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.