Sunday, 20 December 2009

What are we gonna do about OJ Uganda?

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's scratching their head at the strange juxtaposition of Uganda's recent move to outlaw female circumcision with moves to pass a bill that would strengthen penalties against being gay.

Unfortunately, this bill seems to be part of a trend of politicised anti-gay sentiment in Central/Eastern Africa; Burundi crimnalised homosexuality in April, and an anti-gay legal code is currently being debated in Rwanda's lower house of Parliament.

It's interesting that the "cherished culture" of Uganda is invoked to defend this bill when part of this culture has just been outlawed.  Also puzzling are the accusations of neo-colonialism levelled at foreign opponents of the bill when the proposed anti-gay legislation has links to the activities of U.S. religious leaders and activists.

Human rights organisations have called for donors to Uganda to withhold their aid, however I believe that this could be counterproductive. Any threats dovetail with the anti-colonial narrative being utilised by supporters of this bill. The activities of international human rights organisations on this issue are also hobbled by the same anti-colonial sentiment. There isn't much these groups can do that will not be demagogued as foreign meddling, and Western disrespect of Ugandan values. That being said, the possibility of losing up to 40% of the national budget might provide a great incentive for politicians to water down the bill. And given its nature I'm hard put to it to voice objections to any actor who'd consider using that source of leverage.

Museveni could still veto it, however while he appears to have given private assurances to U.S. officials that he will work to stop the bill becoming law, Museveni has not yet matched those private actions in public. His history of anti-gay rhetoric will make it difficult for him to come out against any version of the Anti-homosexuality bill.  On the other hand two op-eds against the bill in government controlled media, could be in spite of their problems (outlined HERE and HERE) a sign for optimism.

I think pressure to modify the bill using an approach that focuses on policy analysis, and other forms of expert advice to hammer home the practical implications of passing the bill with its most outrageous language (such as damage to social capital due to people perceiving the law as approval of violence against gays, hindering the fight against the spread of HIV, and the likely violations of international treaties -which signatories cannot just decide to unsign using domestic law-  and the pastoral relationship - no small issue in a country as religious as Uganda) is more likely to be effective than overt LGBT or human rights advocacy as such efforts can more easily avoid demagoguery.

Long term, I believe -based on my very limited understanding of the Ugandan context- that religious leaders are the only actors with enough legitimacy to change the zeitgeist.  Leaders who do not use murderous rhetoric against gays could be engaged in dialogue with more radical preachers. Meanwhile the Ugandan media could also be engaged to report responsibly on marginalised groups, perhaps through the development of new conflict sensitivity curricula in journalism school. I also think there could be work to introduce disruptive information in order to debunk the ideas in books such as Coming out Straight and The Pink Swastika that have influenced the anti-gay movement. Most importantly great pains would need to be taken to keep any intervention from being seen as anything other than locally owned.


  1. Well I applaud their decision to outlaw female's a start!

  2. Yes, banning female circumcision is definitely a good thing. I'm less sure that you can call it a start however since many Ugandan lawmakers appear to exclude gay people from considerations of human rights, and protection under the law.