Uganda. In March 2009, Langa hosted the infamous “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals’ Agenda,” which featured several U.S. Christian Right speakers, including Massachusetts-based American pastor Scott Lively. Lively’s presentation provided the raw material for what would become Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill (commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill due to death penalty clauses in the original draft).

When a draft of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB) initially came before Parliament in April 2009, Langa was among a handful of religious leaders singled out by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga to help advance the legislation. Langa was later indicted as one of four Ugandan co-conspirators in an ongoing U.S. federal lawsuit brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda, an LGBTQI advocacy group, against Scott Lively for “crimes against humanity.”

Langa, who hosted a service in 2013 to “celebrate the passing of the AHB into law and for preserving the sovereignty of our Nation,” sees his crusade against LGBTQI people as “a conflict between the kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God.” Now he’s helping to stoke the flames of that Western neocolonial crusade to Kenya.

Behind the Black masks of African fronts like Langa and Kioko, American activists like Slater, Feder, Hichborn, and other White, U.S. Christian Right stakeholders can gain access to politicians, religious authorities, and civic leaders. The organizers in Kenya have already indicated that Phyllis Kandie, Cabinet Secretary for Kenya’s Ministry of East African Community, Labour and Social Protection will be attending, and the agenda includes a closed door meeting exclusively for conference speakers, members of parliament, and dignitaries.

According to Kaoma, “Hiding behind African masks is the most effective route to Africa’s corridors of power.” WCF has observed this neocolonial dynamic, too, and is now positioning itself in Kenya to take full advantage of it, using a strategy that’s eerily similar to the formula documented by PRA in the lead up to Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill.

U.S. “Army of God” Operative Plasters Kenya with Anti-LGBTQI Posters

Jonathan O’Toole—an American anti-choice activist based in Nakuru, Kenya—makes no secret of his opinions about President Obama. “I hate Obama, I hate his guts,” he told me in a recent interview. “I’m against him. I’m his enemy.”

Jonathan O'Toole

Jonathan O’Toole

Indeed, in the struggle for human rights—including the rights of women and LGBTQI people—Jonathan O’Toole stands in stark opposition to the president’s pro-choice, pro-LGBTQI efforts. And in Kenya, O’Toole isn’t alone. East Africa has proven to be fertile territory for his Christian Right agenda.

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding President Obama’s upcoming visit to Kenya, where he will be attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. While some Kenyans are eagerly anticipating the long-promised visit (the president’s first trip to his father’s homeland since 2006), others are already organizing protests, threatening acts of defiance if Obama dares speak out for LGBTQI equality while in the country.

At a press conference on July 6, Kenyan lawmakers and religious leaders, including National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi, said the president risks opening “floodgates of evil” by promoting LGBTQI rights, adding “we have a responsibility to protect our children.” One of the speakers, MP Charles Njagagua, warned that if President Obama spoke in favor of LGBTQI rights during his speech to the National Assembly, he would be ejected from the House.

Another Kenyan leader, Samuel Thuita, a senior member of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, threatened to throw eggs at Obama if he speaks out about LGBTQI rights during his time in Kenya, correlating the act with historic resistance to British imperialism:

“The founding father of the nation Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was pelted with rotten eggs in Britain for only agitating for our independence. I will mobilise and lead every member of the council, including women and the youth, and Kenyans in general to throw rotten eggs at Obama if he dares introduce the gay and lesbian debate.”

And Obama isn’t the only one being threatened. Denis Nzioka, a Kenyan LGBTQI rights activist, reported to the International Business Times that homophobia is on the rise. “There have been more beatings, evictions and attacks when public discourse focuses on the [LGBTQI] community,” he explained. “It gets heightened and it will only increase momentum as Obama’s visit gets closer.”

In Kenya, those found guilty of homosexuality can face up to 14 years in prison.

By contrast to the United States, where the White House was recently awash with the colors of the rainbow following the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, in Kenya, those found guilty of homosexuality can face up to 14 years in prison.

According to local reporting, “Thuita urged Kenyans and Africans to uphold their customs and not fall prey to neocolonialism being introduced through the back door.”

This tactic of coopting  and twisting the language of neocolonialism to suggest that homosexuality—rather than homophobia—is the foreign [ideological] agent is increasingly employed by Christian Right-influenced African leaders, who have found that scapegoating LGBTQI people is a highly effective way of distracting constituents from economic deficits and political corruption, and thus maintaining power.

As PRA’s senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma has observed, this self-serving twist on colonialism and neocolonialism is far from accurate:

“[I]t is not LGBTQ people who are foreign to Africa, but rather the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that is being used against them. […] It is true that Western nations have not always acted in the interest of Africa (to put it mildly), but to use the West as an excuse to persecute and imprison innocent persons is appalling. Politicians like [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe and [The Gambia President Yahya] Jammeh, who have robbed their respective nations of billions of dollars, are also responsible for their countries’ dire economic states. These African leaders condemn the West and scapegoat gays to distract from real issues facing their nations and to hide their own incompetence, corruption, and despotism.”

Meanwhile, the real neocolonial narrative is being scripted and directed by right-wing Christian culture warriors from the United States. Sharon Slater of Family Watch International and John Eastman of the National Organization for Marriage were featured speakers at Kenya’s “National Family Conference” this past May (an event sponsored by the U.S.-based culture war-exporting group World Congress of Families). Rick Warren of Saddleback Church announced during a 2014 visit to Kenya that he intends on expanding his ministry into East Africa (this element of Warren’s dominionist agenda will assuredly gain momentum during his “All-Africa Purpose Driven Conference,” set to be convened in Rwanda next year). The American Center for Law & Justice—which advocates against reproductive justice and LGBTQI equality—established their East Africa office in Nairobi, Kenya in 2011.

And then there are the less familiar faces—people like Jonathan O’Toole—who are amplifying the U.S. Christian Right’s global attack on LGBTQI equality and reproductive justice.

Some may recall O’Toole from Soldiers in the Army of God, an HBO documentary released in 2000 that featured interviews with several high-profile anti-choice extremists. O’Toole—then just 19-years-old—became the focal point of the film as he traveled the country seeking the most “radical” and “terroristic” anti-choice group he could find.

Despite the violent outcomes of this sort of propaganda, in O’Toole’s mind, his work comes from a place of love.

Today, O’Toole’s main culture war weapon is ProjectSEE.org, an acronym for “Stop Exporting Evil.” O’Toole, who first visited Kenya in 2007, uses the website to warn Africans about the “satanic” culture of the West.

One section of the website is modeled after the Nuremberg Files website, a project established by the late Neal Horsley, who was a close friend and mentor to O’Toole.1 The Nuremberg Files served as an online database of American abortion service providers, including their names, pictures, and contact information. As Dahlia Lithwick at the Slate reported in 2002, “The ‘wanted’ program was pretty effective at dissuading abortion doctors. After his name appeared on a poster in 1993, Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed entering a Florida abortion clinic. Five months later and after his name appeared on a wanted poster, Dr. George Patterson was shot and killed. In 1994, after his name appeared on a poster, Dr. John Britton was killed by Paul Hill.”

After a lengthy legal battle, the courts ultimately found Horsley’s Nuremberg Files to be unlawful and the site was subsequently shut down.

O’Toole, however, has revived the idea with printer-friendly “not wanted” posters on the ProjectSEE website, including one for David Kuria Mbote – former director of the Gay & Lesbian Coalition of Kenya and Kenya’s first openly gay man to run for political office. O’Toole told me he has no way of tracking how many posters have been distributed independent of his own group’s efforts, but boasted that thousands have been posted around Nakuru (the fourth largest city in Kenya), and about a thousand more have been put up in Nairobi.

This "Not Wanted" poster of the first openly-gay man to run for office was created by O'Toole and sent all over Kenya.  The original included the Mr. Mbote's contact information, which has been blacked out here.

This “Not Wanted” poster of the first openly-gay man to run for office was created by O’Toole and sent all over Kenya. The poster includes a quote from Leviticus 20:13, which has been translated into Swahili. Mr. Kuria’s contact information appeared in the original, but has been blacked out here.

The poster for Kuria includes a picture of his face and his contact information, along with the label “Nairobi Shoga” (shoga is a derogatory term for a gay man in Swahili). Local LGBTQI rights activists have submitted complaints to Kenya’s Communications Commission (in charge of regulating internet content in the country), but were told that Kenya had no authority over the site since it’s registered in the United States (under O’Toole’s name).

The tactic spark memories of the Rolling Stone case in Uganda, where the tabloid newspaper (no relation to the U.S. publication) published the names and pictures of 100 of the country’s “top homos,” and called for their execution with a banner reading “hang them.” David Kato, a prominent LGBTQI activist who was included on the list, was murdered just three months later.

After Kuria’s name was added to O’Toole’s “not wanted” list, he received threats by phone and e-mail, and odd dents appeared on his car when he left it parked in the lot outside his home at night. Kuria was ultimately forced to move after a man came to his house and threatened him.

“The implication was that I would die,” said Kuria.

Despite the violent outcomes of this sort of propaganda, in O’Toole’s mind, his work comes from a place of love. Paul Nevin, an independent journalist who recently traveled to Kenya on a fellowship from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, explained that O’Toole “believes that many of those in the Middle Ages who were burning people at the stake to save them from hell, were doing it out of love.”

Following the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision on June 26, President Obama tweeted, “Today is a big step in our march toward equality. Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like anyone else. #LoveWins”

What it would mean for love to win in Kenya is a frightening thing to contemplate, given the growing influence of American culture warriors in Africa. Those who have fought against reproductive justice and LGBTQI equality here in the States, continue to wreak havoc abroad, and until we work to expose, confront, and hold them accountable, O’Toole’s version of “love” will keep gaining ground.


Endnotes

[1] Horsley once boasted, “Jonathan [O’Toole] might well be more dangerous to the homosexual outlaws of the world than me. After all, Project SEE is not merely about holding one rich and famous homosexual like Elton John accountable; it’s about stopping the legalization of homosexuality throughout the world.”