Choose your scapegoat

As Uganda passes its anti-gay law, Rosebell Kagumire decries the way faltering governments make scapegoats of their most marginalized citizens.

Ugandans at London's LGBT pride parade in 2016. Chris Beckett/Flickr

Every faltering government scours society for something it can use to stem the growing tide of mistrust among its citizens, and take the heat off its own failings. This search often takes rulers to the doors of the most marginalized.

In Uganda, the queer community has been the target of political violence whenever the government has attracted significant public outrage due to the corruption, nepotism and general incompetence within its ranks. President Yoweri Museveni’s government – which has now been in power for 37 years – has repeatedly stoked fears of ‘homosexuality’ and promoted the deluded nationalistic call to protect ‘African values’ from sexual diversity. The state rallies the people, to whom it has denied reliable, basic public services and freedoms to find their power in othering their fellow citizens.

In March, Uganda’s parliament lit the fires once again by passing a new anti-gay law. Gay sex is already outlawed in Uganda’s colonially inherited penal code but this new legislation further violates the LGBTQI+ population’s rights to freedom of expression and association, privacy, equality and non-discrimination. It bans identifying as LGBTQI+ and could punish anyone seen to be 'promoting' gay identity. The law also reiterates a life sentence for homosexual activities.

Museveni’s government is not starting from scratch. The instigation of collective fear and anger towards a minority group most often builds on centuries of oppression and prejudice against that community. Political leaders purposefully deploy this prejudice for their own survival – if society takes the bait.

It’s a tactic also used by newer governments looking to consolidate power. We need only need look to Kenya for an example.

In early March the Supreme Court of Kenya ruled that LGBTQI+ rights organizations could be registered with the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in their name as the constitution protects anyone from discrimination. However, conservative groups went straight to work on a disinformation campaign and President William Ruto was quick to clutch onto the tired, old rhetoric that ‘our culture and religion does not allow same-sex marriages’, despite the ruling being a question of freedom of association.

Elsewhere on the continent, similar tactics have been used to scapegoat Black African migrants in Tunisia. On 21 February, during a National Security Council meeting, the already unpopular President Kais Saied said that ‘hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa’ had come to Tunisia, ‘with all the violence, crime and unacceptable practices that entails’.

The estimated 21,000 Black African migrants in the country are facing a violent crackdown by police and ordinary people who have been emboldened by the president’s remarks. The African Union issued a statement condemning the racist rhetoric while Saied denied he was racist – even as many West African countries chartered flights to evacuate their nationals.

Tunisia’s treatment of Black migrants aligns with EU countries’ responses to people crossing the Mediterranean – many of whom are escaping some of the harshest impacts of conflict and climate change.

The intolerance that leaders are tapping into during a time of crisis demands that we stand in solidarity with the marginalized. We must organize and challenge our politicians whenever they pick a section of the population to dehumanize. Solidarity is essential.