For many Americans who grew up in the 1970s, mention of the nation of Uganda conjures up images of its notorious dictator and 'president-for-life' Idi Amin, whose reign of terror during a decade of rule was characterized by corruption, repression, human rights abuses, and what has been estimated between 100,000 and 500,000 murders between 1971 and 1979.
But international human rights groups say that the restoration of parliamentary government, and the "rule of law" to Uganda in the intervening decades, has done little, if anything to improve the quality of life for the nation's GLBT population. And late last year, officials announced plans by Uganda's parliament to pass legislation which would not only up the ante of state-sponsored discrimination against GLBT Ugandans, but would increase penalties for homosexual behavior, including imposing upon certain GLBT individuals (those living with HIV/AIDS, serial "offenders" and others) to life imprisonment and even the death penalty.
Western governments, which send billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Uganda and other African nations, have called on lawmakers to back off the heavy-handed tactics. It has worked up to a point: Ugandan lawmakers who oppose gay rights say they will not seek to impose the death sentence on those convicted of homosexual behavior.
But the official position characterizes the feelings of both those in government and elsewhere (Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity was quoted as saying “Homosexuals can forget about human rights,” and the wife of President Yoweri Museveni suggested that a “virginity census” could be a weapon against the spread of AIDS). They have often received tacit encouragement from governments of nations opposed to human rights abuses: Bush administration officials praised Uganda’s family-values policies, and backed up that praise with millions of dollars in foreign aid assistance to fund state-sponsored abstinence programs.
There is a long and brutal tradition in parts of African culture directed against GLBT persons, including overt homophobia, blackmail, torture, death threats, as well as discriminatory legislation (in Nigeria, for example, gay men face death by stoning), and many Africans consider homosexuality to be a “western” phenomenon which has been transplanted to Africa’s shores.
Although State Department officials have spoken with concern and warning to Ugandan leaders, including President Museveni, about the pending laws, human rights activists have noted a ratcheting up of hate speech directed against gays, including individuals being publicly outed, along with patterns of questionable journalistic behavior (including the publication a few years ago of the names of GLBT citizens in the Ugandan tabloid "Red Pepper").