Cry wolf:Uganda and the anti-homosexuality bill



Has the international gay community bought into a red herring- a national distraction?

By Antoine Craigwell


For centuries in Uganda, long before White men came, there were traditional kings, leaders of tribes, clans, and peoples, as the colonialists, those coming from England, or Scotland, knew very well. In this country steeped in tradition, there exists ample evidence that same-sex relations were practiced and were part of the culture. Wikipedia the online reference describes the rule of Danieri Basammula-Ekkere Mwanga II Mukasa, who was the Kabaka or king, from 1884 to 1888, and from1889 to 1897, and was the thirty-first Kabaka of Buganda. The king was known to have sexual relations with his pages and courtiers, and the colonists after their arrival, made efforts to impose their Christian morality and to stop him. The Church then became embroiled in a three-way struggle between the English Protestants, the French White Fathers and the Muslims to control the Bugandan court. In retaliation against the threats to his sovereignty, the king killed 22 of those who had converted to Christianity. Nearly 100 years later, in Oct 1964, Pope Paul VI canonized the group led by Charles Lwanga and his companions as the Uganda Martyrs. But, it was through various schemes and plots that Mwanga was eventually killed and the practice of homosexuality outlawed.


So it was, in the early history of Uganda, that the Christians battled with the civil authorities over traditional and cultural practices. Understanding Uganda’s societal structure requires an understanding of the cultural dynamics, which consists of three distinct ethno-religious groups: the traditionalists with tribes and kings; the Christians, many of whom have broken away from the established Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion (Episcopal) to embrace the evangelical movement; and the Muslims, who adhere to the precepts of their religion.


It is from this religious and cultural cauldron that members of the Ugandan Christian evangelical movement emerged and joined forces with American Christians to exploit moral loopholes in four sections of the country’s Penal Code (pg 68 and 69). Sections 145 of the Penal Code states that anyone who allows or participates in any sexual act considered against the order of nature, including bestiality and homosexuality, would be punishable with life imprisonment. Section 146 imposes a sentence of seven years imprisonment on any one who attempts to commit any offence considered unnatural under Section 145. Section 147 states that anyone who indecently assaulted a boy younger than 18 years is liable to 14 years imprisonment and corporal punishment. Additionally, Section 148 stipulates that if anyone, in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another person, or participates in obtaining anyone to participate in any indecent acts; he or she would be subject to a sentence of seven years imprisonment.


To the Christian evangelists, while these laws violated the human rights of their own people, they were sanctioned and capitalizing on the Ugandan penchant for sexualizing all conduct or behavior perceived as inappropriate, sought to pin their hopes of furthering the cause of anti-homosexuality as a violation of morality.


The three Americans who came to Uganda in Mar 2009 were recruited by the Uganda-based Family Life Network to speak at workshops on ways to change people from gay to straight, said Val Kalende, a Ugandan activist with the organization Freedom and Roam Uganda. Two of the Americans, Caleb Brundidge and Scott Lively, spoke in favor of keeping homosexuality illegal but giving those convicted an option of therapy to cure them of their gayness, suggesting in their address to the parliament, that homosexuality is learned and curable, Kalende said.


Back home in the U.S., the American evangelists know that the right to freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution, but in a country where vestiges of the shame of homosexuality and the animosity from the past still lingered, their action had the effect of pouring jet fuel on smoldering embers.


Kalende, who is 28 years old and a board member of SMUG, the Ugandan gay and lesbian organization, is a spokesperson for the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, and in an email response said that religious fundamentalists have been for a long time behind the war against gays and lesbians in Uganda.


“Their ideas took hold and that is why the anti-homosexuality bill is in our parliament today. U.S based religious groups should be held accountable for the effects this bill has caused and will cause if it passes into law. They do not have such laws in their country. I do not see why they come here to brainwash Ugandans with their bent gospel,” Kalende said.


But, said Kalende, who is based in Uganda, the anti-homosexuality bill is a political populist gimmick to distract the attention of Ugandans from the real issues affecting the nation.


“Homosexuals have nothing to do with the hundreds of thousands of families that sleep without a meal or the millions of children who die unnecessarily every day from preventable or treatable diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, measles, or pneumonia; homosexuals are not the ones responsible for the lack of drugs and supplies at primary health care centers. It is easier to make people hate homosexuals than to create social change. The sponsors of this bill are playing escapist politics. They choose to blame homosexuals for the moral degeneration in the country when what they should be doing [is] to find the root causes of the problems and finding solutions,” said Kalende.  


Aanne Mugisha, a Ugandan lawyer, human rights activist and a member of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), maintains a blog, and in one of her posts she quotes Dr. Sylvia Tamale’s presentation at a “public dialogue on the anti-homosexuality bill at Makerere University, in Nov, 2009, “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 being threatened, they will turn against the weaker groups in society.””


On the other side of the coin, is the mixing of religious tenets and civil law, a commingling forbidden in the U.S. as it would violate the separation of Church and State, which the evangelists sought, one to influence the other, in Uganda. Realizing that they were fast loosing ground to a strengthening and rising gay and lesbian community asserting their rights in the U.S., American evangelists decided to utilize every devious means to export their brand of extreme Christianity to vulnerable countries. The two terms of the Bush presidency, from 2000 to 2008, significantly advanced the Christian evangelists cause of strict morality beyond U.S. borders. This was apparent in the hogtying of African and other economically deprived countries dependent on U.S. aid, forcing all to conform to strict stipulations that American funding be contingent on compliance with abstinence only, anti-abortion, and anti-gay and anti-HIV treatment policies.


Members of the gay community world over are understandably horrified by the incidences of persecution of lesbians and gays in Uganda, as reported by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, SMUG; and from stories of individual gays and lesbians who have fled the country for fear of their lives. Moreover, while no one would or should attempt to minimize these incidences of persecution based on sexual orientation, it should be remembered that the hunting down and violence against homosexuals in Uganda mirrors, Jamaica, a country that has, with the government’s approval, persecuted those who are gay or lesbian. It is also important to note that Uganda and Jamaica were British colonies.


Nevertheless, as a country Uganda, with its deep religious divisions, is ripe and susceptible to American religious influence. In recent times, there has been a tendency for those in government to demonize or sexualize their political opponents with accusations of being gay or homosexual, or accusations of sexual immorality, as had been done to opponents of President Yoweri Museveni’s. Museveni seized power in 1986 and was elected president 10 years later.


A colonel in the Ugandan army, Kizza Besigye, challenged Museveni, and was charged with treason in 2001. After fleeing to the U.S., he returned to Uganda in 2005 to mount another challenge to the president, he was again arrested on treason and charged with rape; he was eventually acquitted of rape, but the treason charges are still being debated. With Besigye, who is a medical doctor, neutralized, Museveni assumed office again in 2006 for another term. The 1995 Uganda Constitution states that the president should serve no more than two terms, of five years each. Now, after fiddling with parts of the Constitution and with elections scheduled for 2011, as Museveni is attempting yet another term as president, one of his primary opponents, Olara Otunnu, has been accused of being gay.


Despite living in self-imposed exile in the U.S., Mugisha plans to return to Uganda as a candidate for public office, said, “The anti-homosexuality bill is intended to mask the true state of affairs, because if there is no focus on the length of his time in office, he [Museveni] would become the longest serving president.”


Since making her intentions known, she vehemently denied the calumnies being bandied about her, “I’m being accused of being a lesbian. I’m not a lesbian. I’m a mother of three children and I’m a heterosexual.”


The 50-year-old Otunnu is an advocate for children’s rights, especially those caught in conflicts zones. He was a former Ugandan ambassador to the United Nations and an UN Under-Secretary General whose resume reads like a Who’s Who of African diplomats. As a bachelor and since declaring his candidacy for president, Otunnu has been accused of being gay. Sources in Uganda claim that he is supposedly trying to find a wife to prove that he is not gay. However, of greater significance, should the anti-homosexuality bill continue and become law before the elections, then on the simple accusation – should Otunnu not find a wife to prove his heterosexuality – he would be arrested, imprisoned and disqualified; effectively as the opposition, he is removed from the electoral process. These accusations in Ugandan politics mirror those now facing Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister and a political opponent to the incumbent prime minister in Malaysia. Ibrahim is facing his second battery of charges of sodomizing one of his aids; the only difference here between Uganda and Malaysia, the latter is a predominantly Islamic country.


The opposition, led by Otunnu has been calling for greater accountability. Reports state that since Museveni has been in power, despite his many previous electoral promises, basic social services have not been met or those in existence have not been improved. There are calls from many people, including members of the opposition, for the investigation of several government ministers, who it is alleged have misappropriated and embezzled significant sums of money given to the country when it hosted the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Additionally, with the recent discoveries of oil, which promises untold riches for those in government, there has been no transparency in the bidding and contract award process especially for exploration, extraction, refinement, shipping and distribution.


In recent times Museveni has restored some of the traditional kingdoms, although only ceremonially, which were banned when Milton Obote (1966 to 1971) became president and maintained during the presidency of Idi Amin (1971 to 1979). With these restorations, Museveni now runs the risk of either the kings amassing power and influence to destabilize him, or he plans to employ the British tactic of divide and rule, to control the people: the Bugunda against the Baganda, both with longstanding animosities toward each other.


It is into this volatile mixture, which has become a confluence of circumstance, mostly created and stoked by the government, that David Bahati, a member of parliament and a member the Family Life Network, a branch of the secretive Washington, DC-based The Family, presented the anti-homosexuality bill in Oct 2009 (anti-homosexuality bill) that is making its way through parliament. When Bahati first introduced the bill, the president said he would support it. But, under pressure from foreign governments, Museveni has softened his stance to include mouthing platitudes that he would refuse to sign the bill if passed. He has made no effort to stop it from proceeding in committees. People familiar with the political process in Uganda suggest that the president is likely to continue stoking the flames of the anti-homosexuality bill as a tool to discredit his political rivals, create public hysteria, and do nothing for the benefit of the mounting international pressure, and still to appear to have reconsidered his position.