Malawi’s gays hope new High Commissioner will help their cause

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The Malawi Gay Rights Movement (Magrim), which was launched earlier this month as a public campaign group after six years underground, has sparked a political row.

Former First Minister of Scotland Jack McConnell is to take up his post as High Commissioner to Malawi next year.

His support for gay rights in office has led Magrim to claim he will to support their cause as the UK’s representative in the former African colony.

“We are anxiously waiting for the arrival of Jack McConnell,” a Magrim spokesperson said.

“He supports gay rights and we believe he will use his influence as High Commissioner as well as his close working relationship with President Bingu wa Mutharika to put in place friendly legislation for homosexuality.”

High Commissioners are the senior diplomats in charge of the diplomatic mission of one Commonwealth government to another.

Under the Labour government a number of posts have been filled by retiring politicians.

Former Cabinet minister Paul Boateng is the High Commissioner to South Africa.

Former Secretary of State for Scotland Helen Liddell is British High Commissioner to Australia.

The announcement of Mr McConnell’s appointment as British High Commissioner to Malawi last year angered civil servant unions who complained to Gordon Brown that the post should have been decided in an open competition.

Homosexuality is a criminal offence in Malawi, punishable by hard labour.

Magrim claims there is an “active population” of 89,000 gays and lesbians in the country.

Last year, the head of the main opposition party in Malawi – the United Democratic Front – said Mr McConnell’s support for the repeal of Section 28 and civil unions meant he was an unsuitable person.

“To have a man who supports gay rights to come to Malawi is dangerous for us,” Friday Jumbe said.

“He can easily use his influence as High Commissioner to force legislation and that’s my biggest fear.

“I don’t want him and I know I am speaking for my party and many legislators that we cannot allow such a person in Malawi.”

Last week Aden Mbowani of the opposition Malawi Congress Party told Scotland’s Sunday Herald:

“Homosexuality is an evil thing that can bring incurable disease to the whole world.

“This man you call McConnell, he will not influence any policy in this country.

“Personally, I wouldn’t think he’s welcome in Malawi. As a human being he can come and visit us, no problem.

“But to talk about homosexuality in our country, I don’t think Malawians will want to listen to that kind of nonsense. It’s a non-starter.

“He will not manage to change us. We have beautiful women here to marry – even in his country there are beautiful women.”

Mr McConnell enjoys a close working relationship with the President, Bingu wa Mutharika.

The two got on well when they met in Malawi in 2005 and quickly organised a reciprocal visit by Mr Mutharika to Scotland.

They eventually signed a joint cooperation agreement to cement links between the two administrations.

Malawi has severe penalties against homosexual acts, commonly punishing gay sex with up to 14 years in prison.

Attempts last year by human rights lawyers to repeal the code were flatly rejected by the government’s legal affairs committee.

Mr McConnell was the longest-serving First Minister of Scotland, from November 2001 to May 2007.

He is expected to stand down as an Member of the Scottish Parliament before taking up his post.