Since the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill was first introduced in Uganda’s Parliament in October 2009, it has been like a recurring bad dream. Like most recurring dreams, you don’t have this one every night; you only experience it when stressful events trigger its return. Over the past three years, we’ve seen the AHB dominate the headlines, then go dormant, and then come back whenever there are external or internal events which call for either a diversion or a handy weapon.
Did Britain threaten to cut off aid? Let’s revive the bill. Did a feisty opposition leader provoke a violent crackdown? Let’s bring back the bill. Did the American Secretary of State just declare that “gay rights are human rights“? Time to bring it back. Clinton’s speech before the United Nations in Geneva proved a handy pretext to re-introduce the bill into Parliament last February, but it has been languishing in committee since then.
So why the sudden impetus now? One Ugandan human rights leader sees one possibility:
But Kikonyogo Kivumbi, executive director of civil rights organisation Uhspa-Uganda, painted a different picture by describing the anti-gay legislation as a “political weapon” for the Ugandan dictatorship in its attempts to influence the UN.
“Uganda is using the bill to threaten and blackmail the West,” he told IBTimes UK. “They know that respect of human rights is a sensible subject in the West and they are using it to blackmail the international community.”
The activist added that the Ugandan government is furious at a UN report which claimed it was abetting rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The report found that ministers in Kampala are supporting the M23 rebels “in the form of direct troop reinforcements in DRC territory, weapons deliveries, technical assistance, joint planning, political advice and facilitation of external relations”.
Kivumbi said. “When the report came out, the regime was furious and threatened to pull out of Somalia [where around 5,000 Ugandan troops are currently supporting the African Union's peace-keeping mission and curbing the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab].
“They are threatening the sovereignty of a state, Congo, using the Somalia deal which they consider a soft spot for the West.”
This news mostly escaped western notice, but the UN report was a huge deal in Uganda when it came out. President Yoweri Museveni was clearly stung by the report, and he has threatened to pull Ugandan troops out of its peacekeeping mission in Somalia, where they have played a central role in pushing armed clans out of Mogadishu. Ugandan authorities are also making a show of closing its border with Congo even as Congolese rebels have captured the strategic Eastern city of Goma.
That row over the Congo is only one of a long list of conflicts confronting the Ugandan government. Over the past few months, Britain, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden announced that they were cutting direct aid to the Ugandan government after learning that much of it went into the personal bank account of Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. Well gee, how did it get there?, he asked with feigned ignorance as he promptly found seventeen scapegoats to fire. Those scapegoats are now firing back. A similar scandal is reaching First Lady and Parliament Member Janet Museveni. And in yet another scandal, dozens of leaders have been caught in a US$650 million pension scam in which they registered thousands of so-called “ghost pensioners” to skim payments off of the nation pension plan’s meager resources. In reaction to all that, the World Bank has now warned that it would review its aid to Uganda, and last weekend, Britain announced that it not just halted its direct aid, but had frozen all bilateral aid, including aid to NGO’s and Ugandan financial institutions as well. That’s a huge hit. Total bilateral aid for the year was set for £98.9 million (US$157 million).
(By the way, the nation’s clerics, sensing an opportunity, have called on foreign governments to bypass the kleptocracy and give the foreign aid directly to them. But obviously, Britain isn’t buying.)
Meanwhile, Uganda’s primary referral hospital, Mulago Hospital, was forced to close its intensive care unit due to lack of funds while the country continues to struggle with nodding disease (the government’s response included feeding its victims rotten food) and a fresh Ebola outbreak. But when anti-corruption activists tried to hold a meeting to demand accountability in government, police intervened and put a stop to it. And, by the way, foreigners are getting brand new identity cards soon. The only reason Ugandans aren’t getting new national identity cards is because that project, too, has been botched by corruption.
So with all that going on, why not throw the masses some tripe and bring up the Anti-Homosexuality Bill? The timing is obviously ripe for it. All that was needed was a pretext. And that came earlier this month when Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga went to Canada for an Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly and was present when Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird blasted Uganda’s human rights record. Baird particularly singled out the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the murder of Ugandan LGBT advocate David Kato in January, 2011. Kadaga replied with an angry retort, complete with the usual appeals to Uganda’s sovereignty and denunciations of Western colonialism. When she returned home to Entebbe, she was greeted with a hero’s welcome. She then announced to the cheering crowds that Uganda, by God, would show the world it can’t be pushed around anymore.
Speaker Kadaga has emerged as a pivotal figure lately in Ugandan politics. Amid widespread discontent over Museveni’s determination to remain in office through media manipulation and constant crackdowns on the opposition, Kadaga’s fearless brashness plays like a breath of fresh air. Her longstanding position in the ruling National Resistance Movement doesn’t appear to hurt either, as that makes her both a practical and a plausable successor to Museveni should he accept calls to restore term limits when his current term ends in 2016, after which he will have been in power for more than thirty years.
Kadaga’s political instincts are sharp, and she knows a popular, career-enhancing platform when she sees one. She has been a supporter of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill from the very beginning, and before that, for increased penalties for homosexuality. In April 2009, while Deputy Speaker, she presided over Parliament as M.P. David Bahati sought approval to submit an Anti-Homosexuality Bill as a private member’s bill. The bill failed to come to a vote before the Eight Parliament expired in May 2011.But after the Ninth Parliament elected her as Speaker, Kadaga promptly to engineered the bill’s reintroduction in February 2012. She is now pushing for its passage before Parliament breaks for Christmas on December 15. She says it will be a “Christmas gift” to the Ugandan people, and given the widespread homophobia in Ugandan society, the bill’s passage would only enhance Kadaga’s reputation further. And by the way, the bill’s passage under her leadership might, conveniently, help to quash rumors which surround the fact that, at age 56, Kadaga remains unmarried and without children in a country that takes these things very seriously.
So where is Museveni in all this? It’s usually right about now when a government spokesperson comes forward to tell us that the President or his cabinet has “rejected” the bill. But nobody from Museveni’s cabinet is throwing cold water on it this time. And it may well be that with all of the challenges that Museveni is facing, the bill’s passage, or even its mere threat, may serve Museveni’s interests as much as they serves Kadaga’s. If this bill is passed, she will get the credit — a good thing in domestic politics in the short term — because it will have her fingerprints all over it. But those fingerprints won’t dust off so easily in the long term when the country deals with the fallout with further reductions of foreign aid. That could be particularly damaging in the eyes of those who had supported her as a potential successor to Museveni, and that could play to Museveni’s long-term benefit.
None of this says that the bill’s passage is imminent, and none of its says that it’s not. That’s the tricky thing about trying to read the tea leaves in Uganda. The only thing that is certain is that it all comes down to whose interests are served best and how they are best served. If Kadaga passes the bill now, she will be a hero, for at least few months anyway. If its delayed again, then it’s still out there, ready to be acted on, until the Ninth Parliament expires in 2016. Either way, the larger message has gone out: leave us alone or the gays gets it.