There are three bills that have stalled in the Ugandan parliament for a very long time. These are the Marriage and Divorce bill, the HIV and AIDS Prevention Control bill and the infamous Anti-Homosexuality bill, also known as the ‘Bahati bill’ after the Member of Parliament from Ndorwa West, David Bahati, who tabled it.
Coincidentally all these bills have a strong bearing on the health and human rights of sections of the Uganda population. But it is the anti-homosexuality bill – a bill that seeks to criminalise consensual adult sexual relationships – that has caused the most excitement, uproar and international condemnation.
The excitement exhibited by the Uganda members of parliament when tabling the anti- homosexuality bill can only be comparable to that of school children receiving a truckload of ice cream. They shouted, they cajoled members, and vowed to ‘crush the homosexuals’. In return, the Ugandan parliamentarians succeeded in attaining international notoriety for trying to clamp down on gay persons.
Fortunately, this bill may never go beyond where it is now, largely because of the pressure mounted by human rights advocates and the international community. From what the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has said, he may have succumbed to such pressure: “I have got so many calls from people about this homosexuality bill. Last time I received a call from the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, telling me to drop this bill.”
It is possible that President Museveni, wishing to reduce such pressure, urged Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who leans towards the ruling party, to shelve the bill for another time. This influence is very easy for a house largely controlled Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Museveni can do almost anything he wishes with this parliament. It is alleged he once paid each member in his party about $2,500 US dollars to have presidential term limits scrapped in order to gain a lifetime presidency after personally making telephone calls to each one on how to vote. This would suggest he can have anything his way, including a stay of the homosexuality bill.
Museveni is also not a fool to annoy the Americans at this time. There is so much at stake between Uganda and America now. Museveni needs to extend his more than 26 year long stay in power, and Uganda’s troops in Somalia need American support. What’s more, America is also supporting Uganda to capture rebel-leader Joseph Kony while cushioning the country against the threat of its powerful neighbour Sudan, under Omar Bashir.
The battle over Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill
There are three divergent groups involved in the gay controversy in Uganda. The first are genuinely in favour of the bill, such as members of the Ugandan parliament and conservative religious leaders. Although, surprisingly, some institutions and persons known to promote social justice and human rights appear supportive of the anti-gay bill. With the general public sentiments tilted to their side, many Ugandan MPs and conservative Christian leaders see themselves as little heroes championing the excuse, which most Africans governments are using to clamp down on gay persons, that they are “preserving the great aesthetics of our African traditional values and culture that the West is bent on destroying.”
The second group constitutes the moderates. This includes the president of Uganda. They argue that gay practice or homosexuality did not start with Western civilisation. This group may accommodate gay practice, but on condition that LGBTI are not given limelight in society. This attitude may not help much, since it will not promote better programming for LGBTI within national institutional frameworks such as the health sector.
The third, and equally powerful group, are the pro-gay lobby groups who will have no compromise until the bill is discarded in totality. These are mainly NGOs, already blacklisted for closure by the Uganda government for their pro-human rights stands. Many who have funded some LGBTI activities are already threatened. Recently, I talked to a programme officer of a women’s group that used to support gay programmes and she confided to me that they were now reluctant to incorporate LGBTI activities in their plans for fear of closure.
There now seems to be no headway for the anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament. As a liberal minded Ugandan lady, who preferred not to be named, describes: “The gay bill is in paralysis – it cannot move forward and cannot be withdrawn. Any step that may be taken either way needs a lot of caution, and that step has risks of causing immense uproar from sections of the community, within and without Uganda’s borders.”
Andrew Mwenda, a leading international and well respected Ugandan journalist, while talking on Uganda’s Capital Radio, argued that the gay issue is not being portrayed fairly. He said that, whereas anti-gay lobbyists accuse gay groups of recruiting children from Uganda primary schools into gay practice, no proof of such recruitment is evident, yet we have a situation in which a large number of underage girls are sexually active and being exploited by adult males. To him, this is more disastrous to Uganda and it a more plausible challenge than the purported ‘gay recruitment’ drives.
Could it be true that the anti-homosexuality bill may never live to see the dawn of a new day?