But considering that Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law on Monday the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which criminalizes not only ‘amorous’ same-sex relationships, but also registration, operation or participation in gay clubs, societies or organizations (including, potentially, US and other Western human rights organizations active in Nigeria), Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s decision to veto an anti-gay bill on Friday was somewhat of a triumph, even if the veto was shrouded in a bizarre — and still virulently anti-gay — message:
The President said a homosexual is somebody who is abnormal because the normal person was created to be attracted to the opposite sex in order to procreate and perpetuate the human race. He said, nature goes wrong in a minority of cases. While in the Bill passed by Parliament there is no provision for killing homosexuals; the President said, “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 we do contain him/her?”
While the President said homosexuality is an abnormal condition that can be cured, he disagreed with the position of Western countries that homosexuality is an “alternative sexual orientation”. “You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation. It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people,” he said, adding that his acid test for rejecting Western position is that nature is purposeful.
Uganda and Nigeria are at the heart of an increasingly widening debate within sub-Saharan Africa over homosexuality, and Uganda’s proposed anti-gay laws have been widely covered in the international media.
The current bill, passed in December 2013 by Uganda’s parliament, which is dominated by the National Resistance Movement that’s controlled Uganda since Museveni (pictured above) came to power in 1986, would criminalize same-sex sexual intercourse, with penalties of life imprisonment for Ugandans convicted of ‘homosexuality.’ The bill also creates obligations for Ugandan citizens to report suspected gay and lesbian individuals to the police, and it criminalizes providing advisory services to gay and lesbian individuals. The latter provision could endanger all sorts of public health initiatives in Uganda, especially with respect to HIV/AIDS.
Earlier versions of the bill mandated the death penalty for gays and lesbians, which number an estimated 500,000 people among Uganda’s population of over 36 million.
Though Museveni blocked the law on technical grounds (that the parliament passed it without a legal quorum), he’s certain to have watched the international condemnation that fell on Nigeria earlier this week when Jonathan signed the Nigerian anti-gay bill, which is already being used to arrest dozens of LGBT individuals and activists. Nigeria’s nearly $260 billion economy, which has ample oil and mineral wealth and which is expected to overtake South Africa as the continent’s largest economy by the end of the decade, means that it isn’t as dependent upon development aid as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Uganda, with a $20 billion economy, stands to lose much more if Western governments believe it’s committed to enacting human rights abuses through anti-gay measures.
But same-sex sexual activity — or, more accurately, ‘carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’ — is already criminalized under Ugandan law, with penalties of up to life imprisonment, just as it was under British colonial rule in the 20th century. In 2005, Uganda amended its constitution expressly to prohibit same-sex marriage.
The current efforts to enact a harsher Ugandan anti-gay statute date to 2009, when David Bahati introduced the bill in the Ugandan parliament.
Though it’s possible to trace the legal roots of criminalization in Uganda and Nigeria to the British colonial era, it’s not just former British colonies that are suddenly enacting new anti-gay legislation or enforcing existing statues with additional vigor. Senegal, on the west African coast, and a former French colony, recently arrested five women under its own law, which provides up to five years in prison for same-sex conduct. Thirty-six African countries (out of 54) currently criminalize homosexuality, which makes it one of the most dangerous regions in the world for gays and lesbians, as the following graphic from The Economist shows:
It’s by no means the only problematic region. Russian president Vladimir Putin, for example, enacted a tough ‘anti-propaganda’ law last year that curbs the freedom to advocate for LGBT rights, which led to several US-based boycott calls and which could overshadow the Winter Olympics next month in Sochi. India’s Supreme Court recently enacted a ruling that reinstated Section 377, which effectively criminalizes same-sex conduct.
Conversely, not all African countries approach homosexuality with the same harsh attitudes — South Africa became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2006, and Mozambique, Botswana, Seychelles, Mauritius and Cape Verde have each enacted some protections against discrimination.
But even if Western countries first enshrined LGBT inequality in the legal codes of sub-Saharan Africa, the anti-gay legislation movements have a significant nationalist, anti-Western component to them, with their proponents painting homosexuality as a foreign phenomenon and attacking Western countries for what they believe is an attempt to impose homosexuality within their countries. For leaders like Jonathan, who faces regional and religious tensions and the ongoing pressures of governing an underdeveloped country of nearly 170 million people, enacting new anti-gay laws is a popular move:
“I thought the Western world will so much pressurize us to bow to it, but hearing that the president signed against it, in fact it’s a kudos. I’m very glad that he could stand [on] his feet and sign against such a taboo, because, I mean, it’s un-African,” said one citizen. “We don’t want such a thing in our country.”
Moreover, while the US, European and other governments tread lightly on LGBT rights in sub-Saharan Africa (lest even more countries try to whip up anti-Western sentiment on the backs of gay and lesbian Africans), US-based evangelicals have been working for years in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa to denounce homosexuality. Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams chronicled the link between US evangelicals and the rise in anti-gay sentiment in his 2013 documentary, God Loves Uganda:
He believes that powerful evangelical leaders have a larger agenda: “Everyone I’ve talked to in my film has said, ‘You know, look: America’s lost.’ As marriage equality has passed, America is lost to them, but they are winning the war in Uganda. And they believe that this war will be won by eradicating what they believe is sexual sin, and that means homosexuality. And that message gets translated very differently in an African context.”