Zambian President Edgar Lungu Pardons Two Men Imprisoned For Sexual Relationship

Parts of Africa have extremely harsh laws against LGBTQ activity.

Zambia's President Edgar Lungu
Nicolas Asfouri / Getty Images

Parts of Africa have extremely harsh laws against LGBTQ activity.

Zambia’s president has pardoned two men who were serving 15-year sentences for having sex with each other, BBC News reports. That they were imprisoned for their relationship is emblematic of the wider issue of LGBTQ persecution in parts of Africa.

On Monday, which was Africa Freedom Day, Lungu marked the occasion by pardoning approximately 3,000 prisoners. Among those pardoned were Japhet Chataba and Steven Samba, two men who were doing 15-year sentences for having sex “against the order of nature.”

As BBC News reported at the time of their sentencing in 2019, the incident took place two years prior, after the men booked a room in a lodge and had checked in. A worker peeped through an open window and saw them having sex, and notified authorities.

In Zambia, homosexuality is a crime, punishable by harsh sentences. Indeed, in much of Africa, such laws remain on the books as vestiges of British colonial law that are still enforced. What’s more, Zambia is devoutly Christian — the country’s constitution identifies it as a Christian nation, and religion informs almost every aspect of daily life. Christians in here regard homosexual acts as immoral and contrary to nature and God.

the letters l-g-b-t-q on scrabble tiles
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At the time, Chataba and Samba’s prison sentences represented an international incident. Daniel Foote, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Zambia, expressed dismay at the sentence, and suggested U.S. aid to the African nation wasn’t being properly appropriated.

Those statements set into motion a diplomatic row that culminated in Foote being recalled.

“You cannot ask a government to make a decision at gun point – ‘because we are giving you aid, we want you to do this’ – you can’t,” Zambia’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Malanji, said of Foote at the time.

Similarly, Lungu himself made it clear that the ambassador was no longer welcome in the country.

“We don’t want such people in our midst. We want him gone,” he said.

Zambia’s harsh anti-LGBTQ laws are emblematic of a wider pattern of legalized persecution of gays in parts of Africa, according to Pink News. For example, in nearby Kenya, homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in prison, while in Uganda, the country has made attempts to make homosexual activity a crime punishable by death.

The Obama administration cut aid to Uganda and to Malawi — a country with similarly harsh anti-LGBTQ laws — over the issue. Other Western countries, many of which provide assistance to those African nations, have expressed concerns about LGBTQ rights on the continent.