A taxi driver reads the news of Uganda's new anti-homosexuality law in Kampala. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

“If homosexuality is ever legalised in Uganda I’ll be on the next flight home”

Edwin S is an LGBT refugee from Uganda, now living in South London. Here, he describes how he left behind everything he knew and loved so he could live in freedom and safety.

It was around 1992 when I realised I was gay. There was a lot of confusion. I loved life in Uganda before then.

Mum reacted very bad. Very bad. I didn’t expect it. I’d “let the family down” she said. As time passes, I wonder whether I made the right decision telling her. But you have to. At one point in life, you have to. And in Uganda, if you do, you suffer the consequences.

I’ve hardly spoken to mum since. My father died a few years ago but mum still lives in Uganda. I think she’s in her sixties. In Africa it’s not in our culture to ask how old a parent is. You will get told off.

I had one brief relationship in Uganda, which lasted two months. It wasn’t one of those relationships where you can tell a friend or your family, it was very, very secret because it’s something you’re not allowed to do. The consequences would have been fatal.  There would have been tears.

A beating maybe. But when they punch you in Uganda, it’s a real punching.

My relationship with Charles was not something I could be proud of. The love was there. But when you lack that kind of openness of expressing your love, there’s something missing. The fear of the consequence was always there. It was like a sitting time-bomb. It ended when I left Uganda and I haven’t heard from Charles since. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.

In Africa neighbours don’t complain if you play loud music, they enjoy it. In Africa you don’t have to make an appointment to see someone, you just drop in. In Africa cooking is in the open; I could tell if somebody was roasting chicken or pork because I could smell it.

In the evening I would hear the birds from my homestead. I would hear the stray dogs bark and the music from South Africa and the Congo. I would rest in the courtyard with relatives in the dry summer heat.

At the Ginga Kalori boys’ school I would play football with my Muslim best friend, Isma. We would put two sticks in a car tyre and wheel them, racing home. He died not long after I left. I never had the chance to tell him.

I left behind the things I grew up with, the things I was used too: the people, the environment and the Ugandan culture. You know you’re used to an environment when you close your eyes and you still know how to navigate. I lost all of that. But I was free and safe.

I had been an activist for a while. There was a political campaign and I was involved in the LGBT opposition group. On the radio I heard stories of gay couples being beaten and killed by police. We got caught up. Beaten up. I was always on the other side as a young boy, trying to fight against Museveni’s government.

I was lucky because I survived. Being submitted to cover up what I am was the saddest thing.

I arrived in the UK in 1995.

The accent was difficult: I knew they were speaking English but it was different. The way we speak English back home is quite different. It’s not “What’s your name”, it’s “What.is.your.name”. I remember one day I said “Good morning, sir” to a gentlemen and he gave me a strange look. In Uganda every grown-up is a sir or madam. Here it is different.

The other thing: I met a black guy on the bus and spoke to him in my native tongue. I thought everyone that was black spoke my language. I was wrong…

But here I am in heaven. You can do whatever you want with your partner. You can kiss in the street and hold hands. You don’t have to look over your shoulder to see who’s watching you. You can be what you are here. You can go to Gay Pride. Whatever you can think of doing you can do it here. No complaint.

Actually one complaint. Matoke (a Ugandan national dish). You can get matoke here but it’s not the same. In Uganda everything is fresh. When you order fish, it’s been caught at seven in the morning and it’s on your plate by one. You see chicken running and somebody cuts it and puts it on the fire. But here, everything is frozen.

There is freedom to campaign here. If there’s something I do not like, I can protest and demand answers. A few weeks ago with Peter Tatchell, we went into the Ugandan embassy in London and submitted a letter. It demanded the repeal of the anti-homosexuality bill. Homophobia in Uganda is an import. Homophobia came from the west.

If homosexuality is ever legalised in Uganda, I’ll be on the next flight home.

East or west, home is best.

Edwin S is an LGBT refugee living in South London. He moved from Uganda as a teenager. He is now the director of the African LGBTI Out & Proud Diamond Group. This week the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a controversial law allowing those convicted of homosexuality to be imprisoned for life. Ugandan politicians celebrated.

Interview by Ashley Cowburn

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.