Smoke Screen

12.15.12

Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill Is a Smoke Screen Obscuring Deeper Problems

An evergreen bill imposing life imprisonment on gays is arguably nothing more than an ugly diversion in the hands of politicians eager to avoid real problems, writes Jocelyn Edwards.

Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda’s speaker of parliament, broke her pledge to pass the country’s infamous anti-gay bill before the year’s end on Friday, as the lawmakers in the small East African nation broke for the holidays without debating the legislation. And so, a population found in one survey to be 96 percent opposed to homosexuality won’t get the odious “Christmas gift” she had promised. But for the government, however, that hardly matters. For Ugandan lawmakers, the anti-gay bill has served its purpose again.

While westerners protested Ugandan embassies worldwide and posted petitions on social media, some in the East African nation sighed. Government critics, watching the almost cyclical return of the matter to prominence every few months, believe what has become known as the “Kill the Gays” bill is merely a cynical ploy to distract from an acute governance deficit in the nation, a flimsy smoke screen for Uganda’s more pressing problems.

President Yoweri Museveni’s hesitance over the bill, which originally proposed the death penalty for the offence of “aggravated homosexuality,” is well documented. Shortly after the legislation was proposed by a backbencher in his party three years ago, the president complained to his caucus about the pressure he was getting from foreign diplomats over it; his reticence to alienate the international community has likely prevented it from being passed long before now.

In fact, privately, Museveni has expressed more tolerance towards homosexuality than most in his country. In an interview with me earlier this year, top presidential advisor John Nagenda said that while Museveni himself believes homosexuality is morally wrong, “he has actually said in my hearing that whether one agrees with homosexuality or not, to some people, it is natural and that therefore there should be more understanding about it.”

So why, in a country where nothing happens without the say of a president with almost three decades in power and a wide dictatorial streak, has the bill been allowed to return with an almost predictable regularity? For Museveni, a master political manipulator, it serves an important political function.

The latest outburst of rhetoric over the bill, which lawmakers say no longer contains the death penalty but retains jail terms of up to life in prison, comes just as the government is under pressure on a number of fronts. In October, the news broke that $15 million dollars earmarked for the recovery of parts of the country devastated by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army had ended up in the private bank accounts of officials in the prime minister’s office.

Corruption scandals are nothing new in Uganda, but after years of empty threats, Britain, Germany, and several other European countries cut $180 million dollars worth of aid to the country. It’s a significant amount for a nation that depends on western donors for 25 percent of its annual budget, and hard questions are starting to emerge about how these cuts will affect government programs in Uganda, where teachers and other civil servants are already routinely paid late or not at all.

In recent weeks, Ugandans have also been engaged in a divisive national debate on new legislation to govern the country’s emerging oil industry, with even members of the president’s own party questioning the sweeping new powers given to the executive. Critics warn that the recently enacted law could open Uganda’s future oil revenues up to theft on a scale that would make the missing $15 million look like small change.

“It’s not coincidental that the gay bill was on the order paper next to the oil debate,” says Angelo Izama, a Uganda political analyst and fellow with the Open Society Initiative, who calls the legislation a “unifying” force. At a time when cracks in the consensus around Museveni’s 27-year rule are starting to emerge, gays have become a common enemy to unite against.

After years of empty threats, Britain, Germany, and several other European countries cut $180 million dollars worth of aid to the country.

The bill also served an important purpose for Museveni internationally. Once a darling of the aid community for his reformist economic approach, the president is facing not just a tightening of the purse strings, but allegations that Uganda played a role in the recent crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country stands accused by a U.N. report of providing logistical assistance to the M23 rebel movement.

But just at the point he was losing favor with donors, renewed threats to pass the anti-gay bill have given him new leverage. The bill could return after Christmas and with virtually all members of parliament behind the bill, if legislation comes to a vote it will almost certainly pass. Museveni, whose signature is required for it to become law, is the only one who can stop it.

“To negotiate away (a law produced by) a legislative process which is legal and sovereign, Museveni, whose action is required, (becomes) sought out by donors,” says Izama.

When the bill was first introduced, Museveni was lobbied by U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and fielded a personal phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While he may not have appreciated the attention then, he might welcome appeals for his intervention on the matter from top level diplomats now. And given his country’s sudden need for cash, if they call he might just have a few demands of his own.