Before David Bahati, Idi Amin was certainly the most infamous Ugandan abroad. It seems he might be in for some competition. Since tabling the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009, the Ndorwa West MP has been vilified around the world.
“I read about it, they were all calling me the most homophobic man – I didn’t understand what they mean,” Mr Bahati told the Daily Monitor in May. “Stopping that kind of thing does not make you say that you hate or fear the person who does that. Actually we love them, but we hate what they do.”
Africa is rarely known for positive things in the West. The usual suspects—famine, Aids, poverty, war and corruption— continue to top the headlines. However, a new topic is starting to define outside opinions of the continent: anti-homosexuality, for which Uganda has become the poster child.
How it started
It can be traced to a whirlwind of events. One year after Bahati’s bill, a fledgling tabloid ran a headline that called for homosexuals to be killed. Three months after that, in January this year, one of the men pictured under the Hang them headline, David Kato, was bludgeoned to death in his home. Amin himself couldn’t have written a better script.
Kato’s murder prompted a number of statements from Western embassies, which linked it to Mr Bahati’s Bill and the tabloid article. Outcry against the “Kill the Gays” Bill came to a head in May when it was expected to be tabled again after going through committee debates, but Parliament broke off without voting on it.
The murmurs that Mr Bahati intends to reintroduce the Bill before the current Parliament persist, as do the Bill’s repercussions. Just last month British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to cut aid to countries that “persecute homosexuals.”
Mr Bahati has welcomed the attention his Bill has drawn, telling the New York Times in an interview that he hoped that “Uganda can provide leadership in this area of moral decadence, using... this bill as a platform.”
Uganda’s reputation certainly preceded itself when it was ranked the top country to visit in 2012 by Lonely Planet, a reputable guidebook publisher. But the negative reactions came swiftly. Most of the commenters on its online article were quick to connect Uganda with Mr Bahati’s Bill, and drew unfavourable conclusions. For many in the West, it seems Uganda has become an emblem of intolerant societies.
The first person to comment on the list agrees that Kampala could be one of the safest cities in Africa, unless: “…you’re lesbian or gay for whom beatings and murders are a regular occurrence.” Another commenter who identifies himself as a gay man says the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community “are attacked with no provocation” in Uganda, and wonders why any would visit.
It goes on, a few virulent remarks here, “People generally get the kind of government they deserve. Idi Amin seems like a good fit for these “affable people”, while others try to put the issue into context.
But do Ugandans recognise the country in that comments section? Do gay people “stand a pretty good chance of being killed” while here? Are most Ugandans “religious fanatics and ignorant people” and is our media “massively controlled by a corrupt government?”
Locally, the debate stirred by the Bill has largely hinged on religious morality. Most Ugandans adhere to conservative religious beliefs and these, as well as tribal ones, frown upon homosexuality.
But even if more than 80 per cent of Ugandans are Christians, opinions about what should be done to homosexuals vary enormously. You have on one side, Old Testament fundamentalists like Bahati who believe that homosexuals should be killed, while on the other you have people who believe it’s too drastic.
Richard Madanda is a 33-year-old boda boda rider who identifies himself as a Christian. “Homosexuals should not be killed,” he says. Instead, “they should be arrested or fined. The Bible says it’s a sin, but it’s God who punishes sins, not man”. When asked why they should be arrested, he says that homosexuality contravenes our culture and that’s why the law classifies it as a crime.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, as it is across the majority of the continent. Commonwealth countries like Uganda inherited that criminalisation through colonial rule.