Members of Uganda's gay community attend the funeral of David Kato, the gay rights activist murdered in 2011. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signs anti-gay bill

The new law will make it virtually impossible to be openly gay in Uganda, and follows the stricter anti-gay laws passed in Nigeria last month. So what is driving this increased homophobia and anti-gay legislation?

Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has said he will sign into law a new bill which increases penalties against gay people, punishing first-time offenders with 14 years in jail. Under the new law, it will also be a criminal offence not to report someone for being gay, which makes it virtually impossible to be openly gay in Uganda.

Museveni had indicated earlier that he would delay assenting to the law pending scientific research conducted in America as to whether being gay is the result of nature or nurture, but today he presented his change of heart as a desire to assert his “independence” against Western countries.

This development is part of a broader trend, as homophobia is on the rise in some African countries, often bolstered by anti-gay legislation. In January this year, Nigeria passed legislation banning same-sex displays of affection, same sex marriage and gay groups. Earlier this month, a mob in the Nigerian capital of Abuja attacked a dozen gay men, dragging them from their homes and beating them with whips and nail-studded clubs. According to the New York Times, some of the men were shouting “we are working for Jonathan” referring to Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan and indicating how political decisions can shape reactions on the street.

According to Amnesty, it’s illegal to be gay in 36 out of 54 African states, and in Mauritania, Sudan, Northern Nigeria and Southern Somalia homosexuality carries a death penalty. In South Africa, where being gay is not criminalised, a disproportionate number of the LGBTI community are victims of rape and murder.

Of course, it’s not only in Africa that attitudes towards homosexuality have hardened – Russia has come under fire in recent months for its law banning gay “propaganda”. In Iran and Saudi Arabia homosexuality is punishable by death and 70 countries worldwide imprison citizens for their sexual orientation. In April 2013, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described homophobia as “one of the great neglected human rights challenges of our time”.

So why are countries like Uganda introducing these cruel and discriminatory laws? It could be that governments are using conservative and anti-gay legislation as a way of detracting attention from their failures to address unemployment, poverty and other social issues. Another problem, according to Amnesty, is the rise of US evangelical churches who “actively fund and promote homophobia in Africa”. Museveni might see his anti-gay stance as a way of asserting independence, but many of the laws discriminating against gay people in Africa are part of the continent's colonial legacy.  

It might play to Museveni's "independence" argument, but the US, UK and other donor nations need to use their diplomatic and financial powers to exert pressure on governments intent on strengthening anti-gay legislation. Using the threat of withdrawing aid as a way of promoting domestic reform is controversial, but there are few alternatives if you believe that love should never be a crime.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad