Christmas fear in Uganda

A proposed new law takes state homophobia to new and sinister levels in East Africa.

The Ugandan Speaker of Parliament’s suggestion that the proposed anti-homosexuality Bill would be passed "as a Christmas gift" to Uganda is deeply chilling. Hearing the developments in the news, it feels like we’ve been here before - and remembering the murder of human rights activist David Kato, concerns about where this will go are acutely real.

Friends and colleagues in Uganda, and other countries, face an on-going emergency. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender means discrimination, denial of basic human rights, and criminalisation. It doesn’t go away just because the headlines stop for a while.

The LGBTI community in Uganda is facing harassment and persecution, made worse by hate-speech and the fanning of homophobic flames by those in Uganda and abroad. We know the impact that this has on their physical, sexual and mental health, and it’s unacceptable.

In its current form, the Bill proposes, among other serious penalties, that a parent who refuses to denounce their gay son or lesbian daughter could face up to three years in prison - or a fine of up to roughly twice the average yearly household income for a Ugandan family. And we’ve heard this described as protecting the family. The list goes on – proposing a systematic denial of the most basic rights – to health, housing, education, freedom.

Talking to gay friends in East Africa I’m sometimes taken in by the relaxed way we talk about their security. I’m tempted to believe that she doesn’t mind moving house every few months to keep her profile low; that he’s happy to travel always with a friend and not alone. It can be easy to forget how difficult it is for him to access healthcare, or not to notice when he downplays the end of his last relationship, which ended not because they stopped loving each other, but because the pressure became too much. Or that their family and friends have cut contact.

It’s easy to do all this because the friends I speak with are resilient, courageous. They’re just trying to get on with their lives, and spend very little time complaining about what is often a daily reality. But just as the story doesn’t go away when the news cameras stop rolling, the reality is that this Bill has already taken its toll by legitimizing hatred and discrimination. And while the re-tabling of this Bill is disturbing for what it might bring, I’m disturbed by the menace it has inflicted since it was introduced in 2009.

This reality will continue as long as this Bill languishes in Parliament: because the stigma, harassment and denial of rights that people experience today does not exist in a vacuum. It’s shocking to see MPs, and others holding positions of authority, use this Bill and the media furore to distract attention from critical issues: like the growing concerns over corruption that have resulted in the UK halting its aid to the Ugandan Government.

As long as those with the power to reject the Bill hold back from doing so decisively and completely, they carry part of the responsibility for threats to the safety, security and health of all Ugandans affected.

Aoife NicCharthaigh is Policy and Advocacy Manager for the international sexual and reproductive health and rights charity, Interact Worldwide

Protesting outside the Ugandan embassy in London. Source: Getty

Aoife NicCharthaigh is Policy and Advocacy Manager for the sexual and reproductive health charity, Interact Worldwide.

 

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit