Resentment Toward the West Bolsters Uganda's New Anti-Gay Bill

Published: February 29, 2012

KAMPALA, Uganda — At first, it was a fiery contempt for homosexuality that led a Ugandan lawmaker to introduce a bill in 2009 that carried the death penalty for a “serial offender” of the “offense of homosexuality.”

The bill’s failure amid a blitz of international criticism was viewed by many as evidence of power politics, a poor nation bending to the will of rich nations that feed it hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

But this time around — the bill was reintroduced this month — it is a bitter and broad-based contempt for Western diplomacy that is also fueling its resurrection.

“If there was any condition to force the Western world to stop giving us money,” said David Bahati, the bill’s author, “I would like that.”

The Obama administration recently said it would use its foreign diplomatic tools, including aid, to promote equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain has threatened to cut aid for countries that do not accept homosexuality.

But African nations have reacted bitterly to the new dictates of engagement, saying they smack of neo-colonialism. In the case of Uganda, the grudge could even help breathe new life into the anti-homosexuality bill.

Antigovernment demonstrations sometimes turn violent and news about corruption scandals fills the tabloids here, but two things most people agree on is that homosexuality is not tolerated and that Westerners can be overbearing.

The United States says it remains “resolutely opposed” to the bill, and at the American Embassy in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, officials are actively engaged in lobbying Ugandan policy makers to oppose the bill, too.

“Our position is clear,” said Hilary Renner, a State Department spokeswoman.

The pressure has worked, to a certain degree. Some of the most contentious elements of the bill — the death penalty, and a clause ordering citizens to report known acts of homosexuality to the police within 24 hours — would be taken out, Mr. Bahati said in a recent interview. That could make the bill less explosive for lawmakers.

But the diplomatic tensions surrounding the bill also seem to be increasing its popularity.

“While covert behind-the-scenes donor pressure on the Ugandan government has been useful in the past,” said Dr. Rahul Rao, a lecturer at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy in London, “overt pressure can be extremely counterproductive.”

The government of President Yoweri Museveni, while distancing itself from the bill, defended the right for the bill to be debated in Uganda’s Parliament, saying in a recent statement that “cultural attitudes in Africa are very different to elsewhere.”

Kizza Besigye, an opposition leader who has courted the West, said Western pressure on the issue of homosexuality was “misplaced” and “even annoying.”

“There are more obvious, more prevalent and harmful violations of human rights that are glossed over,” Mr. Besigye said. “Their zeal over this matter makes us look at them with cynicism to say the least.”

When Mr. Bahati reintroduced the bill in Parliament, he did so to rounds of applause.

In this religious and traditional society, the tug of war between advocates and opponents of gay rights remains tense.

Days after the bill was reintroduced, a clandestine gay rights meeting at a hotel was broken up personally by Uganda’s minister of ethics.

“In the past they were stoned to death,” said the minister, Simon Lokodo. “In my own culture they are fired on by the firing squad, because that is a total perversion.”

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