The Independent (Kampala)

6 March 2014

Uganda: Will Homosexuals Bring Down Museveni?

In April 2013, the global human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, published a report entitled: "Making love a crime: Criminalisation of same sex conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa" in which Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha gave very emotional testimony. One day, he narrated, he was out shopping when a man walked up to him and slapped him hard across the face.

He is a homosexual," Mugisha recalls the man shouting the reason for the attack.

Mugisha narrated how the tyres of his car were slashed and how his landlord kicked him out of a house, and the shopkeeper in his neighbourhood refused to sell to him.

"We also had problems with our neighbours," Mugisha said, "Our old neighbours said to me, 'why are you still alive?'" That was in 2011.

Two years later, on Feb.24, 2014, President Yoweri Museveni struck a sharp slap across the face of the global LGBT community when he signed the Anti-homosexuality Act 2014. Feeling betrayed; they are hitting back in more ways than he could have imagined.

The most incensed are a group of U.S.-based rights activists who had met with Museveni in January.

One of those in attendance was Santiago Canton; the Executive Secretary of the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights.

Canton, according to an AP report, says Museveni categorically told them he would not sign the Bill because "this Bill is a fascist Bill".

"Those were the first words that came out of his mouth," AP quotes Canton.

Barely a month later, Museveni signed it. Those who feel betrayed are now pushing for firm action against Museveni.

"Quiet diplomacy up to the final moment clearly has failed," says Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch who has been based in Uganda for a long time. She told AP that donor countries taking a softie-softie stance with gay bashers like Museveni are to blame.

"We need a better strategy," said Julie Dorf, senior adviser at the Council for Global Equality. "We do believe that our government here in the U.S. needs to ramp up the potential consequences that countries might face for these regressive anti-human rights measures. I have no doubt that President Museveni watched very carefully what happened after President [Goodluck] Jonathan signed the Nigeria bill. And the truth is, there wasn't much of a reaction."

Harsh reaction

As a result of such advocacy, the international backlash against Uganda is likely to be harsh.

Although, by his signature at State House Entebbe that morning, Museveni was merely confirming Uganda's position on a long list of 38 out of 54 African countries where homosexuality is criminalised, the backlash has already proved to be unprecedented.

The World Bank, which has a strong presence in Uganda with a portfolio of projects worth about US$1.5 billion, immediately withheld a US$90 million loan for the health sector that was due to be approved on Feb.27.

Representatives of 18 European donor countries on Feb.28 issued a stern intent to withhold aid. They represented Sweden, Canada, Britain, Ireland, and Italy. Others were France, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The U.S., which annually injects about US$400 million in Uganda, says it is reviewing ties.

"What is happening in Uganda is atrocious and it presents all of us with an enormous challenge because LGBT rights are human right and the signing of this anti-homosexuality law is flat out morally wrong," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Feb. 26. He added: "You could change focus of this legislation to black or Jewish and you could be in the 1930s Germany or you could be in 1950s-1960s apartheid South Africa. It was wrong there egregiously in both places and is wrong here."

Those were strong words. But it is what he said next which should worry the Uganda government. Kerry said: "This anti-gay movement is obviously bubbling up in various places around the world; it is not just an African problem, it's a global problem, and we are wrestling with it and we are going to as we go forward." Kerry's statement means what Uganda faces is not 'business as usual'. Museveni is familiar with the sting of donor cuts on the economy. Donors fund 25% of the budget and, in 2012 his government was forced to review its budget after they withheld about US$180 million in direct budget support over corruption in the Office of the Prime Minister. Hundreds of civil servants went without pay for months. The aid cuts also slashed 0.7% off Uganda's GDP growth projections.

Although Museveni's spin-doctors claim aid cuts will this time be 'nominal' and for a limited period as donors play to their domestic pro-gay audiences, the reality is likely to be grimmer.

That is why the spin-doctors' other line of defense; that Uganda can sustain its budget even if donors cut aid, had better stand the test.

Economy faces test

Donor cuts are coming in at the wrong time for Museveni. First, Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) revenue projections for this financial year show that the authority will be below its set revenue target by Shs 400 billion (US$ 170m). Secondly, with Museveni having launched his 2016 presidential election campaign this early, the demand for cash on the president must be very high.

On the day Museveni signed the Anti-gay law, the shilling reversed a nine month strong-showing since June 2013 when it traded at Shs2,595 to the Shs2,470 it was trading in February before the announcement. After the signing the dollar surged to trade at Shs2,530; the first time it was trading above the Shs2500 mark in four months and attempts by BoU to prop up the shilling continued to flounder.

Before the signing, the World Bank, IMF, and the Bank of Uganda had constantly reported a positive outlook for Uganda's economic recovery and growth. In a December 2013 monetary policy report, BoU predicted 2014/15 to be 6.6% up from 6.2% in 2013/14 and 5.8% in 2012/13. The positive outlook was based on macro-economic stability and a return of donor budget support. That is all now threatened.

These challenges are happening when early production of its Uganda's newly discovered oil is also under threat as one of the main players, Tullow Oil, has publicly criticised the slow pace and threatened to quit.

These developments amplify what Museveni said at the signing; that Uganda is now at the frontline against those fighting the anti-gay movement across the globe. Uganda will most likely be made a test case. The question is why?

Homosexual lobby betrayed?

Part of the reason is that Uganda under Museveni has, until now, taken a liberal, progressive, pro-democratic posture which offered marginalised groups a lot of hope.

Most LGBT people believe that hatred and prejudices against them are grounded in ignorance. They believe that if society gives them a chance and their neighbours, friends, and workmates get to know them better, they will inevitably accept their sexual orientation and behavior.

According to them, Uganda looked to offer that under Museveni. The LGBT community believed they could achieve recognition if they "pushed the envelope". The feeling was strong that instead of becoming more anti-gay, Uganda would join countries like Seychelles, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Kenya, Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa which have in the last 10 years either decriminalised homosexuality, outlawed discrimination, or allowed same-sex marriages.

That is why they took their cases to cases to the courts of law and lobbied parliament vigorously.

This expectation was especially valid because it was Museveni in 1986 that launched a national campaign to fight the stigma Ugandan society attached to people with HIV/AIDS with startling success. By promoting open debate on matters of sex and sexuality even among pupils in schools, Museveni was able to create awareness that was vital for any preventive campaign against a disease that had no cure. Yet the same Museveni signed a law that criminalises people who defend gay rights.

When on October 14, 2009, a little known legislator from Ndorwa West Constituency in Western Uganda introduced a far-right private members Bill entitled "The Anti-homosexuality Bill 2009", the gay lobby run to the President to block it.

When it gained notoriety as the "Kill the gays Bill" and was shelved for four years in spite of Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga's self-declared intention to have it passed as soon as possible as "a Christmas gift to Ugandans", the LGBT sighed in relief.

When the Minister of Ethics and Integrity attacked them at their workshops in Entebbe and other places and threatened NGOs supporting them, they bravely sued him.

When a little-known trashy tabloid called The Rollingstone, in its second and last edition in October 2010, published a list of 100 alleged homosexuals in Uganda under the title: "Hang them", the LGBT community sued. The plaintiff was a leading LGBT activist, David Kato Kisule. There was jubilation when he won the case. The triumph was short-lived, however, as Kato was on January 11, 2011, murdered by his own ex-boyfriend.

As mark of its growing confidence, the LGBT community, in August the same year, held their first-ever gay parade in Uganda in Entebbe. Invitation cards were bought by over 250 people and 100 attended. That was a big number.

For a number of reasons, it is difficult to know the exact number of homosexuals in Uganda. But a figure of about 500,000 or 1.4% of the population is often used as an estimate by gay rights groups. The government disputes they are that many. Statistics indicate that 500,000 would be a low figure for a population of 36 million. In the U.S. where such information is routinely gathered, the gay population is about 3% of the population in most states.

Alexis Okeowo, a researcher who had spent a year studying the LGBT community in Uganda as an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow, blogged about the Entebbe gay parade in the online edition of influential, elite culture, American magazine, The New Yorker.

He said he was "surprised to see that the narrative had made yet another unexpected turn".

"We couldn't have done this kind of thing two years ago, and for those that were here back then, they almost can't believe things are safer and better now," said Cleo to Okeowo.

Okeowo described how Frank Mugisha, the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda and recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award 2011, appeared dressed in a sailor's costume with a rainbow sash and called himself Captain Pride.

Okeowo wrote: "He told me, 'I just wish I had a switch to turn on that would make everyone who's gay say they are gay. Then everyone who is homophobic can realise their brothers, their sisters, and their aunts are gay.' He confessed that he was shocked to see so many people in attendance."

Even when the police finally arrive and arrested a few people, they released them almost immediately.

"This is who we are. We are here to stay. And we are not going anywhere," Okeowo quoted one of the revelers.

The gay community felt it was making progress in Uganda. Kato had been interviewed by US filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall. The duo produced a film, Call Me Kuchu, documenting Kato's life which premiered to favourable reviews at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 11, 2012.

Another short film using footage from Call Me Kuchu, entitled: "They Will Say We Are Not Here", was posted to the New York Times website on the first anniversary of Kato's death. Such progress made Museveni's dramatic switch feel like betrayal to many LGBTs.

Local values versus global rights

But Museveni's government might also be hit hard partly because of the way it is "mixing up" issues. Museveni says those penalising him for criminalising homosexuality are engaged in "social imperialism" and are trying "to impose social values of one group on our society."

"I would advise Western countries, this is a no-go area," he said as he signed the Bill into law, "I don't mind being in a collision course with the West. I am prepared."

But, instead of framing the issue as a "clash of values" or beliefs in what is right or wrong, Museveni's challengers express their demands in terms of human rights.

That is why secretary of State Kerry likened the Anti-homosexual law to Nazi-German denial of the rights of Jews and apartheid South Africa's denial of the rights of blacks.

In their 2013 report: "Making love a crime: Criminalisation of same sex conduct in Sub-Saharan Africa", Amnesty International listed rights that the LGBT community members are routinely denied.

They include the right to non-discrimination and equality before the law, the right to life, freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly and association, and the right to private life. The others are the right to security of the person and the right to marry and found a family.

The "values" defense has left Uganda caught up in a growing anarchist tendency in the government that has left Museveni fumbling to justify signing the Bill.

Museveni has pointed out that he was initially opposed to the passing of the Bill. Even on the day it was passed by parliament, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi who is the leader of government business, attempted to protest. He said the Bill had been passed irregularly, without quorum. But those MPs in favour overpowered him.

"We have passed many other Bills in a similar manner," one of them told reporters, "But the prime minister has never complained; why this one?"

But Mbabazi is not giving up.

Almost a week after Museveni signed the law, Mbabazi told journalists his view is that it was "not necessary" as there was already a similar law on the books. The confusion between the Museveni-Mbabazi positions reflects the greater confusion in the government.

Even as he signed the new law under the watchful gaze of international media, Museveni kept asking his officials to clarify points to him. "What does the old law say," he asked. What about the section implicating those who fail to report offenders; was that removed? Sadly, even the officials he asked were equally unprepared.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Asuman Kiyingi, who postured as the most informed legal mind at the event confessed he did not have the answers. He offered to check the law afterwards.

The official press statement from Museveni's office makes matters worse.

Museveni's statement says in part: "I thought that it would be wrong to punish somebody because of how he was created, disgusting though it may be to us. That is why I refused to sign the Bill."

Then he adds: "After exhaustive studies, it has been found that homosexuality is in two categories: there are those who engage in homosexuality for mercenary reasons on account of the under - developed sectors of our economy that cause people to remain in poverty, the great opportunities that abound not withstanding; and then there are those that become homosexual by both nature (genetic) and nurture (up-bringing)."

This appears to suggest that Museveni believes some Ugandans "choose" to engage in homosexual acts, while others are genetically predisposed to be gay and might be nurtured that way.

But then Museveni's statement adds: "We reject the notion that somebody can be homosexual by choice; that a man can choose to love a fellow man; that sexual orientation is a matter of choice."

If "sexual orientation is (not) a matter of choice", according to Museveni, then in must be genetic. Why then is he punishing it if he thinks it is "wrong to punish somebody because of how he was created"?

Emerging dictatorship

Part of the reason is that Museveni's government is focused on regime survival. It has eyes on the 2016 elections.

Unfortunately, this attitude foments the growing perception that anti-gay legislation is part of a roll back of the 1990s trend towards greater political liberalism and democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Museveni's government is now being perceived as the new poster-child of resurging despotism.

Significantly, in the latest Freedom in the World report 2014 published on Feb.27 by Freedom House, Uganda's political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 due to arrests of opposition leaders and a new law aimed at restricting free assembly by the opposition and civil society.

Freedom House, an NGO funded largely by the U.S. government, noted that Uganda had stepped up its harassment of critical media, with a 10-day shutdown of a leading newspaper in May 2013, and of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, with the parliament's passage of a harshly punitive Anti-Homosexuality Bill in December.

According to Freedom House, such behavior places Uganda in the same basket as Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Somalia on the human rights scale. Uganda is in a worse position because it is declining while, for example Zimbabwe, is improving.

The case of Uganda becoming more dictatorial appears easy to make because the Anti-Homosexuality Act (unofficially being called the "AHA!" by Makerere law don Oloka Onyango) is the latest in a slew of newly passed laws that stifle individual rights and strangle democratic space.

Among these are the Public Order Management Bill (POMB) and the Anti-pornography Bill, which contains a blanket criminalisation of "indescent (sic) act or behavior tending to corrupt morals)". The other are the attempts to declare Museveni the single, unopposed presidential candidate of the dominant and ruling party, and proposed changed in the way the Speaker of Parliament is elected.

Amidst this confusion, the anarchist mob has stampeded parliament and the president into enacting a law which cures a very small ill in our society at a very high price on the economy and the rights of citizens.

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