Politics, gay debate create chaotic mix

Anti-homosexuality activists carrying placards march on the streets of Kampala to demonstrate against the then-annulled Anti-gay law by the court on August 11, 2014. PHOTO |  FILE

What you need to know:

  • Just like in most African countries, the subject of homosexuality hits a raw nerve in Uganda as anti-homosexuality campaigners insist the act is anything but African, writes Derrick Kiyonga. 

Little or no attention at all had been accorded to proceedings from the African, Caribbean and Pacific States Parliamentary Assembly until Mr Thomas Tayebwa, the Deputy Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, took the floor and raised two of the most divisive issues in African society—homosexuality and abortion.

Mr Tayebwa, who headed Uganda’s delegation to the Mozambican capital of Maputo, contended that homosexuality and abortion are being imposed on African countries by rich Western countries.

“In Uganda, issues of LGBT…,” Mr Tayebwa started, referring to an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, “…and abortion are issues that can never be accepted and we shall not pass laws that shall allow them.”  

Although he said homosexuals are free “to do whatever they want”, with a caveat that they don’t promote their practices, Mr Tayebwa was categorical that homosexuality and abortion—at least in Uganda—can’t be classified as human rights. Such a take is sure to be a direct confrontation with Uganda’s donors such as the European Union and the United States of America. But the Deputy Speaker, who belongs to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, appeared unmoved.

“What does it help to sign an agreement which we can never domesticate?” he asked, adding, “If you went and talked to our ambassador and our minister and made a resolution, I’m the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, I can assure you that the Parliament that I lead will never pass laws that are against our culture.”

Mr Tayebwa proceeded to note that “African values can never be exchanged for European money.” The counsel he then offered was that “we define human rights so that we know the boundary.” Human rights, he added, “don’t involve the issues of LGBT, they don’t involve the issues of abortion, because that goes to the core of African culture and society.”  

'Twin evils’

So, how do the Deputy Speaker’s claims stack up? When it comes to abortion, Article 22(2) of the Ugandan Constitution says: “No person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorised by law.” Section 205 of the Penal Code offers more clarity, holding that “no person shall be guilty of the offence of causing by wilful act a child to die before it has an independent existence from its mother if the act was carried out in good faith for the purpose of preserving the mother’s life.”

Homosexuality, on the other hand, is made illegal under Section 145 of the Penal Code. The section stipulates thus: “Any person who— has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; has carnal knowledge of an animal; or (c) permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life.”

Confronted by such laws, gay rights activists have always been quick to point out that   Article 21, which details equality and freedom from discrimination, protects their rights. For instance, Article 21 (1) stipulates that all persons are equal before and under the law in all spheres of political, economic, social and cultural life and in every other respect and shall enjoy equal protection of the law.  Subsection 2 says “without prejudice to Clause (1) of the article, a person shall not be discriminated against on the ground of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, tribe, birth, creed or religion, or social or economic standing, political opinion or disability.” Uganda also ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) whose opening words are unambiguous: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Just like in most African countries, the subject of homosexuality hits a raw nerve in Uganda. Anti-homosexuality campaigners—of which they aren’t few—much like Mr Tayebwa insist the act is anything but African. 

“All our cultures here don’t recognise homosexuality—be in Buganda, be it Bunyoro, be it Busoga. A man can’t marry man,” Pastor Martin Ssempa—one of the most outspoken of all anti-homosexuality campaigners in the country—says, asking, rhetorically, “Can a man go to Bulange [Buganda’s official seat] and get a certificate for introduction yet they are going marry another man?”

One of the commonest accusations against pro-homosexuality advocates is that they are turning schools into recruitment centres.

“It’s obscene,” says James Nsaba Buturo, a former Ethics and Integrity minister, who now represents  Bufumbira East in the House, adding, “These are just imported practices that are being imposed on our children in schools.”     

An investigation done by Daily Monitor in 2016 revealed that approximately 100 schools had been conned into training camouflaged homosexuality to their teachers and students.  The investigation cited a document entitled “World Starts With Me” (WSWM). The document was developed in 2003 by Butterfly Works and the World Population Foundation (WPF) in collaboration with SchoolNet Uganda, which targeted teachers and students.

“People can also feel attracted to the same sex or both sexes. If this lasts a long time, they might be homosexuals. People are homosexual not by choice, but by birth. However, if a boy forces a boy to have sex with him or a girl forces a girl to have sex with her, this is not homosexual but sexual abuse,” the document read in part, adding, “Always remember, you are the one who can decide on how and when to express your own sexuality … There are many myths about masturbation, but here is the truth … masturbation is not harmful to health at all. In fact, it can be a very safe way to explore your body and your sexuality.” 

Age-old practice?

Mr Frank Mugisha, one of the activists who advocates for rights of sexual minorities, insists that homosexuality “is a natural sexual expression.” The executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) adds that “historical evidence from colonial anthropologists” suggests that homosexuality is hardly an imported disposition. Mr Mugisha notes that Captain Frederick Lugard, who served as the military administrator of Uganda from 1890 to 1892, was, for instance, abhorred by the practice of homosexuality.

“Lately, I have seen even historical fictional works like Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi deliberately locate the practice in pre-colonial Buganda to avoid the implications that it is a Western culture,” he further reveals.   

Prof Sylvia Tamale, who has carried out a number of studies on gay communities in Africa, also insists that homosexuality is a local phenomenon. 

“I have met many Ugandan gays and lesbians who have never had any form of interaction [direct or indirect] with Whites. A good number of them are illiterate or semi-illiterate.  It’s not quite clear they arrived at their homosexuality either through nature or nurture,” Prof Tamale wrote in her paper titled “Out of the Closet: Unveiling Sexuality Discourse in Uganda.

Whilst Mr Tayebwa’s anti-gay stance in Maputo speech has—for the most part—been received favourably, a few observers accuse him of being populist. 

“Those are making political statements because they want to be heard. I have a problem here: Homosexuality is here. The justice system has failed to tackle it,” Pastor Solomon Male said, adding, “Personally, I’m a victim of the system when I came up to fight homosexuality. Why do they come to make political statements which they don’t enforce? Who is funding this government?” 

Double standards?

Although homosexuality is criminal in Uganda, Mr Male says there is hypocrisy in Uganda’s policy since it claims that there is a specialised clinic that treats “people with homosexuality challenges” at Mulago National Referral Hospital.

“Can we say we are fighting homosexuality? These political figures make political pronouncements and then do the opposite,” Mr Male fumed. 

When contacted, Mr Emmanuel Ainebyona, the Health ministry spokesperson, said there is no “such a clinic in Mulago” not least because “Ugandan laws on homosexuality are clear.”

Mr Male also pointed out another contradiction that came to light in 2015 when the government thrashed out a $2m (Shs7.5b) deal with the Global Fund in which homosexuals were able to get specialised services in the fight against HIV-Aids in what’s called Most-At-Risk Populations (MARPs). As per Mr Male, the items that Uganda got included lubricants and condoms to be distributed free of charge to MARPs. The at-risk people included men who have sex with men (MSM), fishing communities, boda boda riders, truckers and sex workers.

Caught between a stone and a hard place, the Ministry of Health back then said the project was to ensure every Ugandan got treatment without discrimination.

“So, key populations will not be left out as it has been in the past. They [MARPs] are people like us and they should get services without discrimination,” explained Dr Joshua Musinguzi, then manager of the Aids Control Programme (ACP).

The project that lasted one year saw the Danish International Development Agency (Danida) dole out $470,000 (Shs1.8b) in an effort to establish MARPs clinic facilities at Mulago National Referral Hospital, Mbarara, Gulu and Mbale regional referral hospitals.

“The West is funny they are selling ‘homosexualism’ in exchange for either trade or grants or even visas,” Mr Ssempa told Sunday Monitor, adding, “In 2014, when Uganda passed the anti-sodomy law, the World Bank had a $100m (Shs376b) grant for Uganda for purposes of helping in maternity care and improving maternity hospitals. That grant was cancelled when Uganda passed the law.”

Mr Ssempa proceeded to reveal: “Even the Inter-Religious Council had a grant from PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which was used to provide treatment for HIV and they cancelled that grant and caused major disruption of services of people living with HIV because when you don’t accept [homosexuality] they [the West] start using terms such as anti-gay or homophobic …”   

Political populism

In 2007, Pew Research Centre survey on attitudes found that 96 percent of Ugandans saw homosexuality as intolerable. The study also found that political analysts contend that political leaders have tapped into what they term as “populist” homophobia to keep themselves in power. An anti-gay stance, the study noted, usually translates into a win of the ballot. 

For instance, in the final stretch of the 2021 elections, President Museveni—who has been in power since 1986—accused Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine, of being a stooge of Western elements. Without naming names, Mr Museveni said such elements want to promote homosexuality in Uganda. 

“He gets quite a lot of encouragement from foreigners and homosexuals,” the President said on the campaign trail, adding, “Homosexuals are very happy with Bobi Wine. I think they even sent him support.”

Bobi Wine was forced to address the accusations after NRM supporters threatened to make the election a referendum on homosexuality. 

“I’m married to a woman you all know. It is a shame, it is disrespectful, and I feel insulted to be involved in the sex talk when we have few hours to elections,” Mr Kyagulanyi said. “Driving me to such talk is diversionary. I would rather use the time to talk about our plans for the people of this country.”

Shifting sands

In 2014, long before he joined politics, Bobi Wine had been denied a visa to travel to the UK where he was slated to have a music show. At the time, gay rights activists accused Mr Kyagulanyi of fanning homophobic attacks in his songs—an act they claimed contravened the United Kingdom’s Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2018. The legislation forbids inciting hatred on grounds of sexual orientation. The debacle forced Mr Kyagulanyi to issue a statement in which he tried to strike a delicate balance between his home base and international ambitions. 

“Uganda is a democratic country and I do not make the laws. However, it’s my duty as a law-abiding citizen to adhere to the law as required of me by the Constitution,” he said, adding, “It’s a misinterpretation to say that Uganda wants to kill homosexuals because the biggest section for the offenders (aggravated homosexuality with a minor where the offender is HIV positive) is life imprisonment and not death.”

He proceeded to conclude thus: “… I am personally not out to threaten the life of any individual based on their sexual orientation. I just DO NOT (his emphasis) agree with them. This is my opinion and happens to be that of 99 percent Ugandans/Africans based on our culture, religion and Constitution.”

Just before the 2021 elections – which he won amidst allegations of fraud—Mr Mr Museveni fielded questions with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. During the sit down interview, Mr Museveni conceded that homosexuals “are not new in Africa.”

“They have been here. We know them, but we have got a different view of them. We think they are deviants,” he said, adding, “They are not persecuted. They are not harangued, but we don’t promote them. We don’t flaunt homosexuality as if it’s an alternative way of life. We don’t promote them like it’s done in the western world.”  

Earlier, in 2012, Mr Museveni had told BBC’s Hardtalk programme that “homosexuals in small numbers have always existed in our part of black Africa … They were never prosecuted. They were never discriminated.” But in 2014 as the 2016 elections were drawing closer, Mr Museveni signed the Anti- Homosexuality Bill into law. The law was later annulled by the Constitutional Court on grounds that the House had Coram.   

After signing the short-lived law, Mr Museveni told CNN thus of homosexuals: “They’re disgusting. What sort of people are they? I never knew what they were doing. I’ve been told recently that what they do is terrible. Disgusting. But I was ready to ignore that if there was proof that that’s how he was born, abnormal. But now the proof is not there.”

Mr Museveni had commissioned a group of Ugandan government doctors to study whether homosexuality is “learned.” Their findings pointed to it being a matter of choice.

“I was regarding it as an inborn problem,” Mr Museveni said. “Genetic distortion—that was my argument. But now our scientists have knocked this one out.”

Proponents of the anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda insist that recruiting of children into the behaviour has increased and it’s about time they increased the stakes by resurrecting the law.

“We are working on a few details, but we shall reintroduce the Bill because we don’t want people to force on us their practices,” Mr Nsaba Buturo said.

What next?

Gay rights activists don’t agree with the direction politicians are taking.

“We all know what the anti-homosexuality Act did to our dear country’s reputation far from its border. It gained a reputation as ‘kill the gays country. ’ As a country known to host refugees, a symbol and mark of tolerance, such statements [of politicians] I doubt auger with a solid foreign,” Mr Mugisha concluded.