Anti-LGBTQ and Anti-Choice World Congress of Families and Its Russian Backers Seek to Expand Influence in Africa

Anti-LGBTQ activist Brian Brown in South Africa for December 2016 press conference launching the International Organization for the Family.

The World Congress of Families, an international network of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice activists, sponsored a regional conference in Accra, Ghana, last week. Organizers pitched it as an effort to “position Africa as a more active advocate within the global pro-family movement.”

The official theme was “The African Family and Sustainable Development: Strong Families, Strong Nation,” but in communications with supporters, WCF leader Brian Brown portrayed it in stark culture war terms. Brown invoked the name of progressive philanthropist George Soros, who is frequently vilified by right-wing activists and authoritarian governments; in an email this week Brown said that the WCF gathering brought together “crowds of people” who were “primed to take on the Soros machine and push back against his agenda of death and destruction.”

The Ghana News Agency reported that the conference drew participants from 14 African countries as well as the United States. Brown called the conference “incredibly successful.” But the news outlet OkayAfrica reported  that LGBTQ activists and allies are concerned that the conference could lead to an increase in violence targeting LGBTQ people in Ghana and other countries where homosexuality is still criminalized.

GNA reported that Brown advised participants not to follow the example of the West, where he said family and marriage life is under attack. Among the conference’s other speakers was Family Watch International’s Sharon Slater, a fervent opponent of comprehensive sex education, defender of laws that criminalize homosexuality, and director of a “documentary” that portrays Western advocacy for LGBTQ human rights “cultural imperialism.”

Roslyn Mould, former president of the Humanist Association of Ghana and chair of the Young Humanists International African Working Group had a different take on the imperialism question, saying in a statement, “Homophobia was foreign to Africans until colonization and here we are again with history repeating itself.” She said of the WCF meeting, “This effort by American fundamentalists and far- right evangelical Christian groups to spread their message of hate on the African continent and in my beloved country where it has failed in theirs will not be tolerated.”

The Ghana News Agency reported earlier in October that Ghana’s parliament would, in collaboration with the National Council for Proper Human Rights and Family, a local cosponsor of the WCF gathering, host Slater at a breakfast forum to speak against the implementation of comprehensive sex education in Ghana. The head of the group, Moses Foh-Amoaning, said at a September press conference promoting the conference that “safeguarding” the country’s “traditional” values was critical to “addressing the threat of Lesbianism, Gay, Gisexual and Transgender Rights (LGBT) of the people.”

One of WCF’s local partners for the Ghana conference was Family Renaissance International, whose website features the tagline “Rising to occupy.” The group’s Catherine Onwioduokit said in advance of the conference that “teaching the undiluted word of God, values and norms of the society would bring resultant positive effects and changes to the family unit.”

Right Wing Watch reported in September on WCF’s plans for the Ghana conference, noting that its organizers included defenders of harsh laws that criminalize same-sex relations. WCF’s representative for Africa, Nigerian Theresa Okafor, suggested at an earlier WCF gathering that gay rights advocates in Africa were part of a “conspiracy” involving the violent Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram to “silence Christians.”

On the eve of the conference, Open Democracy published a report that examined WCF’s praise for anti-African-immigrant politicians in Europe, reported links to white nationalists, and racist comments by its supporters. (For example, Princess Gloria von Thurn Und Taxis, who recently joined Brown in a D.C. meeting with two Supreme Court justices, once blamed AIDS in Africa on the fact that “blacks like to copulate.”) Brown denounced the report as a “hit piece.”

In the report, Open Democracy quoted a spokesperson for the Coalition for African Family Values of Love, Unity and Tolerance saying, “Our African traditions encourage us to live peacefully together as family. Issues of sexuality are accorded privacy within our culture.” The group condemned “efforts by individuals outside Ghana to come into our country and teach Ghanaians to discriminate against their own family because of their perceived sexuality”.

Open Democracy also published a commentary by Nigerian writer OluTimehin Adegbeye on the “strategic effort to undermine our sexual and reproductive health and rights, with women’s bodies a key battleground.

That battle is also being waged further south. In South Africa, religious right activists and groups, including the Family Policy Institute, are targeting an inclusive sex education curriculum being developed by the country’s education department. The FPI was started over a decade ago by Errol Naidoo after a six-month “training session” at the Family Research Council in the U.S. His group hosted the 2016 launch of the International Organization for the Family, a rebranding of the WCF’s parent group.

In related news, The New York Times reported last week that Russian politicians and oligarchs like Konstantin Malofeev–who has helped fund the World Congress of Families—are also intensifying their presence in Africa, in part to undermine the influence of Europe and the United States. Among its strategies is “trumpeting itself as a protector of ‘traditional values.’” The Times reported on a recent gathering of African leaders that Russia’s Vladimir Putin hosted in Sochi in October:

Earlier this year, for example, Russia’s ambassador to Ghana met with Albert Kofi Owusu, the head of Ghana’s main news agency, and discussed a proposal: Might Mr. Owusu distribute stories from Tass, a Russian state-controlled news service, to newspapers, websites and television stations in the West African country? … In October, Mr. Owusu was here on Russia’s glittering Black Sea coast, shaking hands with Mr. Putin.

All these efforts threaten real harm to people in Africa. David Mac-Iyalla, executive director of the Interfaith Diversity Network of West Africa, warned before the WCF’s Ghana conference:

It is extremely concerning to see the group expand its interest in West-Africa; its presence will undoubtedly increase social stigma and discrimination against LGBTIQ people, especially those living with HIV/AIDS. Same-sex relations are still criminalized in the majority of the region, violence, and harassment of LGBTIQ people are rife, so LGBTIQ people are already living in hiding and in fear for their lives. We fear that the congress will come with an even harsher agenda, and ample resources for increasing hate against LGBTIQ people in West Africa.

In other words, Brian Brown and the World Congress of Families and its allies continue to make life more difficult and dangerous for women and LGBTQ people around the world.