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Uganda Revives Its Favorite Distraction: Anti-Gay Legislation

One of international diplomacy’s most infuriating political footballs is back in play. Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, versions of which have threatened the death penalty for gays and imprisonment for anyone who fails to inform on them, has passed a committee and is once again awaiting discussion in parliament, which could come any day. The issue has been in and out of the spotlight since 2009, and isn’t quite getting the media attention it has in previous years. But experts say if the bill comes up for a vote before the parliamentary session expires December 14, it will definitely pass.

This time around, parliamentarians have assured major news organizations that the death penalty is no longer in the bill, but the newest version of the document hasn’t been released. Regardless of whether the authors have replaced executions with steep jail sentences, the bill’s message is the same, and its re-tabling may be seen as an endorsement of violence against Uganda’s vulnerable gay community—chased underground by rampant homophobia, death threats and “corrective rape,” and still mourning the murder of activist David Kato less than two years ago.

The bill’s return carries less obvious dangers, too. It’s a human rights violation, but it’s also a tool different parties in Uganda’s government can use to gain leverage against one another and against the international community. At a moment when Uganda’s longtime president, Yoweri Museveni, has finally come under scrutiny for his government’s widespread corruption and autocratic power grabs, the uproar surrounding the bill threatens to eclipse the country’s murkier problems.

“The longer it takes, the better for Museveni,” Kapya Kaoma, of the nonprofit Political Research Associates, says of the issue’s resolution. Museveni has held the top office in Uganda for almost 27 years of relative stability and nominal democracy, and is a key ally of the U.S. and Europe. But Transparency International ranks his government among the most corrupt in the world. Close to 40 percent of the country’s population lived on under $1.25 a day as of 2011; meanwhile, Museveni has used British aid money to purchase a private jet. This fall, evidence that money intended for war-torn Northern Uganda’s recovery programs has instead been lining government officials’ pockets led Britain, Sweden, Ireland, Norway, and Denmark to reduce the aid they budget the country (Britain halted direct giving altogether). Just last week, Germany joined the list.

As long as the legislation is pending, Kaoma says, Museveni can hold other countries for “ransom” instead of answering accusations of corruption (or about recent concerns that Uganda and Rwanda are backing the M23 rebel group in the Congo). Now, “when the Prime Minister calls him, he’s not going to ask him about how the money is being used. He’s calling to plead with him not to pass the bill.”  And, if the bill makes it through parliament and Museveni halts it with a veto, the good press may drown out stories about the realities of his regime.

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Experts disagree on the extent of Museveni’s power to order the bill off the table, and as lawmakers have continued to revive it, he has complained about its salience. “The prime minister of Canada came to see me and what was he talking about? Gays,” he told to the BBC in 2010. “[UK] Prime Minister Gordon Brown came to see me and what was he talking about? Gays. Mrs. Clinton [the US secretary of state] rang me. What was she talking about? Gays.” But for all his complaining that the bill is a PR nightmare for Uganda, Museveni has not stricken it from the agenda. He’s adept at playing both sides: at home, he calls homosexuality “evil” and lambasts Western pressure for disrespecting Ugandan values, but he does not endorse the bill; abroad, he promises his allies that he will “handle” it and will not sign it should it pass, but he never forces it out of the conversation in parliament--a body over which he has a great deal of control. Some go so far as to see Museveni’s minister for ethics and integrity’s persecution of gays as a sign that the president is knowingly keeping the issue alive. “If Museveni didn’t like the bill, by now it would’ve been torn up,” Kaoma said.

The bill is too popular to be dismissed as a political bait-and-switch, but it’s also a boon to the politicians raising it. When its author, David Bahati, re-tabled it in February, Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama told The New York Times its prominence on the schedule was “not accidental.” Gay rights activist Frank Mugisha told me the bill naturally monopolizes attention at home and abroad, and speculated on Twitter that it may come up for discussion sooner rather than later to distract from two oil bills that are dividing parliamentarians. Many lawmakers believe the petroleum legislation proposed would give Museveni’s oil minister too much free rein, and the legislative body shut down for part of last week after arguments about the oil bills became shouting matches and the speaker stormed out. The anti-gay bill is next on the schedule after the oil bills, and given its vast popularity, it could be a good way to smooth tensions and give parliament something to agree on after a series of contentious sessions. And, if the oil bills pass, the anti-gay bill could divert constituents’ attention from the suspect amount of power they would give Museveni’s cabinet—yet again, good cover for government corruption. With the anti-gay bill on the table, Mugisha says, “people forget about all the other issues, including the oil bill.”

This isn’t the first time the anti-gay bill has seemed to serve politicians’ purposes. “Often when there’s been a very significant international criticism of the government over governance and corruption issues in the last three years,” there have been “rumors of this bill coming back for a vote,” says Maria Burnett of Human Rights Watch, adding that the bill is a tactic for drawing populist support when Ugandan politicians face criticism. In the spring of 2011, rumors that the bill—which had been stalling in parliament for an entire session—would get a vote picked up not long after a round of disputed elections and violently repressed protests, but the session expired before anything could be resolved.  

Museveni isn’t the only one who could benefit from the bill’s polarizing powers. It gives him a card to play in international relations, but he should be careful: It could be used against him at home. With Museveni’s popularity in precipitous decline, parliament can distance itself from him by championing a policy he has repeatedly renounced—and may very well veto at the behest of international allies —despite most Ugandans’ wishes. Many Ugandans view the fight for the bill as a fight for their children: in 2009, American evangelicals—including Scott Lively, whose book blames homosexuality for the Holocaust—reportedly told their audiences that gays target and recruit children, and the fear has taken hold. Given the response that the issue provokes, some speculate that Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of the parliament who has become one the bill’s most forceful advocates, is using it to position herself as Museveni’s successor.

And from someone like Kadaga’s vantage, not caving to international pressure is a good way to differentiate herself from Museveni. Kadaga began her push for the bill, promising it as a “Christmas gift” to Ugandans, after a confrontation with the Canadian foreign minister, who brought up Uganda’s treatment of gays during her diplomatic visit. She accused him of colonialism. “If homosexuality is a value for the people of Canada they should not seek to force Uganda to embrace it,” she said. “We are not a colony or a protectorate of Canada.” When she returned home, she was greeted at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport by hundreds of people, cheering.

The question for the international community, then, is how to address the anti-gay bill without making it seem like the ideal ground for a nationalist stand. “The moral arguments here have been made repeatedly,” Burnett said, adding that a “legal and pragmatic” approach to diplomacy—emphasizing the effect on Uganda’s international reputation, and on funding, should the bill pass—may work better. With parliament poised to approve the bill, the U.S. and Europe may have to intervene. When they play ball with Uganda’s government, they’d do best to respect the complicated rules of this long-running exchange.