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Gary Herman

ugandatgxtanotherhand1Published: 20 May 2011

Region: Uganda & Worldwide

Uganda's notorious anti-homosexuality laws have grabbed international headlines in recent weeks, and maybe the plain facts about the country help to explain why the issue has become so ferociously contested within this benighted part of Africa.

Despite significant economic growth in recent years and substantial natural resources, Uganda remains one of the poorest countries in the world, stricken by HIV/AIDS and common infectious diseases such as typhoid, malaria, rabies and plague, embroiled in the regional wars that plague the Great Lakes area of Africa, and riven with political corruption, civil war and ethnic conflict.

Uganda has the world's second highest birth rate, just below Niger, at almost seven children per woman. But the life expectancy of each of those children is only around 53. Half Uganda is under 15 years of age, making the country the youngest in the world.

The people are ethnically and culturally diverse, thanks largely to the ad hoc boundaries created by the British colonial power. There are two official languages, English and Swahili (a Bantu language spoken mainly in the south), and more than 40 local languages. There is a substantial Muslim minority as well as Sikhs, Bahai's and Jews, but the main religions - Catholicism, Anglicanism and Christian evangelism - account for an estimated 84 per cent of the population.

ugandatxt3Public expenditure on education puts Uganda in the bottom quartile of countries. About a third of the people are illiterate; roughly the same number live below the poverty line. About 80% of the working population are peasants or agricultural labourers and, although the country's inequality index puts it on about the same level as the US, the gap between rich and poor is growing. Over the past few months, rising food and fuel prices have led to major street protests in urban centres (mostly in the south of the country). These have been violently suppressed by the government under President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for a quarter of a century and shows no signs of wishing to retire.

So Uganda looks pretty much like every other Sub-Saharan African country - a divided society held together by a deeply felt conservative Christianity, ruled over by an elective dictatorship, with an impoverished mass kept down by ignorance, disease, violence and war.

Museveni is a controversial figure - his biography shows him to have been, by turns, a born-again Christian, a Marxist revolutionary, and a reformist who fought against the dictatorships of Milton Obote, Idi Amin and Tito Okello. He came to power in the 1980s on a wave of enthusiasm for social and political reform and, in fairness to him, he has made great progress in many areas - against HIV, for women's rights and education, in negotiating with the murderous Lords Resistance Army, in liberalising the media, encouraging economic development and fostering constitutional change. Despite having a power-base in the south of Uganda, he has - until very recently - been a force for unity. But he has also drawn criticism for alleged electoral irregularities, military adventurism, his removal of the limitation on the number of terms he could serve as president (he's now in his fourth), and for the violent suppression of popular dissent and political opposition.

For many, though, Museveni's worst offence is to have been party to national homophobia and the criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda.

In fact, homosexuality has been banned in Uganda since well before independence inugandatxtwithhand 1962. Section 140 of the Ugandan penal code prohibits "carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature", which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years. The law is a legacy of colonial rule from the days when male homosexuality was illegal in Britain, and has never been repealed. Similar laws are common throughout post-colonial Africa.

Towards the end of  2009, however, David Bahati - a Ugandan MP belonging to Museveni's party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) – upped the ante. He introduced a private member's bill in the Ugandan parliament which sought to create a new capital offence called "aggravated homosexuality" covering such acts as gay sex with a minor and gay sex when the accused party is HIV-positive. The bill would also make life imprisonment the minimum punishment for gay sex, would criminalise public discussion of homosexuality and, by suppressing the "promotion" of homosexuality, would effectively undermine Uganda's comparatively successful programme of fighting HIV/AIDS. It is still on the table.

According to a US investigative journalist, Jeff Sharlet, Bahati is a member of the cult-like Christian evangelical organisation known as The Family or The Foundation. The genesis of the bill may be traced to a seminar in Kampala held in March 2009 by three conservative US evangelists and anti-gay activists designed to "expose the truth behind homosexuality and the homosexual agenda".

Museveni has been equivocal about the "Anti-Homosexuality Bill". On the one hand, the president has been instrumental in stalling the bill so that it has twice failed to reach the floor of the parliament, but on the other he seems to support aggressive action against homosexuality. A few months ago, he was quoted as saying that he had heard that "European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa".

The problem is that many Ugandans believe homosexuality to be, as the Kenya-based journalist Xan Rice wrote, "an affront both to local culture and religion". The idea that homosexuality may be perfectly natural is anathema. Better to believe that gays are "recruited" - particularly by the decadent former colonialists of Europe - and that they can be "cured" by submission to religious discipline.

ugandatxt2Museveni is undoubtedly playing to the public gallery, and to his own party, although he too has been accused of ties to The Family by Sharlet in the form of secret financial deals. It would, in truth, be difficult for any politician in Uganda to argue against an Anti-Homosexuality Bill once such a thing existed. The churches and allied anti-gay groups in Uganda have been strident in their support for Bahati's bill. Only a handful of brave souls have dared to speak out.

And remember, the churches speak for 84 per cent of the people.

That's a figure that certainly impresses the Ugandan tabloid press, which has jumped on the Bahati bandwagon with glee. Like their counterparts the world over, Uganda's tabloids offer a diet of showbiz, sex, sport, family values and rampant prejudice. An anti-gay campaign has it all.

Uganda's Rolling Stone (nothing to do with the US publication) has been the worst offender. This paper is young - it was launched in mid-2010 by three journalism students from Kampala's Makerere University - and has a small circulation - about 2,000 - but it has punched above its weight, making international headlines. Soon after its launch, Rolling Stone unveiled a campaign to expose 100 "top homos" in Uganda, complete with photos and addresses, an inside page story under the headline "Hang Them: They are after our kids", and trails to other stories including "We shall recruit 1,000,000 innocent kids by 2012 - homos" and "Parents now face heartbreaks as homos raid schools". Such coverage does more than create an atmosphere of fear and hatred - it directly promotes violence and threatens to undermine all the good work Museveni's government has done in promoting education and ethnic tolerance. It was condemned by media around the world, except it seems in Uganda.

The Ugandan courts issued an injunction banning Rolling Stone from publicly identifying gay men and women, but the tabloid took another tack and ran a front page story about the July 2010 suicide bomb attack in Kampala - staged by the Somali al-Qaeda group, al-Shabaab - which killed 75 football fans. "Homo generals plotted Kampala terror attacks", screamed the headline.

Rolling Stone's bilious rhetoric created real targets among Uganda's gay community, including activist David Kato who was murdered a few weeks after the paper's campaign was launched. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Rolling Stone needed the Bahati bill to spark its actions.

ugandamap1Three years before the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, another Ugandan tabloid, Red Pepper (nothing to do with the UK publication), ran a series of articles outing gays and bisexuals, both male and female. Red Pepper has made something of a reputation for itself for its sensationalist exposés, often aimed at Museveni's government and focusing on sexual slurs. The general tone of this coverage can be gauged from the first article, exposing 45 men. Headlined 'Gay Shock!', it boasted that "To show the nation how shocked we are and how fast the terrible vice known as sodomy is eating up our society, we have decided to unleash an exclusive list of men who enjoy taking on fellow men from the rear. We hope that by publishing this list, our brothers will confess and go back to the right path.” In reality, publishing the list opened the men to arrest, imprisonment and torture.

Homophobia runs deeper in Uganda than the media; but the media have a duty in a civilised society to preserve and protect the values of civilisation. Contrary to some of the more simplistic arguments against the Bahati bill, this is not an argument about sexuality or morality. It is an argument about truth and justice and the right of people not to be arrested or killed for having consensual relationships with members of the same sex. Regrettably, truth and justice are no matches for politics and commerce.

The tabloid tradition in Uganda dates back to the 1990s, when Museveni introduced his media reforms. That was when New Vision - 53 per cent state-owned  and Uganda's largest circulation newspaper - started to publish local language dailies which fed the country's predominantly rural citizens a diet of village gossip, scandal and graphic images. Red Pepper followed in 2001 as Uganda's first national tabloid. It modelled itself on the UK's Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, and offered a similar mix of titillation, scandal, gossip, sport and crafty linguistic coinages, such as 'bumshafters' and 'whoppers'. "The language is very creative and Red Pepper has a tremendous vitality," according to William Pike, a former editor of New Vision until he fell out with the government. "But it is also tasteless and started a tradition of a flagrant disregard for the truth.”

Today, Red Pepper is in the top three or four of Uganda's newspapers by circulation, with around 25,000 sales. It has toned down its content to appease advertisers and has launched a more sexually explicit stable-mate called the Daily Onion (no relation to the US satirical website). But it also inspired newcomers like Rolling Stone,

Earlier this year, as Uganda's economic growth faltered and food and fuel prices rocketed, Museveni had an election to fight. Ethnic and cultural fractures had began to re-emerge, and the 'Walk to Work' street protests were growing in strength and subjected to increasingly violent repression.  Diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks revealed that US diplomats in Uganda believed that political and economic unrest was being deflected into hatred of gays. Museveni walked a tightrope. Anti-gay sentiment was strongly condemned by the international community including the major sources of essential aid to Uganda such as the US, the EU and Sweden.  But anti-gay sentiment has become a vote winner in Uganda. Any political leader hoping to retain or gain popular approval cannot entirely repudiate it. Even Museveni's main political opponent, his former friend and doctor, Kizza Besigye, would only go as far as to suggest that he might be more tolerant of gays if he won the election (he didn’t).

Publications like Rolling Stone rush into this sort of vacuum of equivocation. Peter Mwesige, executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala and the former head of Makerere University’s journalism school, hit the nail on the head when he observed that, while the students who started Rolling Stone had studied and understood journalism ethics, "they probably think they need to go to extremes to create a niche.”

Sadly, it's a niche in which people can be killed.

Gary Hermann for the Media Diversity Institute

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Comments (1)Add Comment
sempiri chris kijjambu
written by sempiri chris kijjambu, October 24, 2012
Swahilli is not a common language here in Uganda its Luganda and English.Otherwise the article was correct to a great extent although there are a few issues which have no truth like when you say that "For many, though, Museveni's worst offence is to have been party to national homophobia and the criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda".Actually many applauded him for being anti-gay.However you are right that the president has been the only reason why the bill has not hit the floor of the house which actually it should not surface at.
Away from that however i have to say that its a near perfect article about gay people here.But the society you have to note that it only wakes up against gay people when they are incited by mostly opportunist politicians or individuals.

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