This is Uganda, not Ugayda

Described as one of the worst place for LGBT people to live in by Human Rights Organisations, the African country is planning to adopt a law that would punish homosexuality by death. Will the UK’s threat to cut economic aid change anything? 

“The UK is showing a bullying mentality. We are tired of them treating us like children”. This statement was not from the Iranian government, it is not denouncing British foreign policy towards them. It is from Uganda, and it is about gay rights. That is how the African country’s Prime Minister called the intention of the UK to cut aid to Commonwealth countries that do not respect Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual (LGBT) rights. Reactions were strong from all over the African continent last month, when British PM David Cameron, announced his intentions, especially in the little Ugandan Republic, Where many people see homosexuality as violating their religious and cultural beliefs and homosexual acts have been illegal in the country since 2000.

Like in many other African countries, it is not a good idea to be openly gay in Uganda. Though, according to the BBC, almost one million LGBTs are living in the country, on a total population of 31 million, Uganda is one of the 70 countries where homosexual acts are illegal, and penalties can go up to life imprisonment. Laws prohibiting homosexual activities were first put in place under British colonial rule in the 19th century. In 2005, a law banning gay marriage was passed, making Uganda the second country in the world to do so. LGBT people face discrimination on a daily basis and harassment at the hands of the media, the police, and the government. The U.S. State Department’s 2006 Country Report on Human Rights for Uganda stated that homosexuals “faced widespread discrimination and legal restrictions”.

Yet, Uganda possesses a strong gay rights movement.  The Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMU), an LBGT umbrella organisation, was able to express itself and its views inside and outside the country, even though its members routinely shift locations in Uganda for their safety.  On the 10th of November, Frank Mugisha, a LGBT rights activist, was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. “It gives me more courage to continue doing the work I’m doing” Mugisha said to The Associated Press “It sends out a message, not only to my country but to other countries that criminalise homosexuality”. Ty Cobb, the head of the Human Rights Campaign, said Mugisha is a role model for gays and lesbians in Africa and the world.

From blackwine on Flickr

The award gave some hope to the Uganda LGBT community. Since 2009 a Anti-Homosexuality Bill, inspired by Christian Evangelists, has been under observation in Parliament. The law would create a new type of criminalisation for LGBT people, named “aggravated homosexuality”.  It is defined to include homosexual acts committed by either a person who is HIV-positive, is a parent or authority figure. Such an offence would be sentenced the death penalty. It also includes provisions for Ugandans who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda and includes penalties for individuals, companies, media organisations, or non-governmental organisations that know of gay people or support LGBT rights. Called by the press tbe “Kill the Gays Bill”, it received a lot of coverage from international medias. After being pressured by the international community, the country’s President Yoweri Museveni postponed the application of the law pending further investigations during most of 2010. Last October, the debate was re-opened, making it an immediate threat for the Ugandan LGBT community.

If David Cameron thought his declaration regarding aid cuts would have a positive effect, he was wrong. Not only Uganda’s President rejected the threat by saying “Uganda is, if you remember, a sovereign state and we are tired of being given these lectures by people” adding, “If they must take their money, so be it”. But even LGBT activists joined him to call off the measure. The director of the British Human Rights Lobby, Peter Tatchell, noted that: “Although these abuses are unacceptable and violate international humanitarian law, cuts in aid would penalise the poorest, most vulnerable people”. Uganda would lose £700 million if Britain were to cut its financial aid.

David Cameron’s move is seen as counterproductive by the Ugandan LGBT activists. Most of them are not expecting the public opinion on homosexuality  to evolve in a positive way if the aid was cut. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project poll of 2007, 96% of Ugandans said that homosexuality should be “rejected by society”, making it one of the highest rejections of homosexuality in any country. And it is not likely too change anytime soon. Last year, the tabloid Rolling Stone published a story featuring the names, and in some cases photographs, of 100 homosexuals under the headline “Hang Them, they want our children”. At the beginning of 2011, David Kato, whose picture was among the 100 listed in the Rolling Stone article and was featured on the cover of the edition, was assaulted in his home in Mukono Town by an unknown male assailant. He later died on route to the Kawolo Hospital. A man was sentenced last week to 30 years in prison for his murder.

For most of the Ugandan LGBT community, it is hard to see any hope of change in the near future. For Samuel, a 30 year old gay activist interviewed by the French gay magazine Têtu, “If we all leave they will have won. Even though for most of the people, the first reaction is reject, I think they will realise someday that we are not so different”. The activist remains optimistic, because he knows that things can change quickly : “Look at South Africa, they legalised gay marriages! It’s incredible, who would have thought that an African country would have authorised LGBT union before most European countries?

Fabien Jannic

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