Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill is not new news. Though first passed by the Ugandan Parliament in December outlawing “aggravated homosexuality,” it has been churning through Parliament and the western media for several years. Now, with an election around the corner in 2016, President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and has been largely neutral on the legislation, has publicly offered his support and is expected to sign the bill in the coming days.
A colonial era law already outlaws homosexuality in Uganda. The current bill goes further, though, and could result in a life-sentence for engaging in same-sex relationships. The bill also forbids so-called “promotion” of homosexuality and punishes citizens for not reporting a known gay person to police officials.
Though the law will not immediately take effect — it must be brought again before Parliament for final approval — it will almost certainly become law. An unlikely Musevini veto would be the only way to kill the legislation at this point. Activists have vowed to immediately file lawsuits once the bill becomes law.
Much like Putin’s public crackdown on all things LGBT just in time for his political show at the Olympics, President Museveni is massaging a recent uptick in international outrage. Last week it was capped off with President Obama announcing his disappointment with Uganda over the bill. Shoring up support for the 2016 election, Museveni is pandering to Parliament, at the cost of the lives and livelihood of LGBT Ugandans.
A spate of anti-gay violence, legislation, and reinvigorated enforcement of existing anti-gay laws has spread across Sub-Saharan Africa in the last year. In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan has proudly supported the parading of suspected gay men — nude — through the streets on their way to jail. Officials from the Gambia and Kenya have made statements in the past week that they will fight homosexuality and swat their gay citizens “like mosquitoes.”
While international attention can be a coup, it can also throw a government into a scorching spotlight. Activists in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, are calling on Canada, England, and the US to recall their ambassadors for a consciousness gut check on how to proceed with a nation that so blatantly disregards their basic human rights. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out against the situation in Nigeria and President Obama has publicly warned President Musevini that passing the legislation would “complicate” US-Uganda relations. Uganda relies heavily on US aid, especially for health care.
During my trip to Uganda in 2012, I asked the Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, how he would feel if the US pulled all aid from Uganda for the nation’s human rights violations. He told me that gay people aren’t human and so he would welcome it. “Go ahead and take it,” Lokodo told me. If he and his fellow politicians had to swallow what he called a western perception of embracing human rights, he would rather be denied US aid.
But in the wake of all the bad news for gay rights in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is also a sense of hope. One activist on the ground in Kampala said of Museveni’s promise to sign the bill, “The future looks bleak now, but I am hopeful we shall prevail.” The LGBT activists and human rights defenders I met in Cameroon this month as well as the activist community in Uganda are scared but resolved. They know full well the possible costs to them and their communities but also know there is nowhere to go but forward.