Ugandan MP David Bahati’s abhorrent Anti-Homosexuality Bill enraged activists and governments around the world when it was tabled in the country’s parliament last year.
Despite never reaching debate, the bill, which sought to extend the length of prison sentences currently proscribed against homosexuals and introduce the death penalty for ‘serial offenders’, inflamed tensions in a society already wracked with homophobic persecution- including national media campaigns targeting prominent LGBTI figures and even the murder of an acclaimed equality activist.
Its reintroduction before parliament last week, therefore bodes ill for Uganda’s 500 000 strong LGBTI community. The removal of the death penalty clause aside, Bahati’s draft legislation remains a clear attempt to legitimise bigotry by intensifying the punishment of people whose only ‘crime’ is their sexuality, as well as those who fail to report the ‘homosexual acts’ of others.
The Ugandan government has been quick to distance itself from the bill and authoritarian president Yoweri Museveni is thought to be unhappy with its potentially negative effect on his foreign policy initiatives.
Yet Bahati is no lone radical, he leads the parliamentary caucus of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), which holds 205 of 319 seats, and has support from many of his colleagues. Despite the concerns of their own government, NRM MPs are reported to have cheered and chanted “our bill” as it was introduced.
Unless Museveni and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi make active attempts to derail the bill, its failure is far from guaranteed. However this is unlikely to happen. Though they may not like the international image it portrays, they have never sought to tackle it underlying sentiments, which tally perfectly with their own, mildly more subtle, homophobic practices.
Exploitation of existing prejudices, arbitrary arrests of LGBTI citizens and tokenistic action against media outlets inciting hatred, have long been part and parcel of NRM politics. Whilst Uganda’s leaders publicly distance themselves from Bahati therefore, the chances of his expulsion from the party or serious work by his superiors to counter his outrageous arguments remain slim.
This grim reality should not be disguised by the official rhetoric coming out of Kampala. Until Museveni has his government genuinely step up to reign in Bahati- and roll back their own homophobic policies – they will be complicit in the consequences of of his repulsive bill.