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The anti-gay gospel

Gay Rights
Ssempa blesses Bahati

Not doing the Lord’s work: Pastor Martin Ssempa (wearing spectacles) blesses politician David Bahati, who introduced Uganda’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill as a Private Member’s Bill in 2009. The ceremony took place at an anti-gay church service at the Christianity Focus Centre in Kampala’s biggest slum, Kisenyi. © Benedicte Desrus/Alamy

Pafla Basuza rides a boda boda, a motorcycle taxi, by day and preaches at his village Pentecostal church by night and on Sundays. Like most evangelists in Uganda, the themes of his gospel are recurrent – abortion is murder, homosexuals have an assured ticket to hell, and poverty is a curse from God resulting from these and other such evils.

Basuza’s message echoes that of US rightwing Christians he has never heard of. He, however, first heard about the evils of homosexuality from his idol, Martin Ssempa. Ssempa is a Ugandan anti-gay crusader who is inspired, mentored and funded by conservative Christian groups from the US – a fact Basuza does not know or care about.

Thanks to the efforts of Ugandan anti-gay agitators and their overseas funders, parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in December 2013. The law, which initially proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts, brought the East African nation international criticism for being one of the most gay-hostile places in the world.

Some of the blame was placed on Western, particularly US, evangelists. Critics accused them of evoking questionable British colonial laws and liaising with local politicians to fan the fire of hate against homosexual people – many of whom were initially attracted to Pentecostal churches because of their lively and liberal style of worship.

‘I do not know whether it is the music or the mini-skirts, but everybody goes to the Pentecostal church. Even we kuchus [as gays fondly refer to themselves in Uganda] used to pray there,’ says Sandra Ntebi, who heads the Ugandan LGBT security task force. Her group became necessary after the anti-gay law was passed and media outings, mob justice, evictions and other attacks on gay people increased. 

‘In church, everywhere, they talked about us,’ Ntebi says. ‘The pastor said: “It is your neighbour, that homosexual next to you, who is responsible for all your problems.” So we had to leave church.’

Inspiring hate

According to Kampya John Kaoma, who researches sexuality and religion, Uganda’s anti-gay law was born out of a series of meetings held in Uganda in 2009, orchestrated by US Christian conservatives like Scott Lively, Don Schmierer, Rick Warren and Lou Engel. Kaoma, who attended some of the meetings, says they inspired other US Christian rightwing groups, like the American Center for Law and Justice (founded by televangelist Pat Robertson) and Family Watch International (a Mormon-led outfit) to extend their influence in Africa.

Conservative Christians also directly funded David Bahati, the Ugandan MP who originated the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Research carried out in 2009 and 2012 suggests that their African beneficiaries do not necessarily appreciate who these rightwing Christians are or the dangers of extremism they pose, says Kaoma.

‘The pastor said: “It is your neighbour, that homosexual next to you, who is responsible for all your problems.” So we had to leave church’

Kaoma’s work, done under the auspices of Political Research Associates, a US-based liberal social justice thinktank, chronicles the influence of rightwing Christianity on politics and human rights in Africa. He points out that the US Christian evangelists enjoy a close personal relationship with the most influential politicians in Uganda, including Janet Museveni Kataha, Uganda’s First Lady and MP.

‘They sponsor orphanages, Bible schools, universities and social-welfare projects. By providing education and small-business opportunities, US conservatives have convinced Africans that they are the perfect partners,’ he says.

They have also convinced their Ugandan followers that homosexuals are a threat to African traditional values. In the local preachers, they find willing cohorts who gladly take funding in return for doing what they believe is the noble job of protecting traditional values.

Ntebi says that aside from the poverty and desperation that lead Ugandans to lap up the anti-gay gospel, colonialism and neocolonialism have put them in a position where they cannot question what a white person says.

‘To us, a white person – a Christian white person – is always right. The people believe everything that the white man says. That is why Scott Lively and his friends have been successful in Africa.’

While Uganda’s constitutional court annulled the anti-gay law in August 2014, the penal code still maintains ambiguous provisions on ‘unnatural offences’ that are used to target gay people. Frank Mugisha, Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a group suing Lively for persecution of sexual minorities, says the effect of Uganda’s anti-gay campaign is extensive and nearly irreversible.

Last year, a report by SMUG indicated that the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act had created a ‘virulently homophobic atmosphere’ and increased attacks against gays by up to 2,000 per cent. Even as Lively and other US Christian conservatives now distance themselves from Uganda’s anti-gay campaign, their incidental protégés, like Basuza, continue to fierily preach the gospel they promulgated.

‘It is not hard to see Ssempa is a man of God. I like his American accent and his polished shoes,’ says Basuza, whose ageing coat is covered with a film of dust from riding his motorcycle taxi on dirt roads. ‘We all look up to him. We all must join him in the fight against homosexuality.’

Patience Akumu is an award-winning Ugandan journalist living in Kampala, specializing in social issues.

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