Last week, after a day long meeting in Entebbe, and as we sat in the hotel lobby bar waiting out the traffic to Kampala over drinks, we noticed an interesting group of young people headed to dinner.
Someone in our party then pointed out that the group was comprised of gay rights activists who were attending a seminar at the hotel. We paid them no further attention but I remember wondering quietly to myself what would happen if word got round about the meeting.
As it turned out, it did. A few days later Fr. Simon Lokodo, the ethics and integrity minister, turned up at the meeting and broke it up, ordering the police to arrest some of the organisers in the process. The raiding of the meeting came just a few days after a watered down version of David Bahati’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was reintroduced before Parliament.
Those who love to “bash the gays” were quick to congratulate Bahati, whose Bill has brought him fame and notoriety beyond his wildest dreams, and Lokodo, who many had never heard of outside his Karamoja constituents, until the story broke.
One must pity the Ethics minister; he has to wait around quietly, trying not to be noticed when fellow ministers are being accused of corruption, until an emotive subject such as this springs up to afford him an opportunity to show face and justify his income.
Regardless of one’s views about homosexuality, we must all worry when fundamental freedoms, including the constitutional right to assembly and expression, are violated in this manner. As far as is publicly known the meeting was broken up not because the participants were involved in homosexuality which remains a crime on our books, but because the minister did not like what they were discussing.
It is not the first time. Last year James Nsaba Buturo, who was ethics minister before Lokodo, ordered the closure of a workshop that Akina Mama, a civil society group that works to empower women, had organised at Serena Lake Victoria Hotel to train sex workers in human rights and leadership. Before you fall off your moral high horse it might be useful to note that it is not just the gay-huggers and sex workers who are being hunted down and shut up.
Recently the police cordoned off Bat Valley Primary School and, in the process, stopped a meeting teachers had called to discuss whether they should go on strike again to force government to raise their salaries.
Sources in civil society say organisations working on oil issues have had meetings in Amuru, Kanungu and Buliisa broken up to stop them from teaching locals about their rights and responsibilities over the oil resources.
What is happening is a deliberate erosion of civil liberties and the rights to assemble and express alternative points of view. The banning and violent breaking up of Walk-to-Work demonstrations is the most notable event but it could be argued that the banning of Bimeeza, those outdoor town hall-style radio talk shows has done even more to hamper ordinary citizens from holding officials to account and express their views on topical issues.
The overt and covert attacks on the media are just the icing on a poisoned cake.
To institutionalise this closing off of the public space, the government has proposed a law – the Public Order Management Bill – that not only seeks to reverse a court decision but also makes it very hard for people to meet and discuss the way they are governed.
This country has a history of people settling their differences violently and the road to violence that we are walking down is paved by hundreds of pebbles that have been thrown at our rights and liberties.
We can never expect to agree unanimously on controversial matters such as homosexuality but we must never allow a situation in which we can’t talk about our differences, or one in which only those who say things we like to hear are allowed to speak.
It is easy to thumb one’s nose at the gay rights activists and call for them to be jailed and the keys cast into Lake Victoria but the same people who will arrest the gays will one day return to arrest the teachers and doctors asking for better conditions. We should not let our moral convictions interfere with our legal obligation to respect the rights of all.