KAMPALA, Uganda — To many non-Ugandans, Uganda conjures up two sustaining images; One, a small, beautiful, landlocked east African nation, once called the “Pearl of Africa” by her British colonizers. The other, a country ruled by African strongman Idi Amin, recently immortalized by the 2006 Oscar-winning performance of Forest Whitaker in, “The Last King of Scotland.”
A new image could be emerging for Uganda. One that would eclipse any other notion and one that Ugandans are hotly debating: one of the few countries in the world to implement the death penalty for gays and lesbians.
This potentially powerful new image could be said to be the brain-child of David Bahati. Bahati, 35, is a Ugandan member of parliament from the politically inﬂuential western region of Uganda. Many here say he is an “up and coming” politician with a good pedigree and many of the “right connections.”
On Sept. 25, 2009, Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 for review and vote by parliament. The most controversial part of the bill calls for the death penalty for people convicted of "aggravated homosexuality."
Aggravated homosexuality is a new term that includes: gay sex with someone younger than 18 or someone who has sex and is HIV positive, as well as gay sex in which the offender seduces a person using alcohol or drugs, the offender is a parent/guardian of the person against whom the offense is committed, or victim of the offense is a person with a disability.
The bill is being hotly debated, not only in parliament, but by human rights activists, gay and lesbian activists and many expatriates as well as average Ugandans.
Uganda already has a law, which dates back to British colonial rule, which makes homosexuality a crime.
Many critics charge that the bill confused homosexual acts between consenting adults with pedophilia and rape. Bahatiʼs own description of the reason for the bill is "there is also a need to protect the children and youths of Uganda, who are vulnerable to sexual abuse and deviation as a result of cultural exchanges, uncensored information technologies ... and increasing attempts by homosexuals to raise children.”
Those who support the bill say that homosexuality is un-African and imported by Western countries. Dr. Martin Ssempa, of the Family Policy and Human Rights Center of Uganda, in an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and popular U.S. Christian minister Rick Warren, asks them to apologize “for insulting the people of Africa by your very inappropriate use of your church and White House pulpits to coerce us into the evil of Sodomy and Gaymorrah.”
Religiously, Uganda is a very Christian country. It has been described as an “island of Christendom in a sea of Islam.” According to statistics compiled by www.nationmaster.com, Ugandans are 84 percent Christian (42 percent Protestant and 41.9 percent Roman Catholic). Many Christian ministers preach against homosexuality.
Julian Pepe Omziemo, a lesbian, is the program coordinator of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Kampala-based LGBT organization. Omziemo blames an influx of U.S.-based Christian conservatives for fanning the flames against homosexuality. She says, “[American evangelical] Scott Lively was preaching in Uganda [March 2009] ... that homosexuality can be cured and that the gays are here in big numbers and out to get the children.” Pepe believes that U.S. evangelicals are pouring money in Uganda and may have influenced the bill.
It is easy to find Ugandans in favor of the bill. Eriya, a 42-year-old owner of a popular Kampala restaurant and nightclub said, “I agree that homosexuals should be hung as they rape children and they are abusing their power and authority.”
Sophie, a 20-year-old student said, “How can people have such sex, against nature? It is disgusting that they want to do such things to children. They should be killed.”
However, there are some ordinary Ugandans who are more critical of the bill. Stephen, a bank clerk said, “I donʼt care what goes on in other peopleʼs bedrooms. We Ugandans have many more important things to worry about, like the roads, and our economy.”
Beatrice, a businesswoman, goes even further, “I think this bill is a distraction! There are almost no gays in Uganda and if there are any, they are too few to be a problem. I think this is a distraction for us not to look at the sorry state of our country as we prepare for an election.”
Beatriceʼs point is one that some Ugandans are rallying behind, especially those in opposition to the government.
Despite the ideological camps, there are signs that some Ugandans are willing to try to understand more about the issue. Recently, there was a proﬁle of a Ugandan lesbian couple on the front page of the weekend edition of a major Kampala newspaper.
Sylvia Tamale, the ﬁrst female dean of law at Ugandaʼs Makerere University has stated that while she agrees with the concerns that Bahati has about strengthening Ugandaʼs capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the family unit; protecting the culture of Ugandans and especially protecting children from sexual abuse — whether heterosexual or homosexual — she has some serious legal concerns with the bill.
The biggest uproar over this bill is coming from the international community, especially the U.S. and Europe. The Swedish government has threatened to pull out both their aid and possibly their diplomatic mission to Uganda, if the bill passes. If they do so, other governments are expected to follow suit, especially by reducing development aid. The U.S. and European nations have presented a demarche — a formal diplomatic voicing of concern — about the bill, but, they do not yet say what actions they will take should the bill be passed.
Initially, Ugandan ofﬁcials were stridently against Western nations that threatened to cancel aid. Responding to the Swedish threat, Ugandaʼs Minister of Ethics and National Integrity, James Nsaba Butoro said: “We wonʼt trade our dignity for money.”
However, as international threats to decrease or cancel development money are heating up, there is a deﬁnite lowering of the temperature of the debate by the Ugandan government. During a press conference this week, Nsaba Butoro said, “Maybe they should consider life sentences instead of death.”
“The excitement [from the international community] is premature. Let democracy work. ... The position of the government is not yet determined because the bill has not passed,” said Okello Oryem, minister of state for foreign affairs.
Ugandaʼs religious community is also softening its rhetoric. The Anglican Church is seen as one of the most outspoken critics of homosexuality and a major supporter of the bill. Yet, recently the Anglican Archbishop Luke Arombi has also issued more moderate statements.
Uganda's parliament has taken a break until Feb. 15, but the homosexuality bill is set to be hotly debated at family gatherings throughout the holidays and throughout 2010.