Monday, February 27, 2012

The President walks a tightrope over gay rights

Homosexuals - in small numbers - existed in Africa long before the continent came in contact with Europe and they were either tolerated or ignored.

So said President Museveni in conversation with the BBC's Stephen Sackur last week (quoted in The Daily Monitor 25/02/2012).

'I don't support promotion of homosexuality, but I do not support persecution or discrimination of homosexuals,' the President went on to say.

Last year, Uganda was branded by the BBC as 'the worst place in the world to be gay'. This sounds like an overstatement to us, given that homosexuality is illegal in 37 countries in Africa, not just Uganda (for example, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and Botswana), and is also illegal in 82 countries worldwide. It may just be that when you have been lying by the pool in Sharm-el-Sheikh you may not have been in the mood to think about the scores of homosexuals banged up in Egypt's prisons.

We are told by people who know these things that Kampala actually has quite a lively gay scene, and a number of organisations which quietly campaign for gay rights. Please note, this is NOT the same as 'promoting' homosexuality. Such groups operate under the radar of most Ugandans, but you certainly don't get the impression that active and persistent persecution of homosexuals is a prominent feature of Ugandan life.

What was being referred to in that catchy BBC programme title were two events last year:
  • the unsuccessful attempt by MP David Bahati to table a private member's bill proposing capital punishment for 'aggravated homosexuality' (defined as when one of the participants is a minor, HIV-positive, disabled or a "serial offender"); and
  • the murder of a well-known gay rights activist, David Kato. 
The latter was a nasty violent 'iron bar' murder. The perpetrator was tried and convicted. The judgement was that it was a failed robbery. I can't imagine many people believed that. The priest taking the funeral service preached against homosexuality. Clerics do that all the time here, but the circumstances in this case made such an inappropriate outburst insensitive to say the least.
Ugandan homosexuals quoted in the newspapers say that their lives have become more difficult since the Bill was first proposed in 2009. It was then that a tabloid newspaper took up the issue with a headline that encouraged its readers to "hang" homosexuals. In October 2010 it published the names, photos and addresses of more than 20 gay people.

Again it is important to point out that the serious press has not contained any articles like these. Indeed, there have been more articles expressing opposition to the Bill and concern over its potential impact than articles supporting it. The tabloid press in Uganda is not that much different from the tabloid press in the rest of the world. A country in which readers have lapped up the News of the World and the Sun can hardly look down its nose at a country which publishes Red Pepper, Red Onion or Bukedde.

Well, the notorious Bill, abandoned last year after an outcry at home and abroad, is back on the stocks again, though in a new form. It is important to remember that this is NOT a government bill, and is NOT supported by the Ugandan President, the Prime Minister or the Cabinet. The Bill is the personal obsession of Mr Bahati, although it has some support among other MPs. Bahati was previously a fairly obscure MP who has since gained fame and notoriety through his championing of the Bill.

Another politician who has also gained fame and notoriety is the Minister for Ethics and Integrity (yes, this 1984-sounding title is actually genuine!). Father Simon Lokodo, an ex-Catholic priest from Karamoja,  appears to be a bit of a loose ca(n)non, as shown when he, some supporters and the police burst into a meeting of about 30 gay people a couple of weeks ago in an Entebbe hotel organised by the group Freedom and Roam. He then broke it up, in full view of members of the press, foreign visitors and various well-known and respected locals. He claimed that the meeting was illegal and that homosexuality wasn't accepted in Uganda. He has also called for the arrest of Kashas Jacqueline Nabagasa, winner of the 2011 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders for calling him a liar when he went ahead and closed the workshop although he had earlier said that he simply wanted to speak to participants. As journalists have pointed out, the 1995 Constitution of Uganda allows for freedom of speech and association. Amnesty International has since called on the government to end such harassment of people engaged in 'lawful activities'.

After the raid the Minister said, “We tolerate [gays], we give them liberty and freedom to do their business, but we don’t like them to organize and associate.”

The previous Minister for Ethics and Integrity did something similar a year ago when he closed a workshop organised by Akina Mama, a civil rights group, to train sex workers in human rights and leadership.

Daniel Kalinaki, the respected editor of the Daily Monitor, who witnessed the Entebbe events has since written that what is happening in Uganda is a 'deliberate erosion of civil liberties and rights to assemble and express alternative points of view.' He points to the fact that meetings of teachers discussing strike action and walk-to work demonstrations have also been broken up. The government is aiming to institutionalise this approach by proposing the Public Order Management Bill, which would make it very difficult for people to meet and debate topical issues. These are humans rights issues, beyond simply the matter of anti-gay behaviour. Kalinaki's article has the headline 'Those who go after gays and sex workers will one day go after teachers and doctors.'

The new Bill proposes a life sentence (not the death penalty this time) for anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts for the second time and where one partner is a minor or has HIV. It also proposes to criminalise public discussion of homosexuality and would penalise an individual who knowingly rents property to a homosexual. Certainly, since it was mooted it has contributed to a rise in openly expressed homophobia.

The government has been trying to distance itself from the Bill, stating that it does not enjoy government support. The Uganda Media Centre published a government statement which questioned why Uganda was the subject of "mass international criticism" when the international community remained "mute in the face of far graver and far more draconian legislation relating to homosexuality in other countries", naming Saudi Arabia.

"Unlike many other countries, no-one in Uganda has ever been charged with the criminal offence of homosexuality," it said.

Certainly, no such cases have been reported in the press. Although there is no doubt that most Ugandans do not approve of homosexuality, they have shown little support for either the old or the new Bill and certainly don't go around dragging homosexuals off to police stations. The targets of that sort of behaviour have tended to be the political opposition. Nevertheless, what is more of a worry for homosexuals is the lynch mob, not the law or the policeman.

Of course, an accusation of homosexuality, or sodomy, is an ideal weapon to use against people you don't like. Hence the current court case involving four evangelical pastors, three of whom are accused of libelling the fourth by saying he was a sodomite. Christianity takes very strange forms in Uganda.

And before all you British and American readers start feeling terribly self-righteous, remember there is still plenty of prejudice about homosexuality in both your countries despite its being legal. It takes a long time to change atavistic feelings. It was only a few years ago since the law was changed in the United Kingdom: in 1967 in England and Wales, and as late as 1981 in Scotland and 1982 in Northern Ireland - well within the lifetimes of this blog's readers. Every few months British newspapers report yet another incident of 'gay-bashing'. The prejudice against homosexuality is still deeply ingrained in some sections of British society: think about the footballer Justin Fashanu's experiences before his eventual suicide.

What makes the homosexuality discussion so peculiar in Uganda, however, is the bizarre view that western countries are trying to make Ugandans homosexual - the 'promotion of homosexuality' that is constantly being referred to and to which the President alluded in his statement to the BBC.  By picking up that phrase in the middle of a statement about tolerance, he was sending out a message to his people that he hadn't forgotten their concerns.

It is not clear what the west might have to gain from forcing homosexuality on unwilling Africans. Anti-gay propaganda asserts that homosexuals 'recruit' young people by paying them money to become homosexual, and many otherwise perfectly sane and sensible Ugandans actually believe this. Where this ludicrous, naive and groundless view comes from, we have no idea.

In Uganda, far from the west being responsible for promoting homosexuality, what has actually been introduced from the west has been prejudice against homosexuals. It is said that Mr Bahati has strong links with American evangelicals.  UK-based Justice for Gay Africans campaign group co-ordinator, Godwyns Onwuchekwa, told the BBC that hostility toward gay people has worsened in Africa as the result of activity by US Christian evangelical groups.

This preaching of a 'gospel of hate' is a far cry from the vision of the nineteenth century missionaries who brought Christianity to this country, limited though it may have been. It is also an evil twisting of Christ's gospel of love, based on simplistic and literal misinterpretations of obscure Old Testament texts by poorly educated ministers of religion. The low level of education in this country has a lot to answer for.

The evangelical lobby in Uganda, particularly the 'born-agains', is very powerful, financially and politically, and was behind the introduction of the 2009 Bill. Nigerian clerics are also very influential in Uganda, and they too are supported financially and otherwise by US churches opposed to gay bishops. The Nigerian Senate has just approved a bill to further criminalise homosexuality, the only cause in Nigeria which seems to unite Christians and Muslims. Nigeria, like Uganda, was most put out by David Cameron's threat to cut aid as a result and accused the UK of interfering neo-colonialism.

So, where does President Museveni stand on all this?

President Museveni is a sophisticated politician who has operated in an international context for many years now. The west has for a long time regarded him as one of the most respected African politicians. When he first took power, he was lauded by Britain as one of the new-style African politicians. That plaudit may seem a little threadbare 26 years later, but there is now doubt about his status within African and international politics. What is clear is that he has shown little public sign of sympathy with the anti-gay lobby.

The President will have no desire for his country to become an international pariah. He is only too well aware how naive, intolerant and ignorant his countrymen's views appear when broadcast on the world media. Furthermore, for most of his 26 year rule, his country has received 75% of its budget from the west and even though that proportion has now fallen to less than half, it is still a substantial amount.

Only a couple of days ago it was announced that the USA is to contribute Shs920 billion to reduce maternal mortality by 50% in four districts of western Uganda by the end of the year. Last summer, Uganda lost a notable amount of aid targeted at HIV/AIDs projects because of the previous anti-gay Bill. Aid money has been removed from other areas of the government's work, specifically education (for example by the Netherlands and the World Bank), because of weaknesses in governance. Uganda can ill afford to lose more of its financial support.

The west has not held back from expressing publicly its views of Uganda's position on gay rights. The US and UK have already warned that they would use foreign aid to push for homosexuality to be decriminalised in Africa.
  • Last year, Mr Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan gay activist, was presented a Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington, the first time the award was bestowed on an advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
  • In December, President Barack Obama said that fighting discrimination against gays should be at the forefront of American diplomacy. He described the abandoned Bill as 'odious'.
  • When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in Geneva at the International Human Rights Day last year she called for the rights of gay people to be respected. "Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world," Mrs Clinton said. "Being gay is not a Western invention. It is a human reality." She is right. Many Africans actually do not know that homosexuality is not something you choose; it is something which you are born with. Between 6% and 10% of the population have no choice about the matter. We're back to the disastrous impact of a dysfunctional education system.
  • Last month UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told African leaders at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa that they must respect gay rights. "One form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity," he said.
And it is not just western and UN diplomats and politicians who are making noises. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki has criticised Bahati’s anti-gay Bill, telling a public audience in Kampala that what two consenting adults do in private “is really not the matter of law.”

However, the President also doesn't like his country being pushed around, as he sees it, by the west, hence some of his recent statements. And others in his circle have made similar remarks, for example John Nagenda, one of his advisers, who said, "That fellow [Mr Cameron] said the same thing. Now this woman [Mrs Clinton] is interfering.' Any opinions about the way African countries govern themselves are seen here as 'neo-colonialist'. There is also a real danger that bills like Uganda's will be end up being passed out of sheer cussedness, or - to put it more politely - as a sign of African defiance in the face of its former colonial masters.

However, the President's statements are aimed as much at his own people as at the British and Americans. He is walking a tightrope, between the emotive posturing of a small but vocal section of his own people and the reasoned arguments of international politicians and diplomats. He cannot risk losing the support of people here. The Presidency is going through a very difficult patch just now. Ten of the15 top Cabinet Ministers have just been lost to corruption charges. The quality press is full of critical articles suggesting that State House has known more about the various bribery cases than has been admitted publicly. There have been scandals about MPs' new cars, about oil deals and about corruption in the education service.

Indeed, it could be - and has been - said that the government actually NEEDS the Bahati sideshow, as it distracts attention from all this political turmoil. More seriously, however, it also distracts attention from the really important issues facing Uganda today: the issues of child protection, health and education. Fifty per cent of the Ugandan population is under 15. There is a danger of their needs being ignored while an issue concerning perhaps six per cent of the adult population takes all the limelight. The country's health, education and child protection systems are disintegrating. The number of girls raped at school by their teachers, at home by their fathers and brothers and in their villages by members of their communities is beyond belief. The gaps between the urban and rural areas and the rich and the poor are growing exponentially. However, if all eyes turn to the anti-gay Bill, then perhaps no one will notice all these other  problems. One telling issue is that the main provisions of the new Bill deal with defilement and rape, a far more pressing and urgent issue, but all the attention has been on homosexuality.

What may also happen is what journalists like Jackee Batanda (a Ugandan writing in the Boston Globe) has pointed out: 'tying aid to LGBT tolerance directly feeds into the popular rhetoric that homosexuality is a Western import - and contravenes African morals. Already, statements abound in social media that the West can keep its aid; Africa will not lose her morality because of Western aid.' (LGBT: lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender.)

Mind you, there is another side to that argument. It is not uncommon for frustrated westerners working in Uganda to say, 'Well, if they don't like what the west is doing then they shouldn't accept our money'. 

Batanda suggests that 'withdrawing US aid seems to be an ineffective way to deal with an issue that has roots in Western-based evangelical groups pushing an anti-homosexuality agenda.' The United States, she says, 'should clean its own backyard' and deal with the evangelical groups responsible for firing up the anti-LGBT activists. 
Everyone recognises that withholding aid to African countries would lead to huge cuts in health care, education, and other important sectors. Removal of aid would have a disproportionate effect on the weak and powerless. Batanda suggests that if the West is keen on cutting aid, it should be based on a 'broad spectrum of human-rights violations and tagged with stricter demands that countries adhere to all human rights freedoms'.

So, the President has a lot of competing pressures to contend with. Let's hope he stays on the tightrope.

As for us, we think that ordinary Ugandans are more concerned with feeding and educating their children than with the antics of the anti-gay lobby or the persecution of homosexuals. At the end of the day, their lives will be affected more by the freedoms and rights afforded to them by their government than by the tiny possibility that a homosexual couple may move in next door.

You may also be interested in:

Stephen Sackur's BBC interview with President Museveni about gay rights.

Daniel Kalinaki's article 'Those who go after gays and sex workers will one day go after teachers and doctors' in the Daily Monitor

Martin Ssempa's response to this article 'Sodomites, prostitutes should not be equated to teachers and doctors' in the Daily Monitor

Dr Hilda Tadria's article 'Story behind closure of Entebbe workshop was misrepresented' in the Daily Monitor

Jackee Batanda's article for the Boston Globe 'Cutting aid to Africa won't help gay rights'

Dayo Olopade's article Gay Bashing: a Government Diversion in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times

Uganda activists sue US pastor (News 24)

The following posts also touch on aspects of the gay debate:

Public relations Ugandan-style

Young, female and the world at their feet...perhaps

Christian celebrations in Kampala December 2010

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