Uganda’s Giant Step Backward


THE DELUSION fueling Uganda’s homophobes is nicely summarized by Douglas Foster, in a Los Angeles Times editorial headlined “Black, gay and indisputably African.”

The theme of homophobic African politicians is that gay identity is a perversion imposed on black people by white oppressors. The historical fact is the reverse, of course: Legal prohibitions on homosexuality were originally imposed by white colonial rulers. So it’s no small twist in the plot that the new wave of threats to Ugandan gays should be reinforced by American religious extremists.

This is rich soil for the seeding of demagogic hypocrisy, and Uganda’s elites have taken note. Putting aside these extremists for the moment, I note that the publicly expressed opinions of the religious, concerning the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, are mixed. Outside Uganda, a fringe of breakaway traditionalist sectarians (for instance the reactionary Anglican splinter GAFCON, represented within Uganda itself by Archbishop Orombi) refuse to condemn, in the cases they did not openly endorse, the Ugandan example. Yet around the world the condemnation and disgust of the religious is amply registered, and it is only within Uganda that open support for a state campaign of LGBT persecution – in which the participation of every Ugandan adult has been made compulsory – may be found. The country is now isolated on this issue, and what a good thing that is.

The case of these “American religious extremists” is a touch more complicated. In March 2009 Caleb Lee Brundidge, Don Schmierer and Scott Lively (who prefers the Russian legislation to the Ugandan model) spoke at a Ugandan conference which is sometimes cited as the inspiration for the anti-homosexuality bill. These decidedly traditionalist and outspoken family values champions – collectively the nuclear bomb against the “gay agenda” in Uganda – have put themselves at an arm’s length from what is arguably a sub-genre of the ethnic cleansing campaign; and so too the American culture warriors Richard Cohen and Rick Warren.

However one sorts out the question of American evangelism’s culpability (at least some responsibility seems to me assignable, their anti-gay rhetoric having been in so many instances poisonous and hateful), it remains the case that Ugandan nationalism, at least in Musevenian form, is squalid and bankrupt. For years African scholars have contested and exposed the ahistorical claim that homosexuality is a legacy of colonialism and a white man’s affectation, from which right-wing nationalists have deduced the impossibility of an authentic black and gay African. For Bishop Joseph Abura, homosexuality is a disease and a first-world export industry, whereas the anti-homosexual bill is a case of becoming “truly accountable to our young and to this country, not to Canada or England. We are in charge!”

All well and good. But in charge of what, if not a bait-and switch scapegoating effort to direct attention from the corruption and failures of Uganda’s political class, the correction of which is where Uganda’s improvement truly resides; and in charge of excavating the pit which now stands readied for the continent’s next bloody cesspool. Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Director Graeme Reid has characterized the bill as “an official incitement to commit violence” against those even suspected as being lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or trans-gendered. Amend these adjectives to “Tutsi” and you have a familiar precedent for the spirit of the present campaign, if on a smaller scale.

If this seems exaggerated, consider the bill’s pedigree. In 2008, the Ugandan Member of Parliament, David Bahati, first proposed the anti-homosexual bill at a prayer breakfast. In the years between then and now, international pressure and internal political calculations have yielded the final, watered-down version – but Bahati’s original impulse was (and we must assume remains) both exterminationist and broadly popular. Only the intense and explicit displeasure of donor nations has tempered the behaviour, so far, of the witch-hunting factions, both within and without the government.

Bahati’s position atop the Scout Board of Uganda returns us to Douglas Foster’s indispensible insight into the phony and self-deluded character of Ugandan nationalism, as it is formulated by the demagogues and fake traditionalists behind the anti-homosexual bill. Scouting is an imperial legacy, imported by the British into Uganda in 1915. Around 2000, the Boy Scouts of America adopted a version of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” this year fully discarding its long-standing and Christian-based policy of discrimination against gays. Uganda, meanwhile, asserts its independence by mechanically rushing in the opposite direction.

Ugandan nationalism, in other words, now subsists in little more than recursion to the Age of Empire. More Christian than the Christian nations themselves, more attached to the British imports of the last century than Britain, and certainly hooked on the steady influx of Western pounds and dollars and Euros, Uganda’s religious and political loudmouths have nothing to offer but their opportunistic hand-me-down ideas.

This is a certain symptom of a leadership that lacks a vision and that hasn’t even a rudimentary notion of how to address (nor apparently an interest in addressing) the many problems of Ugandan society. It is also easy to see that the anti-homosexuality law will be used as a score-settling tool, in the manner of the dangerous bozo Martin Ssempa, who in 2012 was convicted of falsely accusing a rival pastor of committing homosexual acts. Uganda has crossed a line, and while the world can not stop this, it can register its deep disapproval. Uganda’s leaders should, and will, reap the logical consequences.

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