Loud applause by Ugandan officials as president signs new anti-gay law

‘I feel sick . . . my country is in a state of insanity right now,’ says Ugandan gay activist

Kenyan supporters of the LGBT community chant slogans against Uganda’s anti-gay bill in front of the Ugandan High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya, last week.  Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

Kenyan supporters of the LGBT community chant slogans against Uganda’s anti-gay bill in front of the Ugandan High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya, last week. Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 16:16

Uganda’s president signed a law today (MON) imposing harsh penalties for homosexuality.

The new bill strengthened existing punishments for anyone caught having gay sex, imposing jail terms of up to life for “aggravated homosexuality” – including sex with a minor or while HIV positive.

It criminalised lesbianism for the first time and made it a crime to help individuals engage in homosexual acts. Gay rights activists in Uganda said they planned a legal challenge.

Ugandan officials broke into loud applause as president Yoweri Museveni put his signature to the document in front of foreign journalists at his State House outside the capital.

“There’s now an attempt at social imperialism, to impose social values. We’re sorry to see that you (the West) live the way you live, but we keep quiet about it,” he said.

The legislation exposes the wide gulf between the continent’s often culturally conservative administrations and many of the foreign donor states that support them. Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh last week called homosexuals “vermin”.

Gay and lesbian organisations fear the bill will encourage other governments to strengthen penalties, increase harassment, discourage people from taking HIV tests and make it impossible to live an openly gay life.

“I feel sick. The degrading words the president has used . . . my country is in a state of insanity right now,” said Ugandan gay activist Kasha Nabagesera, adding the gay community expected to challenge the bill in the courts.

“Clawing back these basic rights and criminalising the expression of divergent views doesn’t bode well for anyone in Uganda,” said Maria Burnett of Human Rights Watch.

Homosexuality is taboo in almost all African countries and illegal in 37 – including Uganda, where rights groups say gay people have long risked jail. Few Africans are openly gay, as they fear violence, imprisonment and loss of their jobs.

The law comes a week after US president Barack Obama said the legislation would be “a step backward for all Ugandans” and warned it would complicate relations.

A senior Obama administration official had said the United States would review relations with Uganda if the law was enacted. Washington is one of Uganda’s largest donors, sending more than $400 million a year.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said today (MON) London questioned the bill’s compatibility with the Ugandan constitution and international treaty obligations. But he made no mention of aid cuts from Britain, another big donor.

Uganda is a key Western ally in the fight against Islamic extremism in Somalia, where Ugandan troops form the backbone of the African Union peacekeeping force battling al Qaeda-aligned militants.

Its government also expects to pump oil for the first time in 2016 and hopes the inflow of petrodollars will cut its dependence on foreign aid.

“He knows that while the West cares about homosexuality, it’s not to such an extent that they would severely punish a good ally,” said Ugandan political analyst Angelo Izama.

A Ugandan government spokesman said Museveni had taken the unusual step of signing the bill in public to “demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure”.

While African leaders broadly court Western donors with promises to tackle human rights abuses, many have won popular support by describing homosexuality as “un-African” behaviour.

Uganda’s move should please conservative voters ahead of presidential elections scheduled for 2016.

“We don’t like (homosexuality) in our culture,” said motor-bike taxi driver Ronald Kibabu. “That can keep him as president. The election is coming.”

Museveni said last week he was putting the bill on hold to give scientists a chance to prove that homosexuality could be triggered by genes and was not a “lifestyle choice”. They found no such evidence, Museveni said.

In neighbouring Kenya, a group of MPs has called for the enforcement of existing anti-gay laws that have been largely ignored.