By Jocelyn Edwards
At the Imperial Hotel in Entebbe last month, MP David Bahati moved around the room handing out copies of his anti-gay bill to religious leaders of all the major faiths and denominations. Muslim imams in their embroidered skull caps, Anglican and Catholic priests in their collars were joined by Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Bahais and others at the gathering, a meeting of the Inter-religious Council of Uganda.
The event was only one of a number of appearances that the honourable member is making to get his controversial bill passed. ‘Through these people we will reach about 95% of the people who believe in God,’ said Bahati.
The MP has also done at least a dozen interviews with international media and he plans to fly to the US and the UK to make his case this month. Here at home, he has spoken at Makerere University and other public venues; he also plans to go to over 20 secondary schools before the private member’s bill comes before parliament again. ‘We are working day and night to make sure that this bill gets passed,’ he said.
No less than President Obama and his secretary of state Hilary Clinton have opposed the legislation; the delegation of the European Union has filed a formal protest against it; Rick Warren, a former ally of conservative pastors in Uganda, has spoken out against it; and it has received media attention from CNN, BBC and Time. Despite the criticism, Bahati steadfastly defends it. ‘In my heart I believe that we are doing the right thing,’ he said.
Danger to Society
For his determination, Bahati, formerly a backbench NRM, is on the verge of becoming a hero for many religious in the country. Another attendee at the conference in Entebbe was a former teacher of the MP’s from Ndorwa West. Onesimus Asiimwe said he is not surprised that the man is at the vanguard of the crusade against gays.
Assimwe, who is now the chaplain to the Anglican archbishop in Uganda, recalls that the future MP was reserved and quiet as a student but ‘a leader already.’ He says Bahati always stood out.
‘You could see he had a bigger potential than what he was displaying.’
Left orphaned when he was three-years-old Bahati was sent to live with his grandmother. Later she also passed away and the boy had to work at the local market selling and carrying bananas to raise money for school fees. He was separated from his siblings and only reunited with them at 13 when his sister came to the market to buy fruit and recognised him.
The man decided to run for parliament partly as a way to give back to the community that helped raised him. In his first term , Bahati is only 35-years-old with a boyish face and an unassuming manner. He seems an unlikely candidate to incite such a virulent debate. Even his strongest opponents have trouble conjuring up strong emotions towards him. The writer of Gay Uganda, a gay blog in Kampala, admits he went to a debate on the bill prepared to hate the man. He found he could not and the strongest insult he uses to describe the MP is that he is ‘a dupe.’
The story of how Bahati came to be the face of the anti-gay campaign in Uganda goes back a couple of years. The MP, a father himself, first became interested in the issue of homosexuality after hearing testimony from sexually molested children. ‘I’m passionate about the issue of homosexuality because of both the danger for our children and our society,’ he said.
The bill establishes the death penalty for the offense of ‘aggravated homosexuality,’ that is homosexual sex with a person under the age of 18, a disabled person or in an instance when ‘the offender is a person living with HIV.’
However, as many have pointed out, Uganda’s criminal code already provides for the death penalty in cases of sexual assault or defilement of a person under 18. And besides that one provision, the bill has nothing to do with the sexual abuse of children at all. In fact, the bill’s stated purpose is to prohibit ‘any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex.’ It establishes a sentence of life imprisonment for those who commit ‘the offense of homosexuality.’
So what business does the government have with what two consenting adults of the same sex do in the privacy of their own bedroom? To Bahati what goes on between them is a crime. ‘If two thieves were in the bedroom, would you stop government from going there? If two terrorists were in the bedroom, would you stop government from going there? When they get out they will influence (society). They are planning to recruit children into this behaviour.’
Seeing TV and newspaper reports from the west of homosexuals getting married also helped to motivate Bahati, who speaks of a world-wide ‘gay agenda.’ ‘These are stories that really moved me. I said, ‘˜Wow this can’t go on; something must happen.’ I saw this happening in our country if we didn’t act.’ He started talking to colleagues about the issue and when it came time to present a bill, the young MP stepped forward.
Just ‘a lot of noise’
Bahati makes it clear he will not consider backing down, despite outcry at home and abroad. He said he doesn’t fear pressure from donor countries, like Sweden, who have threatened to withdraw their contributions to the Ugandan budget either. ‘I don’t think there is any country or any parliament in the world that will cut aid because of this issue of homosexuality,’ he said. ‘This is a minority group that is all over the world, with a lot of noise and a lot of connections.’
Bahati furthermore downplays the statements that international leaders have issued on the bill. He calls the criticisms made by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Canadian PM Stephen Harper at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting a mere ‘raising of concerns.’
‘There is no amount of pressure or intimidation that will deter us from protecting the children and defending family values here in Uganda. We will continue to move forward and stop the recruitment,’ he said.
So far not even strongly-worded condemnations by some of the world’s biggest leaders have been enough to kill Bahati’s determination. Perhaps a veto by the president, as recent reports have suggested is in the works, will eventually be required to halt the repressive law.