How our prejudices have combined with an exhausted government to create a disaster for our country
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | The mighty World Bank has suspended all new loan applications to Uganda for passing the anti-homosexuality act. The law is primitive. I feel ashamed to be a citizen of a country that passes such barbaric legislation against a community for being who they are. Yet, although I am a defender of gay (and all other human) rights in Uganda, I do not agree this struggle needs foreign assistance in form of money, lectures and threats. As I have argued in this column for decades now, these foreign intrusions into our domestic affairs are often more harmful than helpful.
Ugandan gay activists have argued consistently against foreign aid cuts and travel restrictions insisting that they are counter-productive. First because they harm the country generally – including gays. Second, they furnish Ugandan homophobes with the “evidence” that homosexuality is a Western imposition on the country. This undermines the legitimacy of local agency. Ugandan gay activists are, therefore, mature and reflective; especially when compared to their counterparts in politics. Ugandan opposition politicians keep calling for foreign aid cuts, travel restrictions and economic sanctions from the West as the pressure button to promote the democratic reforms and respect for human rights they demand.
Inviting foreigners to become arbiters in our domestic national affairs not only undermines our sovereignty but it also undermines the very democracy we are trying to build. The worst reflection of this is the recent case taken to the International Criminal Court against President Yoweri Museveni and his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Put yourself in their shoes: you have control of the security infrastructure. The threat of jail after retirement gives you an incentive to cling to power at all costs. This means any political transition has to be contested to death. This is likely to bequeath chaos to the country rather than a peaceful transfer of power.
The stupidity of our political opposition aside, the passing of the anti-homosexuality law is a consequence and a reflection of how far our government has corroded. As the President closes in on his 80th birthday next year, he has grown tired and bored. His government has become lethargic, apathetic and directionless. There is a tragic lack of strategic thinking about important issues that concern the country. As a consequence, decisions that have powerful implications on the future of the country are taken on the basis of individual self-interest with little regard for the national good or out of momentary feelings of those responsible.
Uganda has long and deep connections with the Western world. These connections are historical, cultural and economic. More than financial aid, the Western world is the largest source of foreign tourists into our country. We also need to look at the West as a major destination for our exports. Western firms invest in our country singly or in partnership with Ugandans. And Western financial institutions extend loans to our businesses here. To pass a law well knowing it is going to discourage lenders, investors, tourists, and consumers of our goods from interacting with us shows absence of strategic thinking in decision making.
For instance, what injury was Uganda trying to cure in passing this law? Many politicians argue that it is to protect our children from abuse by adults. The second, to stop “promotion” of homosexuality as a normal lifestyle. Let us unpack each of these. Existing law in Uganda states that any adult who has sex with a minor has committed a crime of defilement and is liable, upon conviction, to a sentence of life in jail. The law does not target any one group. This achieves the aim of protecting our children without alienating our Western partners. To pass a law specifically aimed at homosexuals lacks strategic sense. It does not add any value, except to make some feel emotionally satisfied but at the price of undermining trade, investment and tourism with Western countries.
According to the police crime report, out of 12,700 cases of defilement reported in 2022, only 300 were boys, 12,400 were little girls. In all the cases, the offenders were men. This means that 97 percent of defilement cases in Uganda are of adult men abusing little girls. Our parliament has not felt it important to reinforce the law to protect girls. Obviously, this is because in our misguided minds, we consider such abuse within normal sexual parameters and therefore tolerable. The West is right to complain that this law is discriminatory, targeting a group in our society for being who they are.
This leaves only prohibiting “promotion” of homosexuality as the justification for this barbaric law. What does “promotion” mean in the eyes of our homophobes? Am I promoting homosexuality by arguing that homosexuals are normal people and homosexuality a normal sexual lifestyle? If yes, I (and so many other Ugandans) do this every week on traditional and social media. If the law makers were serious, how come they have not arrested and charged me under this law alongside thousands of Ugandans who argue that homosexuality is normal? This shows our legislators and their supporters were not even thinking about what they were doing.
Ugandans will continue with their homosexual liaisons confident that government is not going to be inspecting their bedrooms to see who is sleeping with who. Why, then, pass a law you know you are not going to enforce yet will alienate you from a very important source of tourists, investors, investment funds and trade opportunities? Secondly, our parliament can criminalize homosexuality but it cannot abolish it. Therefore, prohibition of “promotion” of homosexuality will only stop healthcare centers from providing sex education plus mental and clinical treatment to homosexuals. What does Uganda benefit by denying a section of its society access to mental and clinical treatment, because it has made its existence a crime? Note: Uganda has criminalised the use of drugs but it has never criminalised treatment of drug offenders.
Thus, every time I have appeared for debates on television or radio and even in private conversations with Ugandan elites of the homophobe variety, I have been appalled by how much their prejudices blind them to critical thinking. While the costs of this law are well known on trade, investment and tourism (I am deliberately omitting foreign financial “assistance” because I do not believe in it), the law does not have any enforceable benefits. It only gives us some sentimental satisfaction that something has been done against something we consider “evil.” Is this a worthy tradeoff?