When the old fox walks the tightrope

Despite a petition from a group of activists and legal experts, Uganda’s Constitutional Court recently made the decision to uphold the Anti-Homosexuality Act, one of the most oppressive anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the world. A few parts of the Act were struck out, including the “duty to report acts of homosexuality”, and the restrictions on publishing “material promoting or encouraging homosexuality”, but the rest remains strong. In our summer 2023 magazine, just as the Act was passing, Danson Kahyana and Stella Nyanzi discussed the implications for free speech, and what the petition from activists would mean for President Yoweri Museveni’s balancing act where this law was concerned.

To a chorus of outrage at the end of May 2023, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexual Bill into law, which can apply the death penalty.

When Museveni returned the bill to parliament for “strengthening” soon after it had been passed in March, it was clear that the old fox who has ruled Uganda since 1986 with an iron hand and “pretensions to the trapping of democracy” – as political scientist Aili Mari Tripp calls it – was in a fix.

On the one hand, his populist self loves the passion that the framing of homosexuality as a Western import and a corrupter of African morality arouses, so signing the bill into law gives him a new lease of political life.

Styling himself as the champion of African values, Museveni believes norms and morals can easily translate into political support at the next presidential and parliamentary elections in 2026, given the influential groups in support of the bill (the Muslim fraternity, some Christian denominations and traditionalists). This support is priceless, considering the populace’s increasing anger at his regime, which has received unflattering labels including an “empty autocracy” (Yusuf Serunkuma) and “vampire state” (Allan Tacca).

On the other hand, the regime survives partly (if not mostly) because of the economic and political support it receives from Western governments such as those in the USA, Canada and some in the European Union.

These “partners” have, over the decades, closed one eye to his political excesses (rigging elections and brutalising members of opposition political parties, for example) and bankrolled him in different ways – the most obvious ones being budget support and providing large sums of money to enable Uganda’s participation in continental and regional missions. Signing the bill into law could spell doom for his hold on power, since these Western governments have warned of political and economic consequences, which the USA has already made good on by revoking the visa of Anita Among, Uganda’s speaker of parliament.

This is the tightrope he had to walk – but not for the first time. He did the same in 2014 when he signed the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law. That time, what saved him from serious reprisals from the West was the Uganda Constitutional Court which, later that year, quashed the law on technical grounds. (It had been passed in parliament without the required quorum, thereby rendering it null and void). His saving grace now could be a petition from 11 activists, including lecturers, journalists and an MP, to block the implementation of the law.

Before May’s developments, I asked Dr Stella Nyanzi, Uganda’s leading and celebrated researcher on sexualities, what was new with this 2023 bill compared with the bill of 2013, and she said that as far as she was concerned there was nothing substantially new.

Both bills were enacted in the spirit of criminalising sexualities that were considered alien and wayward in order to protect so-called African values – a claim that is absurd given that it is colonial in origin.

“Before colonialism,” Nyanzi told Index, “Africa embraced different sexualities like polygyny, polygamy and polyandry, to mention but a few. The view that Africa has always had one form of sexuality is ahistorical and a figment of the imagination.”

There is something new, however.

“While the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Bill was proposed by a Pentecostal Christian with very strong support from the US Evangelical churches, this time round the proposer of the bill is a Muslim man, with a strong backing of the Islamic faith in Uganda,” she said. “He is a Member of Parliament who belongs to an opposition political party, unlike the proposer of the 2013 bill who belonged (and still belongs) to the ruling party.”

Besides the pretensions to African morality that motivated this act, there is a more serious threat at stake – the government’s desire to have total control over the bodies of its citizens.

Nyanzi said: “For this reason, the bill should be seen in the context of other repressive laws that the Museveni regime has passed – for instance, the Public Order Management Act (2013), the Computer Misuse Act (2011), the Anti-Pornography Act (2014), the Non-Governmental Organisations Act (2016) and the Computer Misuse (Amendment) Act (2022), among others.

“The Anti-Homosexuality Bill should be seen in the spirit of all the above laws – criminalising dissent, even in sexual matters.”

Even before it was signed into law, the bill sent tremors through Uganda.

Some people fled the country, as evidenced by what is happening at welcome centres in Kenya and South Africa, to mention just two countries.
“[It] will have far-reaching effects,” Nyanzi warned.

“It will be criminal, for instance, to offer certain kinds of sex education, provide certain kinds of medical services, report certain kinds of news, write certain kinds of scholarly work or works of fiction, produce certain kinds of movies, make certain kinds of speeches, and to rent your premises to – or even employ – certain kinds of people, because you could be accused of promoting homosexuality, and therefore contravening Section 14 of the bill.”

This means that the law will not only stifle the lives and work of the people who identify as homosexual but also affect the lives and work of all Ugandans.

Even the very people who pushed for the legislation will not be safe. A religious leader could, for instance, be dragged to court for having someone who identifies as homosexual enter his or her church or mosque for prayers or for a service.

After the bill passed in parliament, Museveni found himself in a dilemma. If he did not sign it into law he would have risked alienating the pretentious, self-righteous, politically powerful Christian, Muslim and other morality crusaders who were pushing for the legislation.

And by passing it, he could at last be losing the support of his beloved Western partners who have stuck with him even as he brutalised Ugandans who do not toe his line.

And in the time before the bill became law, he might have been facing another challenge in the background.

“The people at the helm of Uganda’s parliament – [speaker] Anita Annet Among and her deputy, Thomas Tayeebwa – might want to assert their independence from the executive arm of government in a move aimed to show how powerful they are. So, while President Museveni is known to control what happens in parliament because his party has an overwhelming majority there, this time round he might find it hard to have his way to the letter.”

But this being the skilled manipulator that he is, I believe that we should not underestimate him: he could still have his cake and eat it.

How? He signed it into law and waited for others to petition the Constitutional Court, as has been done by the group of 11 activists, so that the judiciary pronounces itself on the constitutionality of the new law. If the court upholds it, he will say he has nothing to do because his regime is law-abiding.

However, if the court annuls it in its entirety (as it did in 2014) or some sections of it, the West will be satisfied, to a certain degree, that Uganda’s courts have a modicum of independence.

Museveni will be in his usual element. He will have survived yet another dilemma.

New law could force Ugandans to love their country

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Ugandans could soon be required by law to love their country. The Patriotism Bill, to be tabled by minister for the presidency Frank Tumwebaze, will require every Ugandan to, among other things, support all government development programs and defend national property. Failure to do so would lead to imprisonment or a fine. The bill would also ensure the establishment of “Patriotism Clubs” in schools to instil patriotic values among pupils and students.

Tumwebaze told the parliamentary presidential affairs committee that if this bill gets enacted into law, it will helping in the fight against a number of societal problems, worst of which is government corruption.  “Our constitution demands that Ugandans be patriotic, therefore there is a need for a law to clearly define this obligation,” he said.

However, the move has been labelled a farce by both opposition parties and civil society organisations.

The president of Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) Dr. Olara Otunnu terms it as “utter fraud.” He says that patriotism cannot be a law passed by parliament, but a feeling that comes from inside, appreciating the things that makes you celebrate and be proud your country. “Now unless we say that we should be proud of and celebrate corruption, discrimination, segregation, poverty and brutality, there is no point in being patriotic in Uganda,” Otunnu maintains. He claims the bill is meant to ensure that President Yoweri Museveni is praised across the country.

Renowned Ugandan media personality and social commentator Angelo Izama too disagrees with the idea of compelling Ugandans to love their country. He believes that if the government is indeed serious about patriotism, it should start with respecting the separation of powers among state institutions, and harness the intrinsic values of state symbols to build a stronger national identity.

Others, including Ugandan youth groups, have advised the government that instead of legislating for patriotism, it should create more opportunities for the country’s millions of unemployed young people. Government has in the past years come up with different programs tackling the issue, but these have failed due to corruption among government officials.

Godber Tumushabe, a civil society activist, says that government needs to invest more in social service delivery and overhaul the symbols of state power if it wants Ugandans be proud of, and appreciate their country. While the patriotism debate is raging, the national referral hospital in Mulago recently had its water supply cut off over not paying its water bills, and several children and adult patients recently because the hospital ran out of oxygen. Hundreds of women deliver their babies in the hospital corridors, and tens of mothers and their babies die in childbirth every day.

Prominent Ugandan lawyer and social critic David Mpanga says that government officials call for new laws to hide failure to address real problems, and that existing laws are unenforced due to lack of capacity or poor prioritisation.  “How would you measure that love or lack thereof,” he asks.

“Patriotism and the love of a country are important, but they are lacking now for a whole host of social, economic, cultural and political reasons, and not simply because of lack of a law. Parliament can do many things but it cannot make the people love Uganda any more than they do now merely by passing a law,” Mpanga noted.

This article was posted on March 27, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

Uganda: Anti-porn law to be reviewed after attacks on women

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Uganda’s recently passed Anti-Pornography Act 2014 is believed to have led to targeting of women wearing mini-skirts, prompting the cabinet to review the law.

Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi told parliament recently that it is not the duty of the public but the police to implement the law: “The law is not about the length of one’s dress or skirt. As cabinet, we are going to look at the act again.”

The law, assented to by President Yoweri Museveni on 6 February this year, creates and defines the offence of pornography and its prohibition. It bans anyone from producing, trafficking, publishing, broadcasting, procuring, importing exporting or abetting any form of pornography.

Nowhere in the law is a ban on mini-skirts mentioned. The prime minister said that the term “indecent” as defined in the act to mean “non conformity with generally accepted standards” is too broad and varies from one person to another. “It’s very important that the law is clear and specific. I request the public not to take the law in their hands. It’s criminal, especially to women; they must be fully protected, and we shall protect them,” he said.

Initially, the bill proposed the prohibition of types of dress that exposed different body parts like breasts, thighs, genitalia and buttocks, but that clause was deleted before it was enacted into law. The law that was ultimately passed targets media organisations, Internet Service Providers (ISP’s), the entertainment and leisure industry and others putting what is deemed pornographic material into the public domain. Despite this, many women are afraid of the consequences of the law.

The apparent misunderstanding of the law by the public has generally been blamed on Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo, who has suggested that it will ultimately help in the fight against indecent dressing by women. He has openly stated that “if a woman is dressed in attire that irritates the mind and excites other people of the opposite sex, you are dressed in wrong attire, so please you should hurry up and go home and change.” He maintains that women should “dress decently” because “men are so weak that if they saw an indecently dressed woman, they would just jump on her”. It should be noted that this minister is a former priest of the Catholic Church.

The act defines pornography as any cultural practice, radio or television programme, writing, publication, advertisement, broadcast, upload on the internet, display, entertainment, music, dance, picture, audio or video recording, show, exhibition or any combination of these that depicts a person engaged in explicit sexual activities or conduct; sexual parts of a person; erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement or any indecent act or behaviour tending to corrupt morals.

The act also proposes setting up a Pornography Control Committee to, among other things, ensure that perpetrators of pornography are apprehended and prosecuted, and to collect and destroy all pornographic materials.

Ruth Ojiambo Othieno, the Executive Director of Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange said she was disappointed that the law is targeting women and their bodies.

Miria Matembe, a woman’s activist and former ethics minister argues that the law is very vague and compares it to former President Idi Amin’s directive that women should not wear skirts and dresses more than three inches above the knee.

In a statement, police spokesperson Judith Nabakooba warned that if one suspects a person to be indecently dressed, they should report the matter to police but not take the law into their own hands. “Anyone found participating in mob justice of undressing people and are caught will be dealt with accordingly,” she said.

This article was posted on March 10, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill

This is a guest post by Jenni Hulse

Last week, prominent Ugandan church leader Canon Gideon Byamugisha joined international condemnation of the country’s proposed anti-homosexuality bill, saying it will be nothing short of state-sponsored “genocide”. He added that the bill would “institutionalise violence and death towards a minority group”.

Byamugisha’s remarks are the latest in a global backlash against the bill. On Thursday a Ugandan news website reported that Sweden will cut aid to Uganda if the bill is passed. Canada has also condemned the bill and Gordon Brown is reported to have discussed the matter directly with the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni at the recent commonwealth summit.

The bill, proposed on 14 October by David Bahati, MP for Ndorwa County, seeks to introduce the death penalty for anyone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” and life imprisonment for committing any “homosexual act”. Provisions in the bill could also lead to the imprisonment of anyone who fails to report within 24 hours the identities of everyone they know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Apart from the obvious human rights implications — criminalizing the personal and social behaviour of the LGBT community in Uganda, estimated to number 500,000 — legal experts have said it poses a serious threat to the right to free speech, association and assembly.

A new, wide-ranging provision would forbid the “promotion of homosexuality”, including publishing information or providing funds or premises for activities, or other resources. Conviction could result in up to seven years in prison.

“Promotion” is expected to extend to any form of public discussion about homosexuality, and activists have raised concerns that this will hinder the country’s fight against HIV/Aids among the gay community. Any media deemed to be publicizing homosexuality will automatically be censored and publishers and broadcasters will face prosecution. Free communication will be compromised with one clause criminalising the use of “electronic devices which include internet, films, mobile phones for purposes of homosexuality or promoting homosexuality”.

Bahati has defended the bill, insisting publicly that homosexuality is not a human right and that the bill only seeks to defend the “traditional heterosexual family.” However, if introduced, it will put the freedom of expression of all Ugandans at risk. By further stigmatising an already marginalised group and penalising those who support the rights of the gay community, the bill will fuel a witch-hunt mindset that will divide and weaken civil society.