The Tragedy of Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill

The legislation is not just a tragedy for Uganda's LGBTQI community. It's also a tragedy for the other African leaders who failed to condemn it, says David Hornsby.
By: /
March 4, 2014
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Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

With the ink still drying on the Ugandan President’s signature of the so-called ‘anti-gay bill,’ the reaction from the West and traditional foreign donors has been predictably swift and severe.  World leaders and foreign ministers, mainly from Europe and North America, have been clear in their condemnation of this draconian law that will see life imprisonment for homosexual acts.  The reaction of the global North is encouraging given that the issue continues to be politically contentious in some U.S. states (read Arizona) and in some European quarters including France.  It should also be noted that a clear majority of African states treat homosexuality as illegal.

Indeed, it seems that leaders in the West are keen to recognize rights and resist persecution of LGBTQI communities – which is a good thing.  Of course, there is still a long way to go before universal recognition of LGBTQI rights are granted, particularly in Western societies, but it is striking to see how this issue is now firmly entrenched in discussions of human rights for states.

Returning to Uganda, the anti-gay bill is tragic on a number of levels.  First, persecuting consenting adults for demonstrating their love is just silly and speaks to a disconcerting trend in this country where the President and Parliament are engaging in moral relativism, speaking out on a range of issues in the private domain related to oral sex, regulating the choice of women to wear mini-skirts, and whether consenting adults should be permitted to engage in sexual relations.  Such actions suggest a more authoritarian streak emerging in a country that has long held homosexuality as illegal. 

Ben Shepherd of Chatham House wrote an interesting piece on the politics behind the Ugandan anti-gay bill which contextualizes the measure in light of Museveni’s populist tendencies and desire to stay in political power. Indeed, such analysis is helpful in unpacking some of the potential motivations for this action – but the matter still remains confounding economically with the international community beginning to withdraw its foreign aid support from Uganda.  Given that the United States alone provides over $400 million in foreign aid to Uganda, adopting this law will no doubt impact the budget of this developing economy.

The second tragic aspect of the developments in Uganda relates to a more geo-strategic dimension in which some African leaders see resistance to the West through opposing rights to LGBTQI people.  Indeed, Museveni, amongst others, have claimed that African culture places homosexuality as essentially ‘unAfrican,’ noting that the West really needs to butt out of African cultural discussions. Such an argument represents a particular danger as it makes LGBTQI rights a “West versus Africa” dynamic as opposed to a human rights question.  This can be hard to return from and enables the long history of homosexuality in Africa to be ignored.

Indeed, homosexuality in Africa has been traced back to pre-colonial times.  For example, in Cameroon it has been documented that amongst the Bafia people boy wives and female husbands were a normal part of this community in pre-colonial times.  Similarly, in Lesotho, it was accepted that woman could maintain a same sex relationship outside of their marriage.  In Uganda, Kabaka Mwanga II - a Bugandan Kingdom monarch – was openly gay and fought against missionaries attempting to impose anti-LGBTQI values.  Also in Uganda, the Nilotico Lango tribes historically permitted men to change their gender status so that they could marry other men.

Ignoring African history and claiming homosexuality is inherently ‘unAfrican’ is patently false – but when it is combined with the strategic imperative for tempering Western influence in Africa, rational discussions are difficult to achieve.

The final tragic aspect of this development relates to the reticence of other African leaders to speak out and condemn the Ugandan legislation, particularly those where LGBTQI rights are protected and same-sex relationships are legal.   Most glaring in this respect is South Africa, which was one of the first African states to enshrine protection for homosexuals in its Constitution and legalize same-sex marriage.  The fact that South Africa occupies this position warrants some sort of explicit comment in and of itself but South Africa, since 1994, has also placed human rights at the centre of its foreign policy.  This was epitomized in Mandela’s famous 1993 Foreign Affairs article which noted: “South Africa will not be indifferent to the rights of others. Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs” He concluded the article by stating that “South Africa’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core concern of international relations."

But only 20 years on, South Africa has chosen not to speak out on the issue claiming that it is not for the ANC Government to comment on the domestic legislation of other countries.  In fairness, the Government has reaffirmed its support for LGBTQI rights but the lack of explicit condemnation is disappointing and has elicited critical commentary.

At the same time that the tragic plight of the LGBTQI community has been reinforced by equally retrograde Russian legislation that bans the promotion of homosexuality, it is disappointing the Uganda has chosen to take this path. Clearly, the problem is wider spread than being solely in Uganda – or even in Africa – and it is time for the international community to act to reaffirm a basic tenet of human rights.