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

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt