Uganda (& Africa) Caught in the gay rights headlights

Published: October 31, 2011

Some years ago, a lady called Margaret Ssekajja said something at a gathering she had been invited whose import she likely didn’t quite fathom. In speaking about her challenges as a spokesperson/chairperson for the Human Rights Commission in Uganda, she cited homosexuality as a particularly vexing subject for her organization because, to paraphrase her, she didn’t know what to do about it.

When she was handed the gay human rights case brought by Victor Mukasa/Oyo against the government in 2006, Justice Stella Arach asked one her colleagues (and again I paraphrase): "What am I going to do with this case?" The reason she asked herself this question was that it was about the making a judgment about homosexuals’ rights in a country where sex between men and women was rarely discussed. Arach, no doubt also had her mind on the implications of passing judgment against a government on a matter that she knew public opinion was ambivalent about at best. To her credit, Arach eventually ruled in favor of gay rights and awarded Victor and Oyo $7,000 in damages.

Anywhere you look, the confusion surrounding what to do about the gay issue in most parts of Africa is palpable. The politicians say one thing today and then turn around and do u-turns as Zimbabwe’s Tsvangirai did publicly only a few days ago. No one has explained what precipitated the about face that saw him supporting gay rights only a year after condemning calls for gay rights; suffice it to say that it caught the rest of his colleagues in the shabby coalition that is Zimbabwe’s government by surprise and they could only offer knee-jerk condemnation. “I know personally he doesn’t believe it. He has said so many times in the Cabinet.” was all Justice Minister ,Patrick Chinamasa, could offer. But he has recanted, one wanted to yell at Chinamasa. It would have been a waste of effort.

Such is the confusion in Africa over the issue of homosexuals in their midst and their human rights that even the churches have long since stopped pretending to speak with one voice. Bishop DesmondTutu, bless him, has been consistent in his support of human rights for all. But the Catholic Church, Uganda’s Luke Orombi, Nigeria’s Akinola  and a motley collection of pentecostal ‘pastors’ in East African and elsewhere have all railed vociferously against homosexuals, promised fire and brimstone and marched in the streets to try and stir up the masses. That said, the head of Uganda’s Catholics was about the only prelate who seemed to condemn that anti-gay bill in 2009 but he had few friends anywhere else in the religious hierarchy in Uganda. The dissonance couldn’t be papered over.

Their confusion notwithstanding, it still came as a shock when arch anti-gay ‘pastors’ in Uganda came out a couple of days ago and said the anti-gay bill they have supported all along was unnecessary and a distraction. Anti-gay Pastor Solomon Male running for the hills? When did he realize that the bill was a needless distraction?

By refusing to go away, gay activism has succeeded in putting opponents on the back foot. This being Africa, matters of sexual morality fall in the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ territory and it is uncharted waters to discuss any sex, let alone gay sex, openly. That is why politicians, prelates and anyone with a dais is getting caught out. The initial reaction is to condemn, again because this is Africa. But, deep down, Africans are not idiots and it doesn’t take most thinking men and women long to determine that kissing a fellow man cannot be of greater risk to a nation than the road carnage that kills scores. Or officials stealing medical supplies, thereby condemning patients to a slow painful death. None of these crimes are expressly legislated against in Uganda, meaning that a reckless driver can get behind the wheel the following day and a thieving official will continue to run his private clinic using the medication he stole from the patients he was supposed to treat in the public hospital.

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