Temporary relief for Uganda’s LGBTQI+ community

In the past five months, four LGBTQI+ activists have been killed in Uganda, an East African state which recently revived the idea of legislating capital punishment as punishment for homosexuality. Such legislation would have made Uganda the second sub-Saharan nation after Sudan to have a death statute targeting sexual minorities in its books .  

Following a national and international outcry, the Ugandan government has since clarified it has no intention to introduce new laws. But the situation remains tenuous for queer people in the African nation of nearly 43 million. 

In October, the country’s minister of security Elly Tumwine labelled LGBTQI+ people “terrorists” when he fielded questions on NBS TV, a local station.

A day later, Brian Wasswa, 28, became the latest gay activist to be killed. He died of a brain hemorrhage, after being assaulted with a hoe at his home in eastern Uganda. 

To date nobody has been apprehended for Wasswa’s murder, emboldening the belief that Government is tacitly batting for the internecine and homophobic bloodletting. 

Londoners march in support of LGBTQI+ Ugandans in 2018. Photo: Alisdare Hickson, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

A fortnight after the burial of Wasswa, James Nsaba, an MP, told reporters in Kampala, the capital, that  parliamentarians were intending to retable a bill that sought capital punishment for LGBTI+ people. In 2014 a similar bill was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s constitutional court on a technicality.

According to Simon Lodoko, the state minister for ethics and integrity, the current penal code is insufficient because it “only criminalizes the act,” adding that it needs to punish anyone “even involved in the promotion and recruitment” of homosexuality.

“Homosexuality is not natural to Ugandans,” said Lodoko in a statement. “But there has been a massive recruitment by gay people in schools, and especially among the youth, where they are promoting the falsehood that people are born like that.”

“Those that do grave acts will be given the death penalty,” he said.

These “are careless remarks that have real-life implications of hundreds of Uganda’s LGBTQI+ community who are already facing grave societal dangers even without the law,” wrote Nicholas Opiyo, a leading human rights lawyer and founder of the human rights organization Chapter Four Uganda in an email interview. Uganda, he wrote, is “in the political silly-season; a season in which Ugandan politicians will clutch onto anything to garner public support, including putting the lives of ordinary Ugandans of different sexual orientation and gender identity at risk.” 

Alluding to national elections scheduled for 2021, Opiyo pointed out subtle campaigns for the country’s top seat have already begun in a country that has not witnessed a peaceful transfer of power since gaining independence from Britain in 1962.

Current President Yoweri Museveni, 74 who has held power since 1986, is expected to seek a sixth term after parliament passed legislation removing a constitutional clause that prevented anyone over 75 from holding the presidency.

With two years until the vote, the country is already inundated with electoral favor. The fractured opposition is realigning itself with in hopes of forming an efficacious political vehicle.           

Clare Byarugaba, 32, an award winning Ugandan human rights defender and LGBTQI+ activist, told Toward Freedom in a telephone interview from Kampala that “politicians want political leverage from their divisive rhetoric.”

“Government is trying to cover up a lot of stuff they are doing wrong,” said Byarugaba. “They want to divert peoples’ attention from pressing issues that should matter most to the larger society by pandering to a form of populism that appeals to [their] political base.”

According to Amnesty International, same-sex acts are illegal in 34 of the continent’s 54 countries, which is an appalling and worrying indicator signifying the perilous status of LGBTQI+ people in Africa. Thirty five other countries outside Africa that are members of the Commonwealth maintain laws on their books that criminalize same-sex relations.

African leaders routinely cite culture and religion as reasons for outlawing homosexuality. 

Uganda’s President Museveni, for example, has called gays “disgusting” and labeled homosexuality “a western import.”

“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,” the president said in 2014 in a letter written to the parliamentary speaker after he blocked the bill in January of the same year.

South Africa became the first African nation to decriminalize homosexuality in 1998, when a Johannesburg High Court ruled that the nation’s sodomy’s laws violated the country’s newly adopted, post-apartheid Constitution. In 2006, the country legalized gay marriages, becoming the fifth country in the world to do so.

Since 2010, several more countries in Southern Africa have decriminalized same-sex relations, including Mozambique, Angola and Lesotho. 

“Under current Ugandan law, gay sex is already punishable with up to life imprisonment, forcing gay people to live a life of secrecy and lies,” according to Dr. Rainer Ebert a lecturer in the department of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Uganda began attracting global attention regarding the arduous treatment of the LGBTQI+ community in January 2011 when David Kato, 46, considered a father of Uganda’s gay rights movement and described as “Uganda’s first openly gay man” was bludgeoned to death in Mukono, Kampala.

In November 2011 Sidney Nsubunga Enoch was found guilty of murdering Kato by a Kampala court and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He admitted in court that he had bludgeoned Kato to death with a hammer, but alleged he had been provoked by sexual advances from him. 

Mr. Kato was killed after a newspaper published the names and addresses of 100 people they said were gay or lesbian. The headline read simply: “Hang them.”

“The biggest problem of the country’s LGBTQI+ community in Uganda is not the law. Instead, it is the attitude of the people towards them – the widespread homophobia. These have had a debilitating and yet unseen and unreported impact of people’s daily lives,” said human rights campaigner Opiyo. “It is this homophobia that politicians latch onto to purport to pass a law. So we have to create conditions for social inclusion and public protection for the LGBTQI+ community.” 

Frank Mugisha, the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the country’s leading gay rights organization told AFP news agency that sixteen Ugandan LGBT activists had been subjected to forced anal examinations after being arrested this October.

Uganda still is fraught with discriminatory acts directed at LGBTQI+ people.

For example, on November 10, police raided a saloon in Kampala, the capital, known as Ram Bar, which is frequented by LGBTQI+ people. They rounded up 127 people. The Ugandan media reported the victims were dragged and thrown onto police trucks.

 The Victims were initially told they were being detained under Uganda’s Anti-Tobacco Law (2015) for illegal use of shisha. One person caught up in the sweep told Human Rights Watch that police arrested everyone in the bar indiscriminately, though only a few clients were smoking shishas.

On November 12th, a court in Uganda charged 67 of the 127 people with causing a nuisance.

While some of the arrested were released on bail, about 40 remain in Luzira Maximum Security Prison, which houses the country’s death row inmates. Their hearings are slated for this month. 

Even though the capital punishment law was shelved, it continues to be a struggle to be queer in Uganda. But Byarugaba, the LGBT activist in Kampala, said it would be wrong to underestimate the resilience and strength of the queer community. “We fought so hard against legalized homophobia and discrimination [in 2014], and we shall do the same if they introduce another law,” she said.

Author Bio

Charles Wachira is a journalist based in Kenya, formerly a correspondent with Bloomberg and the Inter Press Service (IPS). He covers regional issues such as human rights, politics, gender, climate change, and business, including oil & gas.