An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014

On Monday 24th February, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the long-debated Anti-Homosexuality Act. The act introduces new offences and extended sentences for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people (see the All Out poster, below). The passing of the law drew immediate criticism from the international community, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHR) Navi Pillay describing it as ‘deeply concerning’, US Secretary of State John Kerry comparing it to anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazis in the 1930s, and rights groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) observing that it is a violation of fundamental human rights.

Following the signing, a number of Uganda’s largest donors placed their aid programmes under immediate review. White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the US – which is one of Uganda’s largest donors, with a programme worth more than US$400 million per year – was reviewing its assistance to the country. Denmark immediately withheld US$9 million from its aid programme, and Norway cancelled US$8 million of its support for Uganda. The World Bank also withheld a US$90 million loan package. The passing of the law also produced other economic effects as well, including a drop in value of the Ugandan Shilling - which fell 2.9% against the US dollar - and a call from some business leaders, led by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, for investors to boycott the country. 

Although in the period following the act’s signing, Museveni has attempted to present the new law as a great show of strength, and as an example of his government's independent-mindedness from ‘western’ influences – for example, during an extended interview that he gave to CNN on 24th itself (available here) – in reality the new bill, and the manner in which it was passed, highlight growing weaknesses within his presidency, as well as the increasing disconnect between his executive and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM)’s parliamentary caucus.

These weaknesses have in fact been evident ever since the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was first introduced, in 2009. Although the original draft was tabled as a private members bill – by David Bahati, MP for Ndorwa West – it quickly became a cause celebre of a group of younger NRM MPs who, distrustful both of the president and of his executive, have made it their political project to check Museveni’s powers. From the outset, this group of ‘young turks’ recognized that if this new law could be passed, then it would draw a strong reaction from donors, and lead to significant aid suspensions, and that this would be in turn be a huge blow for Museveni. This is because, despite all of the recent talk of imminent new petrodollars, the president remains largely dependent on foreign aid to fund the enormous networks of political sponsorship that he has used, since seizing power in 1986, to extend his influence throughout the country (especially in the rural areas). As of 2012, foreign aid still accounts for 20% of Uganda's entire budget, with a value of around US$1.6 billion. 

Thus, although Museveni’s personal views are themselves certainly homophobic – a US embassy cable released by Wikileaks in 2009 described his opinions regarding homosexuality as ‘quite intemperate’, and as influenced by those of his wife Janet (who is a born-again Christian), while in the CNN interview referred to above, he called homosexuals ‘disgusting’ – he nevertheless recognized the potential threat that the bill posed to him, and he therefore moved quickly to quash it. In late 2009, the president issued an executive order against the bill, and he set up a special parliamentary committee that found the draft legislation to be legally unsound. When this didn’t work, and the bill was reintroduced again, in February 2012 (albeit with its former provision for the death penalty – for acts of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ – removed), he then directed the executive both to filibuster its passage through parliament, and to publically condemn it as (again) legally 'redundant'.

However, in the period since early 2012, the group of NRM ‘young turks’ – whose parliamentary numbers significantly increased in the February 2011 general elections – have become greatly emboldened, and have challenged the president on an increasingly wide range of issues and legislation. Ironically, they have received at least some encouragement in these efforts from international rights-based organizations, who have separately come to regard the group as a key constituency for avoiding the emergence of a ‘resource curse’ once Uganda’s new oil comes on-stream in a few years times (in addition to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, oil has been another of the rebel MPs ‘causes celebres’). In addition, though, the group has also received funding and support from a number of (especially US-based) evangelical Christian networks. Most importantly of all, though, during 2012, the young turks have also found a new, and very powerful, de facto leader in the person of Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga. Although still the Vice Chairperson of the NRM, in recent months Kadaga has emerged as Museveni’s most significant political rival, and has challenged him directly on a number of issues (for example, on his ongoing attempts to have four members of rebel MPs group – Theodore Ssekikubo, Wilfred Niwagaba, Mohammed Nsereko, and Barnabas Tinkasimire – thrown out of parliament).

It was through the direct intervention of Rebecca Kadaga that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill finally got through parliament. On 20th December last year, Kadaga allowed the bill to be tabled for a third time – even though it was not on the order papers for that week – and having packed the house with their supporters, the rebels finally managed to pass the bill. Yet even after that, the executive continued to fight the bill, for example on 28th December when Museveni wrote a 28-page letter to Kadaga, and to all MPs, claiming that the vote was illegal, because the house lacked a quorum when it was taken (by 20th December, most MPs had already left for their Christmas vacations). Later, the president went on to say that he would delay signing the bill into law until he had consulted with the scientific community over whether homosexuality was an outcome of genetic predispositions, or socialization. However, on 24th February, following growing pressure from the popular press – which was also responsible for generating the major 'moral panic' over homosexuality that followed the first tabling of the bill, in 2009 – Museveni finally gave up, and signed the bill into law.

Looking ahead, the passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill will almost certainly have at least three major effects. Firstly, it will result in further significant aid cancellations, of the sort that have already begun. Even though some of these monies will doubtless eventually be restored, following the passing of this new law, all donors will be under huge pressure (from their own domestic constituencies) to follow the UK's lead in shifting their support away from 'direct aid' - i.e. money which is given directly to the state itself -  towards more 'indirect' forms of assistance - through which funds are funnelled directly to civil society organisations. The UK have already made this shift following a corruption scandal in November 2012. Such a shift would revert back to 1990s-era approaches, which were later rejected for undermining state legitimacy and capacity.

Any major move towards indirect aid would have huge repercussions for Museveni himself, who is heavily dependent on direct foreign aid to fund his networks of political sponsorship. Ever since he came to power, Museveni has used decentralisation - and the proliferation of local administrative structures that this has generated - to deepen his influence throughout the country, especially in the rural areas. Without direct aid, the president will instead become more reliant on the military to extend his power. These current developments are unlikely to have any effect at all on Uganda's receipt of large levels of 'strategic aid' (i.e. military aid), especially from the US - given what America perceives to be its key regional strategic importance, and the fact that it still provides the majority of the troops for the African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) - and Uganda is also now playing a peacekeeping role in South Sudan. In other words, the reaction to this law will likely accelerate current politic trends, which have already seen Museveni making moves to extend the army's role in domestic affairs. For example, during his recent 'anti-poverty campaign' - which unofficially inaugurated his reelection campaign - the president announced plans to set up a military barracks in ever county throughout the country, to oversee 'new initiatives'. The commander of each of these barracks will allegedly report directly to Museveni's brother, Gen. Salim Saleh.
Secondly, the passing of this new law will greatly embolden the group of rebel NRM MPs, and especially their leader, Mary Kadaga. Indeed, although Museveni will continue to try to check her powers over the coming period, it is now almost inconceivable to think that she will not end up running against him – in some capacity – in the next presidential election (in 2016). Thirdly, and perhaps ironically, the passing of this law may in fact increase Museveni’s general standing within the wider pan-African community. In recent years, homophobic sentiment has been harnessed, and encouraged, by an increasing number of African governments, who have used it as a vehicle for promoting African ‘sovereignty’ in the face of (what is perceived to be) increasing outside influence on the continent. In a context in which Museveni has already indicated his plans to run for a senior regional role if and when he does step down as Uganda’s president, his signing this bill into law may therefore improve his chances. 

However, what remains unclear at this stage is what effect the next law will have on the people it most effects: i.e. Uganda’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community? In the days since the law has been passed, the community has come in for greatly increased vitriol in the press, with the tabloid Red Pepper, for example, publishing the names of Uganda’s ‘Top 200 Gays’ - in a move which has frightening echoes of Rolling Stone’s 2010 publication of the photographs of 100 gay people, alongside a banner headline reading ‘Hang Them!’ That publication was shortly followed by the brutal murder of gay-rights activist David Kato. 

However, whether this current wave of homophobia is sustained into the longer term will depend very much on how the new law is implemented. Although the death penalty has been removed, the new law amongst other things still increases penalties for some forms of same-sex conduct between adults; outlaws lesbianism for the first time, and; introduces new offenses of ‘promoting homosexuality’ (which could include offering legal advice to gay people, and/or offering health services). Yet how many of these new and increased offenses will be actually enforced by the courts remains to be seen. In the only positive development this week, the Minister of Health, Ruhakana Rugunda, has already said that all health services will continue to be provided in an equitable manner, regardless of patients’ sexual orientation.

There is a proverb in Runyankore/Rukiga, 'enjoojo kwirwana obunyansi nubwo bubonabona' - 'when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers'. As Museveni and Kadaga lock horns ahead of 2016, Uganda's LGBT community bears the brunt.