A Parliament largely defined by a marked partisan divide was surprisingly unanimous late on Friday, as it passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
The bill had been shelved three times, in 2009, 2011 and 2013. But its passing opens a huge rift with donors, who have previously threatened to cut aid, and the executive, which was caught unawares. Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi stormed the House moments before the bill was passed, protesting without much effect.
Mbabazi had walked out of the chambers earlier after Parliament had passed the Plants Varieties Protection Bill, apparently unaware the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was up next. He soon rushed back to complain that the government was still consulting on some clauses, and that the House didn't have the number of MPs required to pass the law.
"I was not aware that this bill was on the order paper; we have a few issues on which we are consulting... we would not want to have it pass without quorum," Mbabazi said.
But he was booed by many, including ministers. Mbabazi seemed puzzled by the fact that even his own opposed him.
"We passed several bills yesterday [Thursday] with less numbers, why didn't you stop us that there was no quorum?" Katerera MP Hatwib Katoto wondered.
When Mbabazi resumed his seat, he pulled out his copy of the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure and consulted cabinet colleagues, only to be shocked to see his fellow ministers cheering when Kadaga ruled against his wish.
"I think there was an opportunity to consult on this bill for so many years. The next chance will come at the time of (Presidential) assent; for us let us do our work," Kadaga ruled.
Mbabazi stormed out and stood at the Central lobby, waiting to address journalists.
A cabinet minister who declined to be named, said at the weekend that in the wake of the passage of the legislation, ministers had been asked not to comment about the law. The official line is that if the position of government is made clear on a private member's bill, it may be misunderstood by the international community.
But Frank Tumwebaze, the minister for the Presidency, said: "The president is still consulting on the matter though I can say that he is [known] to stand up for a position that creates harmony."
The private member's bill was promoted by MPs David Bahati (Ndorwa West) and Benson Obua-Ogwal (Moroto county). It was first tabled in Parliament on October 14, 2009, triggering wide condemnation especially from the pro-gay lobby, human rights activists, and Western countries in general.
It was shelved then, re-introduced in 2011 and shelved again because government asked for more time to consult. It was also shelved this year until it was quietly re-introduced last Friday.
But promoters of the bill were encouraged by the recent passage of similar laws in Russia and Nigeria. Sources said the final onslaught was planned mid last week, and on Thursday evening. The bill's promoters sent out messages to supportive MPs from both NRM and opposition.
"I went to bed knowing that this bill was coming up, they sent me a message yesterday [Thursday]," Dr Lulume Bayigga (DP, Buikwe South) told The Observer.
At least four MPs: Fox Odoi (West Budama North), Sam Otada (Kibanda), Krispus Ayena (Oyam North) and Abdul Katuntu (Bugweri) were known to be against the bill, having dissented from the position of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee, and wrote a minority report against the bill. The minority report was, however, signed only by Odoi and Otada, who were not in the House to defend their position.
"I was not aware that it was coming because it [was] not reflected on the [hard] copy and the electronic copy of the order paper that was sent to my email," Odoi said when contacted.
As Parliament voted to pass the bill, Bahati, the promoter, paced the corridors, following proceedings on TV, and only appeared after it was passed to join his colleagues in celebration.
"This is the perfect Christmas gift we could give Ugandans, I want to thank the speaker for her courage that led to the passing of this bill," Bahati told journalists.
He later told The Observer that it was tactical not to include the bill on the order paper because they feared government would block it.
"We knew that if it were to be included on the order paper, they [government] would scheme against it, it was in our plan that members request for it and the speaker uses her prerogative to have it included on the order paper," Bahati told us on Friday.
Indeed, Kadaga told the House that the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee had told her that it had so many reports that were ready for consideration by the House. She then invited Paul Mwiru (Jinja Municipality East) to present the report on the bill.
The passing of the bill was greeted with as much elation as surprise.
"Parliament has done Uganda proud, I thank God for the resilience of our MPs," said Pastor Martin Ssempa, a renowned anti-gay activist.
Ssempa was part of the group that planned the final onslaught. He said the plot was hatched on Wednesday, but they agreed to keep it secret.
"If we had let it out, we couldn't have handled the resistance of gay activists; by this time, this place [Parliament] would be flooded by whites resisting the law," he said.
The bill was passed with some amendments such clause 3(2) reducing the punishment from death to life in prison for anyone convicted of aggravated homosexuality. Clauses 14, 15 and 16 that largely provided for prosecution of a Ugandan who commits the vice outside Ugandan boundaries were also dropped.
Despite his protestations in the House, Mbabazi insists government is not opposed to the law.
"We are not opposed to the bill, but there are some sections that we wanted to consult on," he said.
But Odoi hinted at the possibility of challenging it in court: "The state has no role to play in the affairs of people's bedrooms. If two adults are in consent to live together in a relationship, the state can't determine for them how they should have sex."
Reacting to the passage of the bill, Makerere University Law lecturer Kabumba Busingye said it would be difficult to enforce and that it breached Article 43 of the Constitution.
"The Article says that limitation on the enjoyment of rights in regard to public interest has to be demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society. What the [bill] says violates this provision of the Constitution and if it is inconsistent to it, it is null and void."
Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, regretted the MPs' act.
"The implementation of this law would contravene essential principles of non-discrimination enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, both ratified by Uganda. I urge the Ugandan authorities to ensure respect of the principle of non-discrimination, guaranteed in the Ugandan Constitution, and to preserve a climate of tolerance for all minorities in Uganda."