The furor surrounding Uganda's "Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009" has reached fever pitch in Uganda and abroad. With condemnations flying in from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom and threats of a cessation of aid from Sweden, many outsiders are wondering just how this proposed bill can be passed.
Yet, local support remains high: 94% of Ugandans consider themselves religious and 95% strongly oppose the legalization of same-sex relations. This is a country where the conflation of church and state is the norm and any form of outward deviance such as same sex relations or atheism is pretty much unthinkable. In short, life is already difficult for Uganda's marginalized homosexual population but it's about to get a whole lot harder. Barring a possible few changes (life imprisonment instead of death and removal of the extrajudicial clause which provides for Ugandans found practicing homosexuality abroad to be prosecuted), this draconian piece of legislation will likely become part and parcel of Ugandan criminal law.
But there is something more disquieting and familiar going on here. As dean of the Makerere Law School, Dr. Sylvia Tamale noted in a recent debate over the bill, "Anyone who cares to read history books knows very well that in times of crisis, when people at the locus of power are feeling vulnerable and their power is threatened, they will turn against the weaker groups in society". And indeed vulnerability is the key issue in the aftermath of the September riots which resulted in over 30 deaths and with the preparations for national elections in 2011 about to begin in earnest. The onset of this law portends the sinister way it could be used to stifle political debate and quell dissent to the ruling NRM party (23 years and counting...).
A look into recent history also reveals how the NRM has used accusations of sexual misconduct, homosexuality, and the loosely defined category of "sedition" as key tools in intimidating and quashing any opposition once election season gets under way. A newly released Human Rights Watch report shows how impunity over past electoral abuses and politically-motivated persecutions acutely threaten the legitimacy of the upcoming election. The likelihood of this bill becoming another weapon in the state's arsenal is even more worrisome given recent allegations against some very prominent people. As Morris Latigo, leader of the opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) noted worryingly, "It is a very good bill in terms of opening up possibilities for mischief in Ugandan politics."
Here are just a few examples of state intimidation:
- Before the last election, presidential contender Kizza Besigye chairman of the FDC, was facing separate prosecutions for treason, terrorism and rape (the last of which was dismissed in a court judgment that termed the investigation as "crude and amateurish").
- Democratic Party (DP) spokeswoman Betty Nambooze has recently been charged with sedition for anti-NRM comments made on a local radio program. She faces seven years imprisonment if convicted.
- The recent return to Uganda of former senior UN official, Olaru Otunnu, who is said to also be eying a top position in the coming elections, was marred by allegations that he is alternately a homosexual, impotent and married to a white woman. In a recent interview with AFP, Otunnu accused President Yoweri Museveni of masterminding a plot to discredit him by using spurious allegations. "What is being alleged, what is being put out there to discredit and intimidate me, is that Olara Otunnu is a homosexual and HIV positive."
Such examples are politics as usual in Uganda, a country where the ruling party can simply resort to McCarthy-esque scare tactics to intimidate and coerce any number of potential "enemies of the state". Homosexuality becomes, like the purported communist threat in 1950's America, an easy red herring, allowing a fearful ruling party to bolster its ideological support while ignoring the true social ills plaguing society, such as entrenched corruption and venality. As Tamale noted in a recent interview, "All you have to do is send someone an unsolicited email or SMS which has some homosexual material and voila, you'll be guilty."
Still, for most Ugandans, complaints about the law's purported illegality or undermining of a human rights culture are dismissed out of hand as the influence of decadent Westerners importing this foreign thing called homosexuality (an opinion echoed by President Museveni who noted last month that he had heard "European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa"). Framers of the bill have manipulated the fears of its religious constituents to shore up support by implying that anyone who opposes the bill thus opposes the family and the church. Anyone who supports gay rights is thus gay and/or a pedophile (as the two have been insidiously rendered synonymous) and part of the Western neo-imperialist plot to deracinate African culture. As the bill's self-styled guru, Pastor Martin Ssempa explained "I'm an African. And as Africans we find the whole subject of sodomy and lesbianism an unacceptable lifestyle...the African finds that what does not benefit the community must be done away with."
While in the midst of the biggest oil discovery of the 21st century and experiencing unprecedented economic liberalization, Uganda finds itself moving forward while clinging desperately to ideas of immutable cultural romanticism. A prime example can be found in the discourse of a recent radio debate, where Kristen Botegwa, regional coordinator of local women's rights group Akina Mama wa Africa, packaged the issue neatly:
We should put focus on corruption. Uganda is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Public funding is just disappearing. We have no health centers, no medicine in the stores...Those are issues that should take the stage. Ugandans are poor, they have no access to health. ..The government is pitting groups against each other and so we are becoming more fragmented instead of looking at what would make lives of Ugandans better."
The zealous listener response was unanimous:
- "That lady supporting gays?? Are you a Ugandan or an American?"
- "Why do you even host those people intending to protect homos? I'm sorry but I think they are involved in that practice. They must arrest them!"
- "Those NGOs are looking for funds from homo organizations in Europe. Which human right? They are Satan's agents."
- "You should not be bringing these homosexuals under the guise of human rights. This is Africa!"
For Morris Latigo, the opposition leader still recovering from a devastating car accident in October, these kinds of responses emanate from a government mired in the contradiction of the development path they have chosen. "If you liberalize, know that you are not just liberalizing the economy, you are liberalizing everything and there are consequences," he opined. "A proactive government would then put in place a campaign program, an action program, and a policy framework to address the potential consequences. Now when you do that, the benefit of liberalization can then be maximally used to start development and change society. But when you take on one aspect of it and damn the consequences, then the consequences will come to damn you."