[This article was originally published in The Mantle]
By Emily Cody
On 23 November, Uganda’s infamous anti-gay “Kill the Gays” legislation was passed by a committee vote. It will now move to Parliament, where it will be debated on the floor. Speaker of the House Rebecca Kadaga expects to pass the bill by the holidays as a “Christmas gift” to Uganda.
The bill (linked to here in its original form) was first tabled in late 2009 by Member of Parliament (MP) David Bahati. It has been heavily influenced by American evangelicals (an issue I have written about here), and represents the politicisation of homophobia in the country and the creation of an enabling environment for severe discrimination in virtually every meaningful aspect of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) Ugandan’s civil and political lives. Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, and many of the proposed clauses of the new bill contradict the 1995 Constitution.
Since its inception it has been tabled three times and subjected to revision. Even though it was reported in past weeks that the death penalty clauses for “aggravated” homosexuality (when one partner is HIV positive, under 18, or is a “repeat offender”) will be reduced to life imprisonment, civil society organisations such as Freedom and Roam Uganda have stated that since the committee that approved the bill cannot change it, the bill will be at the discretion of Parliament to amend. The current form has not been made public, but the known clauses remain vague, opening the door for potential rights abuses. Clause 5 states that “a victim of homosexuality shall not be penalized for any crime committed as a direct result of his or her involvement in homosexuality”. As blogger Sokari Ekine points out, “this clause is an open invitation to lynch LGBTI people, so in reality the death penalty remains”. In a country where the judicial system is very weak, mob justice very real, and many of the issues with which homosexuality has been correlated with – sexual predilection for children and Westernisation – this clause effectively opens the door for individuals to be targeted without legal remedy on the basis of real or imagined homosexuality.
Passage of the legislation will have the effect of isolating foreign donors, with several already threatening to withdraw aid if the bill passes. The UK recently suspended all of its aid to Uganda over a corruption scandal, and others have expressed concerns over Uganda and Rwanda’s alleged support to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rebel group M23.
However, the bill is very effective at controlling political space within the country by diverting attention from domestic issues and legitimising government restrictions on civil society organising. It also provides the government the opportunity to appeal to certain constituencies by appearing to resist Western influence. In 2009, the current Kampala mayor stated that it was too politically risky to oppose the bill.
This latest round comes after Kadaga’s trip to Canada in late October. Kadaga was confronted about the anti-gay legislation during an interparliamentary forum, and returned to a hero’s welcome for defending Uganda’s sovereignty. On 9 November, a ‘statement from concerned citizens’ was delivered to Kadaga at a public meeting outside the Ugandan parliament demanding that the bill be passed.
Kadaga has already announced her intention to run for President in 2016; Ugandan blogger Sebaspace has described her reintroduction of the bill as allowing her personal political ambition to drive her into the “cynical embrace of failed Ugandan politicians”.
In the past, Parliament has been accused of using the bill to distract from other domestic matters, like the 2011 purchase of fighter jets. In a letter dated 13 November, Kadaga affirmed that the bill must be ‘concluded’, stating that it should be addressed immediately after conclusion of the oil bills.
Elsewhere members of the LGBTI community have suggested that the passage of the Bill might be the best possible outcome, as it is likely to be immediately repealed by the Constitutional Court. The Court has checked discrimination in the past, such as the December 2010 ruling that the Rolling Stone tabloid’s publication of the names and photos of “Uganda’s top 100 homos” violated the right to privacy. Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda has stated that passage of the bill would not be a ‘doomsday scenario’, as existing laws on homosexuality cannot even be implemented. But that is a big if.
Another problem is that paradoxically, attention given to the bill has at times been detrimental to LGBTI groups. The priority focus on stopping the bill has made it possible for some organisations to receive funding when LGBTI issues don’t form a key part of their mandate. The focus on the bill also obfuscates the space for other forms of LGBTI advocacy, such as access to healthcare.
The bill’s passage is deeply embedded in the political landscape of the country, and civil society has responded dynamically. Several members of the LGBTI community have already wired money to friends in neighbouring countries so they can escape if the bill passes. Despite these challenges, civil society has remained critically engaged.
Since February 2010, when Pastor Martin Sssempa first showed gay pornography in church, there has been the Constitutional Court ruling, SMUG’s case filing in the US, and Uganda’s First Gay pride in August 2012. This is incredibly monumental, and there should be more attention placed on this, as attention towards homophobia in Uganda has at times had the converse effect of strengthening the anti-gay lobby. In the words of LGBTI activist David Kato before he was brutally murdered in January 2011, the struggle continues.
Emily Cody lives in Kampala, Uganda, where she works for a Sudanese human rights organisation. She has a MSc in Violence, Conflict, and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.