I know two Ugandas.
One, the warm and welcoming country where I have spent a year and a half of my life, is a world away from the other – an oppressive, prejudicial regime which today joined the epidemic of homosexual hatred that is sweeping Africa.
My friends and colleagues, men and woman of, among others, the Bakiga, Acholi and Buganda tribes are open to outsiders, curious of new cultures and kind and generous hosts, sometimes to an embarrassing degree.
The men and woman who applauded and cheered as the anti-Homosexual bill was made law today are part of another Uganda, but it is this Uganda, the regressive Uganda, which is now at centre stage.
Since I returned to Scotland from Uganda at the end of 2013, the diverging paths taken by the two governments are clear for all to see.
On 4th February 2014, the Scottish Parliament took the historic step to legalise same-sex marriage in Scotland. Today, 24th February 2014, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-Homosexual Bill into law.
The former decision is part of the wider progressive movement which will not compromise on equality. But this movement is being met by its counterpoint – a movement to spread fear, hatred and intolerance to millions. Homosexuality is now illegal in 83 countries across the world, 38 of which are in Africa. It is a movement gathering pace in other countries too, most notably Russia.
For Uganda, the decision to sign up to be the newest member of the anti-equality club, has many facets.
There is a political expedience. President Museveni, in an effort to sure up support for next election in 2016, is tapping into a long-held belief that outside, colonial influences are on the rise. Since Idi Amin expelled the countries Asian population in the 1972, a decision still popular among many today, Ugandan leaders have wanted to appear tough to outside influences, even if it is to the detriment of the country. In the 1970s, it was the economy that suffered. Today it is equality.
Appearing to stand up to President Obama, Archbishop Tutu and 25,000 people from the UK who have written to the Uganda President against this action will make Museveni more popular.
On the ground, the strong stance against so-called foreign influence can be seen in increasing taxes on foreign owned investment (except Chinese oil exploration) and increased spot checks, and sometimes harassment, of foreign workers. It is a good idea to have a copy of work permits and passports on your person at all times as some have been imprisoned for not showing their papers when confronted by police.
There is the bully pulpit. In a very religious country, where most go to church at least once a week, religious leaders have the opportunity to pour poison into the ears of millions. I have heard it myself – “the abomination of homosexuality” – preached as gospel to congregations from all religions and all tribes. This action is being fuelled by money from right-wing evangelical groups from the United States which promise aid in return for a unashamedly pro-abstience, anti-homosexual message.
There is old fashioned prejudice. Homosexuals are to blame for numerous ills – crop failure, drought, but mainly the spread of HIV. This is just one many myths of HIV in Uganda and across East Africa – in fact rates of infection are now higher amongst hetrosexuals – but it all helps to fuel the feral fear which threatens to envelop East Africa.
Amnesty International has said the passage of the anti-Homsexual bill into law is a very grave episode in Uganda’s history.
I agree, and it will continue this way unless the progressive, welcoming voices that I know in Uganda find their voice against the prejudice and hatred.