Uganda: Anti-Homosexuality Bill update

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Within a few months of the last Datacide going to press, the Anti-Homosexuality (AH) Bill was passed into law by the Ugandan government. In that issue, the article Confessions of an Accidental Activist cited a senior government insider suggesting that the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, was using the bill as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the ‘international community’ (i.e. Western donor nations). He could use his control over the AH Bill as part of international negotiations on economic and geopolitical issues, such as control of oil revenues, regional conflict and the security of his tenure. At the same time, expressing support for the Bill domestically would help secure fundamentalist-religious voting blocs ahead of the 2016 elections, which will mark 30 years of rule by Museveni’s National Resistance Movement. The president will thereby be seen to be standing on a platform of ‘traditional African values’ opposed to the decadent, domineering Western imperialists who are forcing homosexuality on Africans under the guise of human rights. The rabid homophobia rhetorically subsumed under these ‘African values’ is, ironically, an import from the US evangelist movement, whose influence on the population of Uganda is perhaps as significant as that of the Western donors.

Here was a skilful post-colonial balancing act for the president: appearing internationally as the guardian of order over an intolerant and fractious society, while pandering domestically to the most cynical demagogues of that same society. So, many were surprised that Museveni had finally tipped the balance and allowed the Bill to pass into law. How had the president achieved this without alienating the liberal donors?

Given that much of the opposition to the Bill came from a progressive-rationalist perspective, including biological arguments that homosexuality is an innate trait, President Museveni chose to endorse the Bill only after commissioning scientific research into the issue. His conclusions were starkly phrased in terms of social conditioning, in which he placed great faith: ‘Since nurture is the main cause of homosexuality, then society can do something about it to discourage the trends. That is why I have agreed to sign the bill’ (1).

This bombshell was dropped publicly in full knowledge that donor nations would react negatively and withdraw direct funding, which indeed some did. At the same time, the sinister Anti-Pornography Bill was passed into law. This latter legislation is actually far more draconian and far-reaching than the AH Bill, effectively giving the state the power to close down any media outlets. Like the dictatorial Public Order Act of 2013, the Anti-Porn Bill was made law by parliament with minimal attention from the international media, despite the grave implications for the future of Ugandan democracy. This is arguably because, compared to LGBTI rights, Pornography and Public Order are not issues that ignite such a disproportionately useful indignation amongst Western readers. It is most telling that we have heard not a murmur from Western leaders on the Pornography and Public Order Acts, while Obama explicitly condemned the Homosexuality Bill as ‘odious’.

The phantom menace of homosexuality is being used by leaders in post-colonial Africa to rally their constituencies behind a nationalist, traditionalist flag (‘African values vs. Western decadence’) while distracting everyone from more serious, intractable problems. Naturally, the ruling sectors of liberal societies, including celebrities and politicians, play the same trick from the other side. Their constituencies are reassured by their commitment to promoting sexual diversity, while in reality they are very cosy with the Ugandan regime they condemn. Obama and Cameron may cry foul at the AH Bill, but they badly need Uganda’s unmatchable military presence in Somalia and the Great Lakes region, not to mention its oil supplies. Museveni has also provided consistent stability and economic growth in what was the war-torn centre of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Would the ‘international community’ really sacrifice all of that for the rights of a few turbulent gays?

The latest twist in this soap opera is the widely-reported judgement from the High Court of Uganda that the AH Bill has been overturned as unconstitutional – not because it contradicts Article 29 (1) (a) of the Constitution concerning freedom of expression, nor because it flies in the face of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights concerning sexual orientation – but on the technical grounds that it was passed without full quorum in parliament (i.e. not enough MPs bothered to turn up to vote in the House on the day) (2) . This leaves plenty of space for a dramatic sequel – should Museveni need one – in which the Ugandan government votes the Bill through with the full quorum. Then the president would have to find other grounds or agents to revoke it, and so continue the profitable saga…

One potentially positive sign, from the perspective of LGBTI rights, is that the Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, was the first person to publicly point out that the vote on the Bill was constitutionally illegitimate. Although he also did not raise any substantive objection in terms of the contents of the Bill (i.e. in terms of constitutional freedoms), it was encouraging to see such a senior party figure not simply being cynically homophobic, like most other Ugandan politicians. It also revealed the power-play inside the party with regard to the Western donors: the PM demonstrated his respect for the constitution and his implicit sympathy for sexual minorities, thereby doubly indicating his suitability for the presidential office to the liberal international community, ahead of the next election – an example of how every concession won in favour of civil rights in Uganda seems to involve some shadowy realpolitik.

Likewise, while it was encouraging to see the judiciary apparently playing fair in upholding this petition against the Bill, it was disappointing to observe that the judiciary did not pass comment on the substantive nature of the petition, thus apparently seeming unconcerned about freedom of expression and sexual orientation, and also leaving the way open for another vote on the Bill in parliament. The judiciary of Uganda is relatively liberal and cosmopolitan; acting on their own interpretation of the constitution, they may have overturned the Bill on substantive grounds. The pressure they bowed to in overturning the Bill on technical grounds alone was possibly more social than political – 90% of Ugandans allegedly supported the Bill, such was the success of the homophobic brigade in their campaign.

There are also indications that potential damage to Uganda’s image as an ethical trading partner and ally may have influenced Museveni’s strategising on the issue. The timing here was telling: the petition to overturn the Bill was heard by the Ugandan courts just before important trade talks relating to the international cotton and fashion industry, and also just before the latest US-Africa summit in Washington (3). The prospect of a boycott on Ugandan cotton products would be as tiresome as being lectured – yet again – on sexual politics by Obama, Cameron and the Scandinavians, when they were supposed to be discussing the latest shipment of crowd control gear and exactly who was going to win the 2016 election.

Endnotes:
(1) ‘President Museveni’s speech at Anti-gay Bill signing’, New Vision, 24.2.14, http://bit.ly/1yXOuDP
(2) ‘Uganda court overturns anti-gay law’, Al-Jazeera, 2.8.14 http://aje.me/1qVbR2C
(3) ‘Kicking out the Anti-Gay Bill’, The Independent (Uganda), 10.8.14, http://bit.ly/1yY3i5A

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