DAKAR – Last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni met in his office with a team of U.S.-based rights activists concerned about legislation that would impose life sentences for some homosexual acts. Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined them by phone, pointing out similarities between Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and racist laws under South Africa’s former apartheid government.
Museveni made clear he had no plans to sign the bill, said Santiago Canton of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, who attended the Jan. 18 meeting. “He specifically said, ‘This bill is a fascist bill,’ ” Canton recalled. “Those were the first words that came out of his mouth.”
One month later, however, Museveni appears to have changed his mind, saying through a spokesman last week that the president would sign the bill “to protect Ugandans from social deviants.”
Coming one month after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law his country’s harsh anti-gay bill, which criminalizes same-sex marriage and activism, Museveni’s new position highlights Western governments’ apparent inability to temper governmental discrimination against gays in Africa.
The anti-gay bills are overwhelmingly supported by the general public in both Uganda and Nigeria, providing opportunities to win political points for two presidents eyeing re-election. But international gay rights activists also blame donor countries, including the U.S., which favor behind-the-scenes diplomacy intended to avoid the kind of backlash that might come from more forceful engagement.
“Quiet diplomacy up to the final moment clearly has failed,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Julie Dorf, senior adviser at the Council for Global Equality, said: “We do believe that our government here in the U.S. needs to ramp up the potential consequences that countries might face for these regressive anti-human rights measures. I have no doubt that President Museveni watched very carefully what happened after President Jonathan signed the Nigeria bill. And the truth is, there wasn’t much of a reaction.”
Several human rights groups are urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to recall his ambassadors to Uganda and Nigeria. The Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, said Wednesday that Kerry should recall the envoys because urgent consultation is required before regular diplomacy can resume.
“The Ugandan and Nigerian governments’ decisions to treat their LGBT citizens like criminals cannot be accepted as business as usual by the U.S. government,” said Chad Griffin, president of the group.
HRW and the Robert F. Kennedy center have also called on the State Department to temporarily recall its ambassador to Uganda for consultations. Dorf said the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, who recently went on a radio program to explain in Nigerian Pidgin English that Washington won’t be cutting aid because of the new anti-gay law, should also be brought back for talks.
Other suggested actions include suspending visa privileges for officials behind the new laws; suspending bilateral delegations or exchanges in areas of interest to both countries; reviewing and potentially revoking both Uganda’s and Nigeria’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act; and revoking invitations for Museveni and Jonathan to a U.S.-Africa summit planned for August.
These moves, though, could further jeopardize local activists who are already facing mounting vigilantism that seems to have been tacitly condoned, if not openly supported, by security forces, say activists. Last week, a mob armed with wooden clubs and iron bars dragged 14 young men from their beds and assaulted them in Nigeria’s capital, the latest in a series of attacks that has Nigerian gays fearing for their lives.
But Cleo Kambugu of Transgender Support Initiatives Uganda said the imposition of punishment by Western countries over anti-gay legislation could be harmful.
“That’s going to make people hate (sexual minorities) more in Uganda. They’ll say: ‘You see? Our economic suffering is because of you guys,’ ” she said. “By doing that, you’d actually be strengthening these beliefs that this minority group is responsible for your problems.”
It is a “tough dilemma,” agreed Dorf of the Council for Global Equality.
“The truth is that most of the local activists in these countries are scared out of their minds right now. They’re fearful of things getting even worse for them,” she said. “They don’t want the backlash which is inevitable when governments put more pressure, but not putting more pressure is making things even worse. We’re really in a bind.”