In Uganda, Gay Rights for Sale?

On January 17, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign controversial anti-gay legislation passed by the country’s parliament in December. Drawing criticism from human rights advocates around the world, the bill would make “aggravated homosexuality” a crime punishable with up to life in prison. Additionally, any citizen supporting gay individuals or failing to report homosexual activity to authorities could also be sentenced to jail time.

In sending the bill back to the legislature, Museveni pointed to parliament’s failure to mandate a quorum for the bill, required to pass legislation in the first place. Museveni’s spokesperson, however, explained the president’s view of gays and lesbians as “sick people” in need of help and rehabilitation rather than a life in prison. In a letter to lawmakers, Museveni wrote “The question at the core of the debate of homosexuality is; what do we do with an abnormal person? Do we kill him/her? Do we imprison him/her? Or do we contain him/her?”

The current anti-homosexuality legislation is the latest articulation of a series of bills dating back to 2009, when Member of Parliament David Bahati proposed the infamous “Kill the Gays” bill. That version, which would have legalized the death penalty for homosexual acts, rapidly garnered international condemnation and raised questions about the influence of U.S. Christian evangelicals in promoting an aggressive anti-gay agenda in the East African country.

On its surface, Museveni’s decision is puzzling.  In power since 1986, Museveni has long been a staunch opponent to gay rights in a country where homophobia runs deep and anti-gay sentiments are no stranger to public spotlight. Presidential support of harsher punishments for gay individuals would seemingly be welcomed by many Ugandans. Consequently, gay rights advocates have questioned whether Museveni and other government leaders are resisting the legislation for fear of losing international aid from donor countries, like the United States, that take issue with the legislation.

Perhaps Museveni is indeed paying attention to the potential consequences.  In late 2011, the Obama administration directed all foreign affairs agencies to use foreign aid to promote LGBT rights and combat criminalization of homosexuality across the globe. At the same time, the administration suggested that it would not pursue “cutting or tying” aid to changes in other countries practices regarding LGBT citizens. To date, the United States has not stripped a country of aid due to anti-gay legislation. Rather, some western governments have attempted to condition new or increased aid on the elimination of criminal laws regarding homosexuality. African leaders, however, quickly rejected such policies, with Gambian President Yahya Jammeh stating that he would not be “bribed” to accept gay rights.

Whether Museveni is himself falling to “bribes” remains unclear, but events in the near future may further illuminate his motivations. The Ugandan parliament reconvenes on February 18 and will likely revisit the bill. Under the Ugandan constitution, the legislation will become law if it carries the support of two-thirds of lawmakers and Museveni refuses his signature again.

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