By Kate Holby
When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-homosexuality bill on February 24, 2014, much of the Western world erupted in outrage. Leaders, news anchors, and advocates condemned the bill which prescribes life sentences for homosexuality. Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo responded to this outrage, tweeting, “It took white America 200yrs to accept that Blacks in US were indeed citizens#stop rights talk.” Opondo’s point is apparently that Uganda’s position on homosexuality is akin to that of the United States on race 200 years ago: it is wrong, but may take some time to work out. This is hardly a thoughtful response, but what matters is not so much Opondo’s logic, but what effect a negative Western response may have.
Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the anti-gay legislation, comparing it to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany or apartheid in South Africa. Kerry said, “The signing of this anti-homosexuality bill is flat-out morally wrong.” And the U.S. is not alone. Norway is reducing and redirecting aid to Uganda by about $9 million. The Netherlands and Denmark are also redirecting $20 million in aid. The World Bank is delaying $90 million worth of loans that would have gone to intensive healthcare initiatives. Sweden is cutting $1 million in aid.
Uganda’s position is not an outlier when it comes to African politics. Homosexuality is illegal in 37 African nations. Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan recently signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act into law. In Kenya, where the U.S. gives roughly the same amount of foreign assistance ($480.9 million to $464.2 million), homosexuality is punishable up to 14 years in jail. Is 14 years in prison a permissible punishment and a life-sentence considered that much more horrendous? Why is the U.S. taking the moral high ground in the case of Uganda? Will withholding aid change the social policy?
As an authentic “African” tradition, homophobia in Africa is as old and as artificial as its borders, arriving on the continent with colonialism. Uganda, along with many former British colonies, inherited a legal structure that included the anti-gay British “sodomy law.” But it was through religion rather than through law that homophobia spread throughout the continent. In colonial and post-colonial Uganda, Christian missionaries shared the gospel of homophobia. American evangelists, who can’t seem to find the same captivated crowds at home, have staked out African countries to spread their version of the gospel.
If homophobia has found a home among Uganda’s people, it is prime electoral real estate for the government. When MP David Bahati first proposed the hugely popular anti-gay law in 2009, Museveni indicated he would not sign. Five years later and 28 years into power, Museveni is 69 years old, and elections are in 2016. Popular support for his campaign is needed, and homophobia is there to help. This new bill is much more about power politics than it is about upholding “morality.” The bill acts as a great distraction from everyday problems such as high unemployment (62% youth unemployment) and rooted corruption. The Ugandan tabloid, Red Pepper, named the country’s “200 top homosexuals” a day after Museveni signed the bill. The witch hunt has begun and it is much better to be hunting gays than hunting presidents. Redirecting anger is a time-honored strategy that despite being as obvious as a sidewalk shell game, remains effective.
Withholding aid of course is likely to harm a good number of Ugandan’s regardless of their particular views on the subject. The World Bank $90 million loan was intended to help Uganda’s healthcare services, supplementing a 2010 health loan that focused on maternal health, newborn care, and family planning. Certainly aid is not always used wisely or distributed fully. But will withholding funding for Uganda’s poor enact a change in policy? How much does Museveni care about the poor? Obviously, very little. However, it is much more than the poor whom this aid hurts, and the Western Institutions that distribute this aid know this. Withholding aid, redirecting aid, or even threatening to cut aid acknowledges the inefficiency and corruption that surrounds this distribution. Can Museveni and his government stand without an aid economy supporting them?
They seem to think so. Therefore, the West must reconsider how it goes about influencing social change. Engaging in development, not withdrawing aid, should be a Western priority. For real social change will occur when freedom of sexuality is not perceived as a distraction from the everyday problems, but as a necessity. Working to solve problems such as food security, healthcare, and unemployment will indirectly work to unravel homophobia in Uganda.
Kate Holby is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Jason Pier]