The Rev. Canon Kapya Kaoma, an Episcopal priest from Zambia and a project director at Political Research Associates, predicted last month that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni would sign the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Now that Museveni has done so, Kaoma discusses what’s to be done now. He warns that some LGBT advocates’ calls for countries to cut diplomatic ties to Uganda is exactly what Museveni hopes will happen.
WARNING: U.S. LGBTQ Organizations Falling Into Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Trap
By THE REV. CANON KAPYA KAOMA
On February 24, the world woke up to the news that President Yoweri Museveni finally signed the anti-gay bill into law. This is despite his initial promise to President Barack Obama that he would await scientific evidence before signing the bill. Many people took that assurance as goodwill from Museveni, but I did not. On Saturday, Museveni indicated that he would deal with Russia, as opposed to nations that want to get involved in his country’s affairs — clearly pointing to U.S. President Obama’s opposition to the anti-gay bill. It is Russia, which is the cover to African countries’ actions on homosexuality.
Museveni’s actions should be understood from a political perspective. Museveni’s potential challenger is Speaker Rebecca Kadaga — whose reputation rose after her encounter with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird in October 2012, during the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Assembly in Quebec. Aside from saying that Uganda was neither a colony nor protectorate of Canada, Kadaga promised to pass the Kill the Gays Bill as a Christmas present to Ugandans. Upon her return to Uganda, Kadaga was met by hundreds of thousands of Ugandans and anti-gay pastors—celebrating her as a courageous leader.
Museveni has been looking for an opportunity to dislodge Kadaga from her prominence as a fighter of Western imperialism. His December 28 letter to Speaker Kadaga, in which he questioned the legitimacy of the bill, and her leadership, could have been intended to embarrass Kagada in Museveni’s NRM Caucus. Unfortunately, it failed. So, Museveni had no choice but to sign the bill and hit back on Western nations — just as Kadaga did.
Does this development justify the recall of the U.S. Ambassadors to Uganda and Nigeria? No. That would just create another wave of demonization of LGBTI persons. Besides, Museveni wants to use Western opposition to justify his own hold on power.
Museveni was aware that Western nations will react with rage. It is from this perspective that Museveni’s declaration of “war on the ‘homosexual lobby’ ” and his call to Ugandans to stand with him should be understood. To Museveni and most Ugandans, the “homosexual lobby” includes not only major LGBTQ rights organizations, but the United States and the European Union, which have for many years fought for the rights and dignity of LGBTQ persons on African soil.
Western nations and organizations have not fought in the way social justice-minded people have hoped—they have not stopped the arrests, or the beatings—but there is no doubt that their presence and back-room meetings with African politicians has saved LGBTQ lives from systematic persecution and, in some cases, genocides.
It is these nations and organizations that have provided safe spaces for African LGBTQ persons—even in extraordinarily homophobic countries like Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Gambia—to share their plight and reorganize after their governments disband them. In Zambia and Uganda, these nations have gone beyond simple meetings with local LGBTQ activists, but are monitoring and documenting human rights abuses, flooding court rooms when LGBTQ persons appear in court, and have provided safety when African nations declare war on gays. When LGBTQ Africans lives’ are in immediate danger, it is to the U.S. and European embassies they run for safety. These nations’ open protection of sexual minorities in Africa has resulted in charges of “promoting homosexuality in Africa” by both religious and political leaders.
Honestly, had it not been for the presence of the U.S. and European embassies, African gays would have been massacred years ago, without any fear of consequences. For LGBTQ organizations to now demand they pull out of Uganda perilously compromises the lives of LGBTQ persons—who will not have anyone to turn to for safety, and strip our ability to monitor persecution.
Knowing that most people don’t understand the pan-African ethics of solidarity, how African nations perceive Western response to Uganda will have effects across the continent, from Kenya to Algeria to Ethiopia.
We need Western nations’ presence in the fight against the criminalization of LGBTQ persons in Africa more than American human rights activists. Recalling the U.S. ambassador for a while also will not help much. It will not just be misunderstood by African media but also confirm the false claim that Western nations are in Uganda for one purpose—to recruit young people into homosexuality. This perception will increase the negative attitudes against LGBTQ persons in Uganda. It is time to realize that African LGBTQ people are not all activists—most of them exist without public faces in villages and shanty compounds.
Museveni’s preference of Russia over the Western nation should be understood in the context of the neo-colonial politics. Uganda is not the first country to pass this Anti-Homosexuality Bill banning advocacy for LGBTQ issues—Russia was first. Nigeria followed, and many more nations are still to follow. From now on, how we deal with Russia will affect African nations’ perceptions of Western involvement in sexual politics. As long as Russia maintains its anti-gay laws, any criticisms of Uganda or Nigeria will be seen as neo-colonial meddling — which makes even vicious dictators (like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe) become heroes in the eyes of the African people.
African nations are sensitive to neo-colonial and imperialistic attitudes of the West—hence they are likely to side with Museveni. The move will only make Museveni a hero not just among Ugandans, but also among his African allies— precisely what he is hoping for after watching his political power fade in recent years. If the West attacks him, or leaves the country, Museveni will have free rein to rule as the dictator he wants to be.
So what is the way forward?
I understand that this new development demands drastic diplomatic actions, but cutting the aid or diplomatic ties with Uganda should not be one of them. Aside from boosting the political power and credibility of leaders like Museveni, David Bahati, and Martin Ssempa — opening the door for African nations to expand further anti-LGBTQ laws — such actions will have repercussions on the poor and beyond Uganda. Sanctions against Uganda or withdrawal of aid will hurt the poor and not Museveni and his government.
In this regard, there is need to put measures in place that will affect Museveni and all the anti-gay politicians and religious leaders. Selective sanctions—whereby specific anti-gay individuals are sanctioned from traveling and as well as visiting Europe — can have better effects than sanctioning the entire nation. Targeted sanctioned worked in Zimbabwe and I believe can also work in Uganda.
Moreover, African homophobia is promoted and propelled by religion. In Uganda, Christian leaders (paid for and encouraged by American evangelicals) have been demanding the bill for years, and pushing their followers to vote for the lawmakers who support it. Politicians will always be politicians—they are always looking for votes. In his attempt to win the Evangelical votes in 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama disagreed with same-sex marriage in a debate moderated by Pastor Rick Warren—one of the very same U.S. evangelicals who worked with anti-gay pastors in Uganda.
But to think that such dynamics only work in American politics is naïve at best, and dangerous, careless, and deadly at worst. Museveni needs votes to remain in power.
So the answer to Uganda’s anti-gay law lies in the primarily Christian religious leaders. We should demand that Pope Francis speak directly to President Museveni and Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, and urge Ugandan Roman Catholics to proclaim his already-stated opposition to any law criminalizing LGBTQ persons. U.S. breakaway Episcopalian (Anglican), and Evangelical/Pentecostal leaders should equally speak to their friends in Uganda about the dignity and fundamental human rights of sexual minorities.
And the American people must demand an end to the constant flow of exportation of homophobia from U.S. evangelicals like Scott Lively, Lou Engle, and Rick Warren to Ugandan pastors and politicians.