KAMPALA, Uganda — After weeks of mounting domestic and international concern over the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” currently before the Ugandan parliament, President Yoweri Museveni finally issued his view on the legislation: “Go slow.”
Museveni's wary stance toward the bill is expected to call into question its passage through parliament. The controversial bill thrust Uganda into the international spotlight at the center of the global clash over gay rights.
Museveni, who had been silent about the anti-gay bill since it was proposed in October, distanced himself and his government from the controversial legislation, which calls for the death sentence for some homosexual acts. His remarks to the executive council of his ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, were published in the Ugandan press on Wednesday.
Museveni said he is not behind the bill, which calls for the death penalty for the newly created crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as when one of the participants is HIV positive, a minor or a "serial offender." Homosexual acts are already crimes in Uganda, punishable by up to 14 years in jail. The new legislation would increase the sentence to life imprisonment.
“This issue was not brought by the government, it was not even brought by the party, it was brought by a private member and we have not had time even to discuss with him,” said Museveni.
“It’s not just our internal politics,” said Museveni. “It is a foreign policy issue, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles, but also takes into account our foreign policy interests.” He said the bill would be discussed by his cabinet.
“No, no, no,” shouted several members of parliament in disagreement.
But Museveni continued explaining his reservations about the bill, saying that passage of the anti-gay bill would jeopardize Uganda’s plans to host a conference for the International Criminal Court because many in the international community would view Uganda as a violator of the human rights of gays and lesbians.
Sweden threatened to cut off aid if the bill becomes law and other major Western donors were expected to take similar action. Museveni said that several world leaders had told him of their objections to the bill including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
To further emphasize his point, Museveni told of a gay-sponsored rally in New York City in the 1990s to support then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.
“In that rally, about 300,000 homosexuals attended. I challenge you. Who of you, MPs, has ever had a rally of 300,000 people, other than me? Even for me, it is not often that I get those numbers,” said Museveni.
Uganda's head-of-state said he would discuss the bill with its author, David Bahati. Bahati continues to campaign for passage of his bill. He accuses homosexuals of “recruitment of children in schools” and suggests that they can be cured.
Responding to Museveni’s remarks, Bahati said that he and the president had “common ground” regarding the need for the anti-gay bill.
Museveni’s skeptical attitude toward the legislation was welcomed by Uganda’s gay and lesbian activists. “We Ugandans are very pleased to hear the president has reservations about this bill. It is crucial that as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Ugandans we be given this chance for dialogue about our lives,” said Sexual Minorities Uganda's programs coordinator Julian Pepe Onziema to GlobalPost.
“If we are given the chance to speak without fear to a committee in parliament about our concerns we are certain that our fellow Ugandans will see that we gay and lesbian Ugandans are your children, your friends, your neighbors, your shopkeepers, your nurses, your lawyers and even MPs,” said Onziema. “Otherwise, we demand the total withdrawal of the bill and decriminalization of homosexuality in Uganda."
Some fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States encouraged Bahati and other Ugandan politicians to draft the draconian legislation, according to several news reports. This was seen as part of their drive against gay marriage in the United States and gay rights in other parts of the world — and at first it seemed Uganda's parliament would pass the bill.
But the possible loss of aid from major donors and the diplomatic caution voiced by world leaders apparently persuaded Museveni to take an unenthusiastic stance toward the bill.
Ugandans suggest that political considerations are behind Museveni's position.
“The presidential elections of 2011 are just around the corner and therefore Museveni, now running for an unpopular fourth term, cannot risk the integrity of this country with the international community,” said Christopher Magezi, a farmer and businessman. “But I think, in his heart, he knows that Ugandans are actually in strong support of many sections of the bill. Scared of losing his international support to the opposition, he can say anything.”
Journalist and newspaper publisher, Andrew Mwenda says that Museveni is "a survivor, responding to his survival instincts which are shaped by local politics and the international community."
Mwenda believes that Museveni, in an effort to keep Ugandan popular support, which is largely anti-gay, will be able, "to blame the West for killing the bill" thereby keeping his constituency behind him, all the while satisfying his foreign donors.