Family and Relationship

Uganda: Homosexuality Brinksmanship

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Why pass a costly law you cannot enforce?

On Monday Aug. 6, America’s top magazine for sophisticated high-end readers, The New Yorker, published an article online entitled, ‘Gay and Proud in Uganda’. Written by Alexis Okeowo, the story reported the first-ever Gay Pride Parade in Uganda at the Botanical Beach in Entebbe on Aug.4.

“Can you imagine that the worst place in the world to be gay is having Gay Pride?” it quoted Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, one of the organisers of the Gay Pride Parade, asking.

Homosexuality is a crime under Uganda’s Penal Code system and is punishable by life imprisonment. But as, The New Yorker story clearly shows, the area police boss of Entebbe faced a dilemma over the Gay Pride Parade, which run through the night and ended on Aug.5.

“Hours after the parade ended,” the story says, “police raided the gathering, supposedly because they had heard a gay wedding was taking place, and arrested three participants, detained a photographer, and demanded statements from others, reminding all of the threats that gays still face. The station police chief eventually released them, and celebrations continued in Kampala. On Sunday, closing events went as planned.”

Obviously, although homosexuality is a crime in Uganda, law enforcers in fact face difficulty in enforcing that law.

Recently, Uganda’s top tabloid, The RedPepper, has been running photographs of a man it says is involved in homosexual activities, including with minors.

Under a new law that the Speaker of Parliament has promised to fast-track through parliament as a ‘Christmas gift’ to Ugandans, such activity would be punishable by death. But when the head of the government’s information bureau, the Uganda Media Centre, Fred Opolot, and the police were asked by journalists what action they plan to take against the suspect, neither of them spoke directly about homosexuality. Instead, Opolot said, the suspect was being hunted for sexually assaulting minors.

Despite challenges in enforcing the current law, which was enacted in the 1950s, a proposed amendment to the Penal Code seeks the death penalty for some incidences of homosexuality.

The proposed law has been widely praised locally, while abroad, it has drawn mainly criticism. Some countries that support Uganda financially have threatened to cut aid, and issue travel bans upon its promoters, if it is passed.

Although, the main mover of the Bill, Ndorwa MP, David Bahati says the death penalty has been expunged from the proposed law, there appears to be no backing down despite the international pressure. The question of course is why some Ugandan MPs and the government would invest so much in passing a law they are unlikely to enforce and where the stakes are quite high?

Kill the Gays Capital

In November, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, was in Uganda and met President Yoweri Museveni.

A US State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, told journalists in Washington that Carson had reiterated to Museveni, the American government’s “vocal” concerns about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Nuland told the press: “Our understanding is that a version of the bill has now passed a committee in Uganda. As we have regularly said, we call on the parliament in Uganda to look very carefully at this, because Uganda’s own human rights council has made clear that if this were to pass, it would put the country out of compliance with its own international human rights obligations.

And so Assistant Secretary Carson had a chance to make that point again and our strong opposition to this, to the president, to the parliament, and to key decision makers in Uganda.”

Nuland explained that Carson had made this point to the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, who is now at the forefront of passing this law. Kadaga, who boisterously defended Uganda’s anti-gay stance at a summit in Canada recently, returned to a heroine’s welcome at home. Although it now appears unlikely, Kadaga has consistently pledged to pass the new anti-gay law as a “Christmas gift” to Ugandans.

All this activity and anticipation of the Bill passing in parliament has brought renewed interest in the issue of homosexuality in Uganda.

It is not clear how big the homosexual population is in Uganda, but the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community is quite visible, especially in cyber space. In 2007, a BBC survey said there were about 500,000 gay people in Uganda, among the highest population of all 45 countries surveyed.

The same survey found that up to 11% of Ugandans were tolerant of homosexuality, compared to just one per cent of the other East African countries. It is, therefore, unclear how Uganda has come to be the capital of the “Kill the Gays movement”.

Film with a view

For some gay scene observers, Dec.15 could mark another milestone in the ever evolving gay debate in Uganda.

On that day, a young but prolific short-film maker, Hassan Kamoga, is set to launch a short film feature on the subject of homosexuality titled “My Opinion”.

The young film graduate used his 2010 Sony Ericsson U5i Vivaz mobile phone to create the short documentary.

Sarah Namulondo, The Independent’s reporter who got a sneak preview of the really short documentary says, “My Opinion,” is really about freedom to speak out on the once taboo subject and raise issues around it from the public’s view.

Issues raised include the proposal to hang gays, and homosexual specific health considerations in a country with an impoverished medical system.

“My Opinion is a film that could give a clear view on whether it is relevant for the Bill on homosexuality to be passed,” says Namulondo.

Business pressure

Meanwhile, international pressure against the Bill is not abating.

By Dec. 10 over 500, 000 people had signed a petition on the global petition platform,, to Citibank and Barclays; two of the largest banks in the world with major operations in Uganda, to condemn Uganda’s anti-gay Bill.

According to the petition, Citibank and Barclays are well known for supporting their LGBT employees and protecting their employees and customers from anti-gay discrimination.

Citibank is a huge supporter of LGBT groups in the United States, and has received a 100% rating from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. And this year Stonewall named Barclays the most LGBT-friendly company in all of Scotland, and the bank is regularly ranked as one of the best companies for LGBT people to work for in the world.

Citibank has nearly US$300 million in assets invested Uganda, and is a major leader in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce based in Kampala. Barclays is Uganda’s third largest bank, with more than 1,000 employees in the country and 51 branches throughout the nation.

The soft drink giant Pepsi, whose local franchise has a big share of Uganda’s soft-drinks market, is also being pressured to take a stance on LGBT rights and the Bill.

SumOfus, an American-based work-place rights movement, is petitioning Pepsi to use its influence in Uganda to oppose the Bill.

The petition, which currently has over 100,000 signatures, notes that if Pepsi were to speak out against the bill, it would “force Ugandan officials to put the bill on hold — or even pull it entirely.”

“As citizen-consumers, we have tremendous influence over Pepsi,” the SumOfus organisers write. “It has customers all over the world — meaning that, unlike the MPs in Uganda who are pushing this bill, Pepsi cares what we think and say about them.

And for this piece of legislation, our position is clear – Pepsi must use its power as a major company in Uganda to communicate clearly to Ugandan legislators that this hateful Bill must be stopped.”

American President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have already spoken out against the Bill. Clinton specifically condemned the 2011 murder of a member of the Ugandan gay community, David Kato, and this year honoured Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) Executive Director, Frank Mugisha, and other Ugandan human rights advocates at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala.

Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have also suggested the allocation of international aid should hinge upon a country’s record on LGBT rights.

Gay battle ground

All this pressure mean Uganda has effectively become a hostage to foreign interests and a battle ground for the pro- and anti- fringes of the gay debate.

During World AIDS Day on Dec.1, a small group of protesters camped at Uganda’s Embassy in Washington DC and brandished a banner that read: “Reject Uganda Homophobia”.

In an interview with a local paper, they say their action was driven by what they feel is the role American evangelicals are playing in promoting homophobic attitudes in Uganda. They say, Bahati who introduced the bill in 2009, has ties with a group known as The Family.

“I just feel that it’s our responsibility to fight the Americans who are trying to export homophobia to Africa,” one of the protesters said.

Pastor Martin Ssempa of Makerere Community Church is one of the evangelicals allegedly propped up by the American Christians to promote anti-gay sentiments in Uganda. In a recent interview, he told The Independent that Ugandan MPs should not be intimidated by threats to cut aid byAmerica, Britain and other donors.

He said, following a spate of high profile corruption cases in Uganda, the same donors had already slashed aid to Uganda any way. “So cutting aid is no longer a threat to the anti-homosexuality Bill,” he said.

Instead, he said, the police and other law enforcers should act swiftly to arrest gay people.

“The failure to bring these guys to book leaves their victims with no alternative but to name them and shame them in newspapers,” he said.

For now, Ssempa and others like him who are looking forward to swift police action against homosexuals are likely to wait for a long time even if the Bill becomes law. Under a 2007 law, Section 129 of the Penal Code Act was amended to provide for the death penalty in some cases of defilement or the offence of having sex with a person under the age of 18. It has never been enforced.



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