East Africa

Uganda: What Makes Uganda’s Anti-Gay Pastor Pastor Martin Ssempa Tick?

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Pastor Martin Ssempa – the most provocative, prurient and excessive proponent of gay hate Uganda has ever known – is trying to stay relevant in the ongoing homosexuality debate.

He has a radio talk show, is on Twitter and seems to have walked away from a criminal conviction more emboldened, even if also chastened. So, what makes Ssempa tick? How come he still manages to make such waves in Uganda?

To understand the pastor, it helps to compare him to another firebrand anti-gay crusader, albeit from a different continent and era: the late Reverend Jerry Falwell.

When Falwell died in 2007, America’s Bible Belt lost one of its most vocal anti-gay leaders and the gay movement lost one of the most vocal enemies it was fortunate to have. With the movement he established in 1979, Falwell excoriated abortion, homosexuality and pornography with such venom and ferocity that America sat up and listened. His Moral Majority galvanized the religious right behind any political candidate who agreed with their message. But they also unwittingly did homosexuality a favour: brought it into a mainstream discussion, enabling America to gradually realize that homosexuals were not the threat Falwell said they were.

After all, Falwell had condemned a character in the BBC children’s programme Teletubbies for being gay. Then he famously blamed gays for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even remaining supporters who believed in him hid away in embarrassment. Over the years, listeners wondered how preaching hate was compatible with the Biblical message of love and inclusion.

So, thanks to his fire and brimstone excoriation of homosexuals, prostitutes and single mothers, most sensible Americans resorted to education, common sense and natural decency. They paid less and less attention to Falwell.

While Falwell’s and Ssempa’s anti-gay virulence has striking similarities, one critical element differentiates the two men: money.


All but broke

Always able to rely on his followers for fundraising, Falwell wasn’t driven to rant and rave by money.

Pastor Ssempa is all but broke. He long relied on handouts from organizations, such as Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas. But they all cut ties when his message degenerated into calling for the judicial execution of his fellow citizens.

Ssempa’s continuing problem is twofold. Thanks to some spectacular advocacy, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) have repeatedly scored resounding successes, up to and including forcing President Museveni to admit in international interviews that homosexuality is not a Western import as many ignorant detractors love to argue. Led by Frank Mugisha (SMUG) and Kasha Nabagesera (FARUG), those two organizations have achieved phenomenal success in raising the profile of the gay movement in Uganda. With that, endorsements have come from notables like Hillary Clinton and the Robert Kennedy Human Rights Award.

For better or worse, gay activism has been the most successful minority rights movement in Uganda in recent memory.

Compare that to Ssempa’s achievements over the same period. First, he alienated his American evangelical friends by showing pornographic videos during church services. Then he got entangled in a stratagem to tar fellow pastor Robert Kayanja with the brush of paedophile homo-sodomy – for which Ssempa was sued and convicted in late 2012.

Ssempa is now a convicted felon. He must have been relieved when well-wishers paid the $400.00 the judge fined him for perverting the course of justice, coaching witnesses and conniving with others to sully the reputation of his rival.

Preaching to the wrong audience

The second frustration in Ssempa’s continuing attempt to convince Ugandans that he is still relevant is a generational one. He appeals, and preaches mainly, to young, university-educated students. But growing evidence shows it is precisely this generation – 50 percent of Uganda’s population is under 25 – who increasingly see sex and sexuality in a more morally nuanced prism.

So, Ssempa is trying to convert precisely those a) who don’t have much money to pay for his sinking crusade and b) whose far more liberal socialization makes his outlandish anti-gay vituperation fall on barren ground.

Ssempa’s shrillness also belies a deep-seated problem. He doesn’t give a hoot about whether homosexuality is eradicated from Uganda because, of course, he is educated enough to know that is impossible. He tends to latch on to the argument that the majority of Ugandans are against homosexuality.

But when you ask him if he would have joined the 73 percent of Americans who supported the miscegenation laws that barred blacks and white from intermarrying until the Supreme Court’s deeply unpopular 1967 intervention (Ssempa’s wife is white), he ignores that question.

His worst nightmare

In a nutshell, Pastor Ssempa is running a cynical, insincere campaign based on mendacity, demagoguery and sophism. His worst nightmare is that what happened to Falwell will befall him: his country will make an intelligent, thoughtful examination of the arguments. Hence, his debate consisting of showing porn in church, waving sex toys on television and raving like a lunatic. He hopes that if he makes as much empty noise as possible, the sensible arguments for tolerance and common sense will be drowned out.

If the tide in Uganda continues to ebb away from his type of mock-indignation, vitriolic, mindless hysteria, Ssempa will follow Falwell’s slow, inexorable decline into total irrelevance. Then, like the reverend in his twilight years, Ssempa will cut a forlorn, aging figure echoing in the wilderness – but without Falwell’s deep pockets or legacy-building savvy.

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