MPs tell America off in battle over anti-gay law

MPs during plenary recently. PHOTO/ FILE 

What you need to know:

  • The Bill, the legislator noted, is being adjusted “to encourage [not to criminalise] people who are coming out of that thing [homosexuality]. These are our children and we should accept them back”.

A section of Ugandan lawmakers have called America’s bluff following warning that its $400 million (Shs1.4 trillion) annual HIV/Aids support could be at stake over the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA).
Washington through the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) bankrolls provision of life-saving drugs for majority of the 1.4 million Ugandans living positively.
The continued flow of the financial support has turned uncertain after US Global Aids coordinator, Dr John Nkengasong, citing the anti-gay legislation, indefinitely deferred Uganda Country Operational Plan 2023 (COP23) final presentation meeting due today.
The import is a stalled decision on Uganda’s eligibility for continued Pepfar support or applicable amount, an outcome the Americans have tied to whether President Museveni signs AHA into law. 
He returned the Act, which Parliament enacted on March 21, so that legislators can revise some provisions including who to criminalise, rehabilitation not penalty option for individuals giving up the sexual orientation and dropping the mandate on others to report suspected homosexuals to authorities. 

Members of the Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs yesterday expedited scrutiny of the President’s proposals, ahead of re-tabling of the legislation in the House next Tuesday. 
It’s unclear when parliamentarians will take another vote on the proposed law, which largely mirrors a 2013 version that the Constitutional Court quashed on technicality. 
Washington had red-flagged concerns that AHA would imperil chances for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex (LGBTQI+) communities, who are most at risk to catch the virus, could be denied HIV/Aids care and treatment.
Following the US government’s announcement that its support to the pandemic could be threatened with the new law in place, dozens of MPs this publication contacted asked America to stop bullying Uganda over its sovereign decisions.   
They said the country --- saddled with roughly Shs80 trillion debt burden and struggling to mobilise local revenue --- has capacity to sustain itself if donors withdraw support, a claim some persons living with HIV/Aids (PLHIV) disputed.

MP Jonathan Odur (Erute County South, UPC) said the American notice should not shake President Museveni or any lawmaker because “Uganda is a sovereign state and [its] Parliament makes laws for peace, order and [our own] development”.
Describing a donation as a personal choice of the giver, Mr Odur said aid should not be used as a tool to control recipients.
“You have a choice to give or not to,” he said in comments directed at Washington.
“Even here in Uganda, we do a lot of donations. So, where there are gaps, Parliament has the mandate to re-prioritise resources so [that] they can go to critical sectors that donors have been supporting,” he added.

Although Uganda’s budget technically belongs to the President, Parliament has constitutional powers to recommend adjustments of allocations therein as well as approving taxes and loans the government uses to generate the resources to finance its expenditures.
Uganda, which is described on the US Department of State website as a “key ally” mainly on regional security, each year receives just under $1 billion (Shs3.7 trillion), with half going to health where the biggest chunk is applied to HIV/Aids care.
MP Joseph Ssewungu (Kalungu West, NUP) yesterday said: “I can’t be in that group thinking of reconsidering my position on the Anti-Homosexuality Act”.
“Our country has enough money to manage ourselves if we reduce and cut negative expenditures by President Museveni. For me, I will not change my position on the issue,” he said.
Parliamentarians egged on by vocal faith leaders, other influential constituents and their voted last month enacted the Act with iron-clad majority, and President Museveni’s proposed changes which retain the death penalty for the most egregious offences under the legislation, add less-than-substantial alterations. 
 “We shall pass the Bill as it is. If he [the President] compromises his people, we shall see,” Mr Ssewungu said.

In Uganda, Acts enacted by Parliament gain legal effect upon presidential assent, but a Bill the House passes becomes law on the third enactment without a President’s signature.
The House, MP Ssewungu noted, will vote to make a final decision. During the March 21 sitting where the Bill passed by acclamation (voice voting), only two lawmakers dissented, underlining popularity of the proposed law with the MPs and their constituents. 
Ms Peninah Busingye who represents older persons in central region on the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party ticket, said the United States will be “disappointed” if it try to blackmail Uganda with money.
“We should also have our own way of behaving in Africa and Uganda, we cannot behave like them (the US or homosexuals). If they want to help, let them help, but if there are certain conditions, I don’t know,” she said.

She added: “On the capacity of the country to sustain the fight on its own if the donors leave, even the disease was brought by them [foreign countries] and they are still producing more.”
The Bill, the legislator noted, is being adjusted “to encourage [not to criminalise] people who are coming out of that thing [homosexuality]. These are our children and we should accept them back”.
Her Bugangaizi East counterpart Aisa Agaba (NRM), said the country will not allow homosexuality.

“Won’t homosexuality play a role in increasing HIV/Aids? Because we want money and the medication, we increase the disease and yet the drug is not also a cure!” she quipped.
Dr Stephen Watiti, a person living with HIV/Aids (PLHIV) and chairman of the National Forum of People Living with HIV/Aids Networks in Uganda (NAFOPHANU), on Wednesday told this publication that men who sleep with men have a higher risk of contracting HIV because of “the body parts.”
He, however, said some of the provisions in the Act clearly violate human rights and risk inclusive access to healthcare.
According to Dr Watiti, there is need to look into the differences of opinion between foreigners and Ugandans on HIV.

MP Agaba yesterday said Uganda should focus on reducing, and not increasing, HIV infections which is more likely among the most at risk populations such as men who have sex with men.
“But if the donors know that they are helping our people with good hearts, they can still help them [even if we pass the returned Act]. But if they don’t have the heart of love and they think they will give donations to promote homosexuality in the country, I don’t think it is the right way to go,” she said. 
Despite President Museveni withholding his signature on the current version of the legislation, and Parliament’s reconsideration of the Act pending, Pepfar in a signal of its intended action announced indefinite deferral of the Uganda Country Operational Plan 2023 (COP23) final presentation meeting initially set for today.
The decision was taken, according to Dr John Nkengasong, the US Global Aids coordinator, “in light of the potential signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA).”
The meeting was meant to conclude on Pepfar Uganda’s investment priority for the next financial year.

In comments requested on Wednesday by this publication, Ms Ellen Masi, the public affairs officer at the US Embassy in Kampala, said that they were unsure whether deferral of the April 28 meeting would affect flow of funds to buy medicines and support persons living with HIV. 
“The delay in the meeting will give us time to review the [Act] and it also depends on when the [Act] is signed. That is unclear too. The condition is that we should review the [Act] and determine how we can move forward,” she said.
Ms Masi added: “Hopefully, [this legal concern will be addressed] quickly in time for the process to continue without any repercussion. We don’t know [whether this wouldn’t affect the flow or availability of funds] because we don’t know when the [Act] will be signed.”

Reported by Tonny Abet, Victo Nabutuwa, Lydia Felly Akullu, Priscilla Maloba, Stephen Otage & Karim Muyobo