In a retrograde turn of events, Uganda’s internationally-criticized Anti-Homosexuality Bill will soon become law. President Yoweri Museveni, defying worldwide criticism, has promised to assent to the bill which proposes harsh penalties for LGBTI human rights advocacy and for individuals living with HIV and AIDS.
Adding to the outcry of Ugandan LGBTI activists and their allies worldwide, President Barack Obama has reiterated America’s position to the bill calling it ‘more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda.’
Uganda’s LGBTI movement has structured internal strength and that is a sign of things getting better for any social movement, but that alone may not save gay, bi and trans Ugandans from impending danger.
If Museveni does not backtrack, Uganda will officially have become one of the world’s worst countries for LGBTI people. Most Ugandans are not bothered by that record. In fact, as some critics have noted, the move to make the bill law will have become Museveni’s straight ticket to a fifth term.
Even if Museveni does not run for another term, he will not want to create a legacy for himself for not approving an anti-gay bill – given the likely impact on his political party. To fight his opposition, the militant leader would rather compromise his relationship with donors, a battle he says he is ready to fight. In short, homosexuality has become Africa’s political weapon.
Museveni has been inconsistent, and he sounds confused in his dealings with the ‘gays issue’. One of the stories behind the dawn of LGBTI activism in Uganda was Museveni’s claim ‘there are no gays in Uganda; we don’t have that problem,’ while on an official visit to the UK.
In 1998, Museveni reacted harshly on an alleged gay wedding in a Kampala suburb and ultimately signed a bill to ban same-sex marriage. In 2010, Museveni asked his party members to ‘go slow on the issue of gays’. In an interview with the BBC, Museveni acknowledged same-sex relationships existed in pre-colonial Uganda and ‘we shall not kill them or persecute them’.
His comments – hailed as progressive by some activists – coupled with the international outcry against the death penalty, influenced Ugandan lawmakers to do away with the death penalty clause of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, previously dubbed the ‘Kill the Gays Bill’ and carrying execution for ‘aggravated homosexuality’.
While Museveni emphasizes the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ and ‘recruiting of children’ he fails to make a thorough analysis of the bill that he is about to sign, or according to unconfirmed reports, already has signed. He promised to sign despite a few weeks ago criticizing parliament for passing the bill without a quorum. He called for scientific evidence on homosexuality; received two reports from two expert groups; and, as if his mind was already made up, reviewed one report at the expense of the other. Museveni’s reaction to the bill is a Pontius Pilate way of saying he doesn’t want to be held to account.
Will Museveni’s decision change activists’ stand on aid cuts?
Foreign governments, development agencies, and foundations give millions of dollars in grants to human rights and development work in Uganda. Corporate companies enjoy the benefits of a growing economy in Uganda.
While Ugandan LGBTI activists are justified in fearing aid cuts will make their community a target for more violence, this fear cannot continue to be justified at the expense of human life. It is a self-contradicting argument. The opinion of most Ugandans on aid cuts has not changed. Like their politicians, most Ugandans don’t care about aid cuts; if that will rid them of homosexuality. Why should donors impose rights-conditioned aid on Uganda when Ugandans are opposed to it?
In 2011, I spoke on an expert panel at the World Bank, together with other African LGBTI activists. The question we had to grapple with was, ‘should international development partners withdraw aid from anti-gay African countries?’
A few weeks later, a collective of African human rights activists released a statement with the message: ‘Not in our name: Do not enforce aid cuts.’ Instead they proposed governments should ‘channel funding to progressive civil society groups’ who can streamline an inclusive human rights approach.
African LGBTI activists know too well what the consequences of aid cuts would be – especially the backlash against LGBTI people. More than their international allies, they recognize that the discussion on aid cuts and gay and trans rights in Africa cannot be discussed outside of the race and cultural context.
LGBTI activists in Uganda remain convinced withdrawing foreign aid from Uganda’s public sector will not make Uganda a better place for LGBTI citizens; certainly not for the rest of Ugandan citizens.
However, we cannot let injustice win. It is time to take a stand and show Uganda that we are in this fight for the long haul. Signing the bill into law will not make Uganda a danger zone for LGBTI people. Uganda has already become a danger zone for LGBTI people and their allies.
If the stand against aid cuts continues as the violence against LGBTI Ugandans continues, donors may have to retract aid. Ugandan LGBTI activists can sit on the fence with aid cuts. Or, they can keep pushing for diplomatic talks with Museveni who is beginning to reveal his belligerent side. The time is now for pro-gay donor countries to seriously consider their foreign policies with Uganda.
Val Kalende is a Ugandan born activist living in California.