The signing on Monday by Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni of draconian anti-gay legislation has pitched the once widely admired president firmly against human rights groups, aid NGOs and donor governments. Norway and Denmark have already decided to cut aid in protest. Others will follow, and there was widespread international condemnation of the move. (Ireland’s aid programme has already been suspended over financial irregularities).
Earlier provisions for the death penalty had been removed from the final draft of the law, under strong international pressure, but the Act provides for sentences from seven years to life for “committing the act of homosexuality”, promoting or abetting homosexuality, or “purport[ing] to contract a marriage with another person of the same sex”.
The move comes just weeks after Museveni’s Nigerian counterpart, Goodluck Jonathan, took similar steps, threatening offenders with 14-year prison terms, and Uganda is one of the 37 African states which proscribe gay rights. Campaigners warn that the enactment of the legislation will also contribute to legitimising and deepening the climate of fear, targeted intimidation and street violence which many gay men and women face. Ominously, one local tabloid yesterday celebrated the law’s enactment by publishing lists of dozens of people it says are gay and lesbian under the banner headline “EXPOSED”.
Museveni, east Africa’s senior leader, has been under domestic political pressure and has clearly calculated that the Act’s undoubted popularity with voters heavily influenced by evangelical religious conservatives, and a dash of Mugabe-like anticolonial populist rhetoric against the donor countries will stand him in good stead. And, like regional neighbours Rwanda and Kenya who have also fallen out with donors, Uganda is looking increasingly to investment from countries like no-questions-asked China and Malaysia. Gay rights, it seems, are expendable.