Homosexuality, Donor interests and vigilantes in Uganda

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On a recent trip to Uganda, I listened in on a conversation on homosexuality whilst travelling on a bus. When I got onto the bus, a conversation was already underway and the topic was the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (the Bill) that had just been approved by the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. The conversation was between three passengers, two males, one female as well as the bus driver.

There had been a new development since Mr. Museveni signed the Bill. A number of prominent Ugandans that include scholars, MPs, lawyers and human rights activists had joined gay activists to oppose the Bill through Uganda’s courts. It was clear from the bus conversation that the two male passengers were incredibly angry about the stance taken by the latter groups of people.

The first man, let us call him John, lamented about Uganda’s moral standing: “the problem with this country are these educated elites, how can they support homosexuality? To hell with human rights! How can they say that is right for young boys and men to behave this way? I have personally heard young boys willing to have sex with foreign men in exchange for money. How can these so called educated elite think that is right?

The second man, let us call him James, agreed with John and added: “these homos have the audacity to parade themselves in our public squares. The Police have been very good to them; they ought to have rounded them up at one of their gatherings and set them on fire or something! 

The woman passenger, let us call her Jane, had her own grievances with respect to Uganda’s moral campus. Jane’s anger was directed towards women that wear very short skirts and dresses: “ some of these women are practically naked. The government was right to pass the mini skirt law and any woman walking the streets of Kampala in a mini skirt should be undressed!

The driver joined in and said “ Kayihura (Uganda’s Police Chief) said it is illegal to undress a woman in a mini skirt. I dont know what is wrong with these educated people. If a woman chooses to walk around in a skirt so short that she is practically naked it makes sense to me that she should undressed.

The men also expressed their anger at the European Union and Barack Obama for threatening to withhold development aid.  Obama had warned that the signing into law of such a bill would complicate relations between Uganda and the USA and be a set back for human rights in Uganda.  The passengers and the driver argued that Uganda could do without the Aid and should not be forced to set aside its morals in exchange of aid.

I was stunned and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’ve never encountered such intolerance or uncompromising views in my life. It seemed to me that the situation that John had just described is at best male prostitution and surely not all gay men are prostitutes. As for Jane, how could a woman call for the public undressing of other women? What happened to sisterhood and all that?

James’ views shocked me the most, and confirmed my worst fears – the true danger that homosexuals in Uganda face is the individual that is willing to take the law in his/her hands – the vigilante.  I also fear that the actions of vigilantes will hurt the country in other ways and in particular the country’s fledgling tourism industry. I am indeed aware of a tourism company that sends students of tourism for study tours to Uganda is concerned as to how this will impact their business in the long term as some students have pulled out of preplanned trips. They have cited the fact they maybe arrested or killed should they travel to Uganda.

With respect to Western governments’ threat to withhold aid, a question arises as to the efficacy of such a policy. This is because both experts from aid recipient countries and donor countries contest conditionality.

Proponents of conditionality such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International argue that conditions are necessary in order to fight corruption, improve human rights around the world. Some, especially academics and experts in the south, argue that to a certain extent conditions are necessary to mitigate dependency on aid.

On the other hand, the opponents of conditionality argue that it does not work and hurts the very poor in society and instead call for new ways of dealing with abuses of democracy etc.  This latter point has to do with donors setting their own conditions aside if the conditions conflict with their interests.

 Uganda is listed amongst the least developed countries and therefore a question arises as to what donor interests are in Uganda.  On the face of it, these interests are not apparent until we consider some of the technical assistance that Uganda receives and the role that Uganda plays in efforts to secure peace in troubled neighbouring countries such as Somalia, South Sudan and Congo.

In Somalia, as well as providing the personnel that form part of the African Union’s peace keeping army, some 3600 Somalis have undergone technical training in Uganda via a programme run jointly by the European Union, Uganda People’s Defence Force and the United States.

Given the on going conflicts in the region and the potential impact of such conflicts globally, Western countries desperately need local partners that can take the lead in mitigating potential risks. Are western donors for instance, willing to trade their values (human rights and democracy) for their interests that might include killing off the activities of groups such as Somalia’s terrorist Islamist group, Al Shabab?

My take is that the value of Uganda to the West, with respect to regional security is not lost on President Museveni. Uganda is a strategically important country in the region and unless the West is willing to put boots on the ground in these conflicts, Museveni knows his importance is far greater then gay issues.  By this, I am not suggesting that the world turns a bling eye to what is going rather that, they find a third way that doesn’t make Museveni a hero in the eyes of vigilantes. It is also my opinion that, in any event the withdrawing of aid will not hurt legislators but instead the man on the street,

As for the so-called “educate elites” in Uganda, I think they are onto a winner here. As discussed in this post, enforcing this legislation is not going to be straightforward especially when tested against national and international human rights instruments see Victor Mukasa and Oyoo Vs Attorney General.

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