“Gay-Bashing, a Government Diversion,” New York Times, 22 February 2012.
Gay rights in Uganda are a stand-in for other freedoms that unnerve the powerful.
KAMPALA, Uganda — On Feb. 7, Uganda took again the same large step backward it had taken in 2009. The member of parliament David Bahati (pictured) reintroduced his anti-homosexuality bill. The proposed legislation would impose a life sentence for any consensual same-sex act and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes same-sex acts by a person with H.I.V. or with a minor. Gays in Uganda are seeking refuge in neighboring Kenya and farther abroad.
It isn’t easy being gay almost anywhere in Africa: homosexuality is criminalized in 37 countries on the continent. But even against that backdrop, Uganda has distinguished itself for its hostility to same-sex freedoms.
Last week, just on the tail of the reemergence of Bahati’s “Kill the Gays” bill — and about a year after the gay-rights activist David Kato was murdered in Kampala — Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s minister for ethics and integrity, physically broke up a conference of gay-rights activists. Lokodo, a former Catholic priest, appeared with police officers at a retreat for Freedom and Roam, evicting them from a hotel room in Entebbe.
To hear some Ugandans tell it, the resurrection of official gay-bashing is a handy distraction from more troubling ethical lapses in the halls of power. Official abuses of authority and neglect of development goals stretch from municipal councils to the presidency.
Last year, the government spent more than $500 million on new military planes while failing to build, staff or maintain maternity hospitals. This year, parliament approved payments of 103 million Ugandan shillings (about $45,000) per representative in order for each to buy a new car. A recent wave of influence-peddling scandals has left seven cabinet positions vacant. In this climate, it seems curious that Lokodo, whose portfolio includes both “gay issues” and dealing with corruption in government, should invest such personal interest in the former and not the latter.
The Ugandan journalists and politicos I’ve been speaking to this month find the debate over gay rights distressing. To justify his bill, Bahati has said that “the people of Uganda are anxiously looking to parliament to protect the children.” But others counter that homosexuality is of little concern to ordinary Ugandans. “Uganda is more frustrated about the negative publicity” than about the substance of the bill, says one consultant in the telecommunications sector.
Even in this religiously conservative country, churches expend more energy urging good works and honest dealings than stigmatizing gay citizens. Bishop Fredrick Sheldon Mwesigwa has preached against corruption. “It is a shame for the officials enjoying all the government privileges to swindle public funds when others are suffering,” Mwesigwa said in a Christmas homily.
The long-serving President Yoweri Museveni, meanwhile, has disavowed parliament’s activity both times the Bahati bill has been considered, primarily, it seems, out of fear that gay-bashing might endanger foreign aid from rights-conscious donors like the United States and Britain. That’s not to say he and his cohort don’t benefit from this culture-war sideshow: three days before Bahati’s bill resurfaced this month, the president signed a controversial new oil contract. Last year, after a series of opaque agreements with foreign companies, parliament had ruled that no new production-sharing agreements were to be signed until a comprehensive regulatory regime had been established. The president’s office, insisting that an engagement with the British energy company Tullow Oil pre-dated the moratorium, went ahead anyway.
“You’d think that the government, given pressure regarding the oil sector, would begin the legislative session with the oil reforms,” says Angelo Izama, an experienced Ugandan journalist on the oil beat. “But they began with the gay bill. It’s not accidental.” The semi-successful diversion, coupled with disregard for parliamentary procedures, illustrates the lack of checks on the behavior of the Museveni government.
Which is also why Lokodo’s raid in Entebbe matters. Even if there are genuinely divergent opinions on gay rights in Uganda, the issue has become a stand-in for other freedoms that unnerve the powers that be. The columnist Daniel Kalinaki connects the Entebbe incident to the government’s nervousness about Ugandans exercising the right of free speech and free assembly. “[T]he meeting was broken up not because the participants were involved in homosexuality — which remains a crime on our books — but because the minister did not like what they were discussing.” Lokodo doesn’t even deny this. After the raid, he said: “We tolerate [gays], we give them liberty and freedom to do their business, but we don’t like them to organize and associate.”
A new “public order management” bill, also under consideration in parliament, would allow the government to further constrain the ability of individuals to assemble.
As this bill and the Bahati one move through parliament, the political class would do well to remember that, unlike them, Ugandans care less about the behavior of gay people than about the behavior of government.