In August the Uganda’s Media Council banned performances of what would have been the first theater production in the country to discuss LGBT issues.
That decision, and more urgently Uganda’s legal steps against people who staged the play, now require immediate and serious redress by the international community
The play, The River and the Mountain, by British playwright Beau Hopkins, was to have been performed at the National Theatre of Uganda but the theater backed off after the Media Council intervened.
The fuss was because it features a storyline about a gay businessman living in a homophobic country and is advertised as: ‘A Ugandan comedy drama that tackles the intersection of religion, politics and sexuality.’
Despite the National Theatre turning it down, David Cecil, owner of Tilapila Bar in Kampala, the country’s capital, did put the play on.
He is charged with ‘disobeying lawful orders’ from the Uganda Media Council.
Cecil’s bail had cost around $200 and his lawyer, John Francis Onyango, confirmed that Cecil was in a ‘good condition’ after his weekend on remand in prison. He has been ordered to appear back in court in four weeks’ time.
The bail conditions stipulate that the 34-year-old must seek special authorization from the court if he wants to leave the country, which would be unlikely to happen.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office have stated they are providing consular assistance to Cecil.
As I previously reported for GSN, Cecil has maintained that he went with staging the play because the Media Council’s initial warning letter made no reference to any legal consequences.
‘I really didn’t mean to insult anyone, and I am not a rights advocate. I only wanted to open up dialogue,’ he said.
Cecil now faces the prospect of two years in jail if convicted and feels he was singled out for legal action because he had become the play’s public face along with British student, Hopkins.
Cecil said he felt he had ‘fallen into the trap’ of Ugandan authorities who gladly seize any chance to claim the abomination of homosexuality is being ‘imported’ by westerners.
‘This is ironic because it is exactly the theme of our play,’ he said. ‘This, again ironically, shows that our play contains some kind of truth.’
UK newspaper The Guardian reported that the play ‘has provoked controversy not only for its sympathetic portrayal of gay people, but also because it suggests that much of the anger and hatred has been whipped up by politicians and religious leaders for their own purposes.’
It quoted Hopkins as saying: ‘The local media seem to have agreed not to talk about it, which is disappointing. We’re also particularly disappointed that it won’t be staged at the National Theatre, as there it would have reached more Ugandans.’
He said the play was not intended to promote a specific agenda, but rather to add to public debate.
‘We’re actors, not activists,’ he said. ‘The play is there to inspire discussion in the community and to get a reaction from people. We want it to open up a dialogue.’
‘We are all disappointed but not surprised that we could not perform at the National Theatre,’ said the actor Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce, who plays the gay character at the center of the story. ‘What is surprising is the fact that we have received no clear reason. No one is taking responsibility for this decision.’
This latest attack by the Ugandan government, in this instance against a westerner, shows its stand on homosexuality.
In Uganda homosexuality is already a crime and legislation is proposed which would punish gay sex with the death penalty for a second ‘offense’.
The current law states public discussion of homosexuality in Uganda, including by rights groups, would be punished by up to seven years in jail.
On 22 June in a landmark statement, Uganda’s government said gay people are now free to meet in response to growing international criticism of the anti-gay efforts in the African country.
The government stated that it does not discriminate against people ‘of a different sexual orientation’.
‘No government official is supposed to harass any section of the community and everybody in Uganda enjoys the freedom to lawfully assemble and associate freely with others,’ it claimed.
Cecil’s plight and the banning of the play show the lie behind this statement.
Now is the time for other countries to intervene.
On 30 October last year (2011) British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened that countries that ban homosexuality would lose aid payments unless they reform or improve their human rights record and end the ban on homosexuality.
He said: ‘We are not just talking about it. We are also saying that British aid should have more strings attached.
‘Britain is one of the premier aid givers in the world. We want to see countries that receive our aid adhering to proper human rights. We are saying that is one of the things that determines our aid policy, and there have been particularly bad examples where we have taken action.’
Cameron had said that he had spoken with ‘a number of African countries’, including Uganda and more pressure had been applied by Foreign Secretary William Hague.
John Nagenda (Ugandan presidential adviser) accused Cameron of showing an ‘ex-colonial mentality’ and of treating Ugandans ‘like children’.
He told the BBC: ‘Uganda is, if you remember, a sovereign state and we are tired of being given these lectures by people. If they must take their money, so be it.’
Nagenda also stated that he doubted the Ugandan parliament would ever approve a bill which proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts.
‘I believe it will die a natural death. But this kind of ex-colonial mentality of saying: “You do this or I withdraw my aid” will definitely make people extremely uncomfortable with being treated like children.’
But Cecil’s situation is a blatant slap in the face for Britain by Uganda. They are making it clear they refuse to abide by Britain’s directive and won’t change their view on homosexuality.
So the time is now for the United Kingdom (along with other governments) to take a stand against Uganda’s regime that systematically oppresses its LGBT people, including foreign nationals, in their attempt to wipe out homosexuality.
The question must be asked if Cameron and his government have any intention to stand by their declarations?
For how long are our respective governments going to accept and tolerate the persecution of LGBT citizens in Uganda, including its own nationals, without consequences?
Some 41 nations of the 54-member Commonwealth, a British institution, have laws banning homosexuality and many of these laws are a legacy of British Empire laws.
It’s the clear duty of the UK, and other states, to act to protect people from this legacy.