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Uganda anti-gay law elicits mixed reactions from the rest of Africa

Gay Rights
Pride South Africa participants

Participants at South Africa's Gay Pride March, 2013. Niko Knigge under a Creative Commons Licence

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed an anti-gay bill into law last week, opening a can of worms in neighbouring nations.

In Nairobi, Kenya, anti-gay activists lauded the Ugandan president for signing the bill into law, saying the move reflected the view of Africans against homosexuality. They say that the move is positive and a true reflection of African cultures, traditions and religions.

A group of Kenyan members of parliament has also strongly condemned the gay rights movement, claiming it is illegal and against African morality. They have called for the enforcement of existing anti-gay laws that have been largely ignored.

Gay rights groups, meanwhile, have reported that some members of Uganda’s LGBT community have fled to Kenya, fearing for their lives. The Kenyan gay community is itself deeply worried, fearing that the action taken by Uganda will encourage other governments to strengthen penalties, increase harassment, and make it impossible for them to live an openly gay life. They say that if the same law were implemented in Kenya, it would be counterproductive in the fight against HIV and AIDS and would create grounds for hostility, stigma and discrimination.

John Mathenge, Executive Director of Health Options for Young Men on HIV, AIDs and sexually transmitted infections (HOYMAS), says that gay people are worried because they are not sure what is going to happen to them. He explains that since the Kenyan MPs announced their support for the Ugandan law, they are being hunted down in their houses, their places of work and social settings by those opposed to homosexuality.

Mathenge believes that MPs should defend the constitution, which gives everyone a right to associate with whomsoever they want.

‘We are working on a strategy on how to defend ourselves,’ he says, a strategy that will be revealed soon.

Dr Peter Cherutich of Public Health Society of Kenya says his organization does not support legislating anti-gay laws, not least because of the impact they would have on the fight against HIV and AIDS: ‘This is an issue that should be discussed by Kenyans in order to find common ground,’ he explains.

Africa divided

The pro- or anti-gay debate has elicited varied passionate comments from across the African continent.

From South Africa, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu condemned the move, warning that Uganda’s controversial anti-gay law was similar to attempts by the former apartheid regime in South Africa to legislate against love. He urged the Ugandan president to clamp down on rape, child abuse and the sex trade instead. Same-sex marriages are allowed under South African law.

In Lagos, Nigeria, writer Sunday Oguntola says Western countries may withhold aid if they think it will make Uganda and other African countries back down.

‘But the law will also enable us to assert our cultural beliefs and sovereignty as black people. It will help us look inwards and not abroad for developmental funds and resources... Any strings attached to any assistance already question its usefulness,’ he says.

Since Kenyan MPs announced their support for the Ugandan law, gay people are being hunted down in their houses, their places of work and social settings by those opposed to homosexuality

Reporter Nkechi Onyedika in Abuja, Nigeria is afraid that African countries may suffer the consequences of aid cuts by Western countries:

‘It will have some impact on the economy, considering the problem of inadequate financial resources at the disposal of (African) governments and the competing needs… but it is a wake-up call for African leaders to explore the abundant natural and material resources available in their various countries and to stop depending on aid from the West,’ she says.

Speaking to the media in Kampala after signing the anti-gay bill into law, President Museveni argued that there was no genetic basis for homosexuality.

‘I advise friends from the West not to make this an issue because if they [do] they will lose. This is social imperialism – to impose social values of one group on our society,’ he said.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Rwanda, but Pierre Afadhali says it is not practised openly because Rwandan culture doesn’t accept it. Meanwhile, Akol Miyen says the gay debate is not a priority for Africa’s newest country, South Sudan, and argues that the issue is being discussed out of context.

While not supporting the Ugandan law directly, Jonathan Gandari in Zimbabwe says that he thinks other African countries should approach the issue with flexibility, adding that the Ugandan case was extreme and not helpful to anyone: ‘Zimbabwe has not imprisoned anyone [for homosexual acts] unless someone complains that they have been forced into it. With Uganda, the government is the complainant even if two adults are consenting. That is different, because it clashes with individual freedoms and individual rights.’

Homosexuality is taboo in almost all African countries and illegal in 37 – including Uganda – where rights groups say gay people have long risked jail. Fear of violence, imprisonment and loss of jobs means very few gay people in Africa will come out, thus complicating the fight against AIDS, which is a major health problem in the continent.

In response to the passing of the bill, the World Bank postponed a $90-million loan which had been intended to boost Uganda’s health services. World Bank officials said they wanted to guarantee that the projects the loan was destined to support were not going to be adversely affected by the law.

Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and other Western countries have expressed their displeasure at the law. The US announced that it would review its relationship with Uganda in the wake of the signing of the bill. Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain strongly opposed all discrimination on any grounds, adding that his government would continue to press Uganda to defend human rights for all.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he intends to raise the issue of the anti-gay law in a meeting with Uganda’s ambassador to the UN.

Though many African countries are opposed to gay relationships, they are responding to the issue in different ways: some liberally, like South Africa and Rwanda, and some aggressively, like the governments of Uganda and Nigeria. One thing they many have in common, however, is the likely rise of anti-Western feeling and rhetoric should the West continue to push for recognition of same-sex relationships.


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