A few weeks ago, on behalf of one of the publications that I write for, I was invited to a conference promoting investment in Uganda. It was an occasion whose leisurely pace belied the very serious intentions of those who attended: there is a great deal of money to be made in Uganda, and a large proportion of which – given the country’s recent find of an abundance of oil – will be made very quickly indeed.
Happy times for capitalist types, then. But a fellow attendee of the conference was somewhat disgruntled. Actually, no: worse than that: this European executive, who now lived in the nation of my heritage and had taken it to his heart, was exasperated. Uganda had so much going for it, he opined. Wonderful place. It was a shame, then, that all so many if not most of the headlines about the place were dominated by one “weird” issue. He referred to it as “the gay thing”.
Ah, yes, the gay thing. He was talking about that pesky Anti-Homosexuality Bill that David Bahati, an MP, had touted back in 2009. This Bill, at one point, had called for the death of certain people who engaged in same-sex intercourse. It attracted the furore of many people the world over, and was shelved for a time. It has now re-emerged. One wonders what purpose is served by its return. It is tempting to regard this piece of prospective legislation not as a Bill, but as a troll. The content of this Bill has been carefully drafted with as much cruelty as possible. It is certainly thorough in its unpleasantness. Here are some sample clauses. One reads that “any person alleged to be homosexual would be at risk of life imprisonment or in some cases the death penalty”. Another states that “any parent who does not denounce their lesbian daughter or gay son to the authorities would face fines of $2,650 or three years in prison”.
This is the type of decree that you might have expected from the Gauleiter in Thirties Germany, but there’s more. “Any teacher who does not report a lesbian or gay pupil to the authorities within 24 hours would face the same penalties”, it drones on. “Any landlord or landlady who happens to give housing to a suspected homosexual would risk 7 years of imprisonment”. What’s more, it could well pass before Christmas.
It’s hard to be calm about stuff like this. Life imprisonment, the death penalty, witch-hunts and eviction. A proposed law which, even before it has been passed – which may well happen this month – has so poisoned the atmosphere that many LGBT people in Uganda are taking their own lives or having those same lives beaten out of them. And for what? So that the Ugandan Government can display its proud African sovereignty by – quite literally – hammering gay Ugandans as the symbol of Western decadence? Who, including President Museveni himself, truly knows?
All that’s really clear is that, when standing in a lobby on your best behaviour and making small talk about Uganda, it’s hard to maintain much decorum when someone’s upset about all the bad press their adopted country is getting. I felt some sympathy for this man, in truth. The Uganda in the media was not that which he understood – a land, in his experience, of kind, warm people. But, as a happily married heterosexual man, he wasn’t L, G, B, or T, or knowingly close to anyone who was, and so it wasn’t really his problem.
Except it was his problem, and mine, and that of Frank Mugisha, the courageous leader of Sexual Minorities Uganda. We would all rather hear talk of a better Uganda. The Uganda, as noted by the Financial Times’ Barbara Njau in her excellent presentation that day, which had “achieved one of the most impressive rates of growth in sub-Saharan Africa in the 2000s”. A Uganda which saw its foreign direct investment rise from less than $5million in 1985 to $180million in 2000. A land with potential for economic growth, job creation and an improved standard of living for millions of people. It would be fantastic if that was the story that more of us could hear about Uganda. But, sadly, it is a tale of which too many of those in power would obscure the telling.