Resentment Toward the West Bolsters Uganda’s New Anti-Gay Bill By JOSH KRON
KAMPALA, Uganda — At first, it was a fiery contempt for homosexuality that led a Ugandan lawmaker to introduce a bill in 2009 that carried the death penalty for a “serial offender” of the “offense of homosexuality.”
The bill’s failure amid a blitz of international criticism was viewed by many as evidence of power politics, a poor nation bending to the will of rich nations that feed it hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
But this time around — the bill was reintroduced this month — it is a bitter and broad-based contempt for Western diplomacy that is also fueling its resurrection.
“If there was any condition to force the Western world to stop giving us money,” said David Bahati, the bill’s author, “I would like that.”
The Obama administration recently said it would use its foreign diplomatic tools, including aid, to promote equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain has threatened to cut aid for countries that do not accept homosexuality.
But African nations have reacted bitterly to the new dictates of engagement, saying they smack of neo-colonialism. In the case of Uganda, the grudge could even help breathe new life into the anti-homosexuality bill.
Antigovernment demonstrations sometimes turn violent and news about corruption scandals fills the tabloids here, but two things most people agree on is that homosexuality is not tolerated and that Westerners can be overbearing.
The United States says it remains “resolutely opposed” to the bill, and at the American Embassy in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, officials are actively engaged in lobbying Ugandan policy makers to oppose the bill, too.
“Our position is clear,” said Hilary Renner, a State Department spokeswoman.
The pressure has worked, to a certain degree. Some of the most contentious elements of the bill — the death penalty, and a clause ordering citizens to report known acts of homosexuality to the police within 24 hours — would be taken out, Mr. Bahati said in a recent interview. That could make the bill less explosive for lawmakers.
But the diplomatic tensions surrounding the bill also seem to be increasing its popularity.
“While covert behind-the-scenes donor pressure on the Ugandan government has been useful in the past,” said Dr. Rahul Rao, a lecturer at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy in London, “overt pressure can be extremely counterproductive.”
The government of President Yoweri Museveni, while distancing itself from the bill, defended the right for the bill to be debated in Uganda’s Parliament, saying in a recent statement that “cultural attitudes in Africa are very different to elsewhere.”
Kizza Besigye, an opposition leader who has courted the West, said Western pressure on the issue of homosexuality was “misplaced” and “even annoying.”
“There are more obvious, more prevalent and harmful violations of human rights that are glossed over,” Mr. Besigye said. “Their zeal over this matter makes us look at them with cynicism to say the least.”
When Mr. Bahati reintroduced the bill in Parliament, he did so to rounds of applause.
In this religious and traditional society, the tug of war between advocates and opponents of gay rights remains tense.
Days after the bill was reintroduced, a clandestine gay rights meeting at a hotel was broken up personally by Uganda’s minister of ethics.
“In the past they were stoned to death,” said the minister, Simon Lokodo. “In my own culture they are fired on by the firing squad, because that is a total perversion.”
Last year, a newspaper published a list of gay people in Uganda and urged readers and policy makers to “Hang Them.”
Much of Africa’s anti-homosexuality movement is supported by American evangelicals, the Rev. Kapya Kaoma of Zambia wrote in 2009, who are keen to export the American “culture war” to new ground. Indeed, American evangelical Christians played a role in stirring the anti-homosexual sentiment that culminated in the initial legislation in Uganda.
The few gay rights advocates in Uganda who work publicly on the issue have seen their own exposure — and support — widen, too. One received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award last year. The organization whose conference was shut down this month receives tens of thousands of dollars from the American Jewish World Service, according to the organization’s Web site. As for Mr. Bahati, orphaned at the age of 3 and until recently a relatively unknown politician, the past several years have been a roller-coaster-ride of emotions, from obscurity to fame and infamy. The American news media, he said, have shredded his reputation.
“They really worked out on the word ‘death,’ ” he said, referring to coverage of the bill’s death penalty provision. “We used to have friends in America, but most of them are now scared even to identify with us.”
It was in the United States, Mr. Bahati contended, that he first became close with a group of influential social conservatives, including politicians, known as The Fellowship, which would later become a base of inspiration and technical support for the anti-homosexuality bill.
Mr. Bahati said the idea for the bill first sprang from a conversation with members of The Fellowship in 2008, because it was “too late” in America to propose such legislation. Now, he said, he feels abandoned.
“In Africa we value friendship,” Mr. Bahati said. “But the West is different.”
Richard Carver, who said he served as president of The Fellowship until August 2011, said members of his group were actively involved in Uganda, including one with close ties to lawmakers. But Mr. Carver said the group never took an official position on the proposed legislation.
“This is a very large group,” said Mr. Carver, adding that “individuals can speak for themselves.”
Mr. Bahati contends that African nations like Uganda, by contrast, cannot speak for themselves — that reliance on international aid makes “unindependent.”
Nothing was more telling, he said, than Prime Minister Cameron’s threat to cut development aid to countries that refuse to accept homosexuality. As for the United States, the State Department has pledged at least $3 million to civil society organizations working on gay rights.
According to Mr. Bahati, his anti-homosexuality bill would upend that. A clause in the bill prohibits organizations that support gay rights from working in Uganda, potentially including the development arms of foreign governments.
“It becomes very easy,” Mr. Bahati said. “Their licenses will be revoked.”
A parliamentary committee has 45 days to debate the bill before sending it back to Parliament or asking for an extension. Mr. Bahati said that he was confident the bill would pass, but that if it did not, he had a Plan B: hope for a Republican victory in November.
“The good thing with the West is that we know that Obama can influence the world only up to 2016,” he said. “That’s a definite.”
There were some interesting things discovered about these bills when they were first introduced- chiefly that they had received backing and encouragement from certain evangelical groups here. The same groups that, mind you, try to excuse their bigotry by saying that they're merely protecting the institute of marriage and preventing 'big government' from getting itself to force mandates on Churches to do what they don't want to do. The same groups on the other end of the oceans show the true extent of their homophobia by encouraging violence against these 'unseemly' activities. But again, it's only about the institute of marriage according to them...
Of course there is the aspect of the social terrain in these countries, which tend to be more traditional than those in the 'west'. It is interesting to me in the article that highlights how they've taken to exploit anger towards western interference in their affairs, in this respect against figures like Obama in the US and Cameron in the UK who've put warnings of fund cuts if these sorts of laws are passed. Those few groups which try to prevent this nonsense though are outweighed by the traditional groups which encourage- undoubtedly who have support from some evangelical groups around the world.