Is this really happening again? In 2021?
Seven years after an act of parliament made homosexuality a crime punishable by death, the anti-gay campaigners of Uganda are at it again. Last month, the parliament of my country once again voted to make homosexuality a criminal offence, this time with a 10-year prison sentence.
In 2014, I played a small part in making sure that anti-LGBTQI forces in Uganda do not succeed in writing their hate into law: I was one of the petitioners in the case that successfully overturned the infamous anti-gay law. Back then, we had the entire political system – every single legislator, both from the government and the opposition, save I and one other – against us. But with an independent and capable judiciary, the Act was annulled. The government chose not to appeal.
Fortunately, this time we are unlikely to need to go to such lengths. Passed in the final days of an outgoing parliament, through a private member’s bill introduced by an outgoing legislator, and without government support, this legislation needs assent. The government has already indicated this will not be granted, so the legislation will not become law.
The Ugandan government will not sign this anti-gay legislation into law in part because it was introduced by an outgoing legislator and approved by a now-dissolved parliament. But there is also the fact that granting assent to this law – not least when it was not legislation the government put forward – would trigger an outcry from the international community.
Indeed, after Uganda passed the “Kill the gays bill” – as it was dubbed locally – in 2014, its reputation on the international arena suffered. Not only did the British and American governments, encouraged by global rights groups and LGBTQI campaigners, raise the spectre of retaliation, but the World Bank decided to rescind a $90m loan to Uganda’s health system. Our sovereign credit rating also took a hit due to the passing of the anti-gay law. Certainly, after the experience of 2014 the Ugandan government is surely less willing to grant assent to similar legislation that would undoubtedly draw condemnation and an unwelcome response from the international community.
While the efforts of LGBTQI campaigners across the globe made it highly unlikely for Uganda to sign into law another “Kill the gays bill”, the fight for LGBTQI rights in the country and the rest of Africa is far from over.
The fear of retaliation from the international community may stop Uganda and other African countries from attempting to officially criminalise homosexuality, but it will not make being gay socially acceptable on the continent. Today, homosexuality is simply not accepted by the majority of African citizens. And the LGBTQI fight for equality and recognition in Africa will not be over until it is.
Ultimately, it will not matter how many court cases are won, or governments pressured to cease anti-gay legislation, or African leaders backed by western money and education elected with the expectation they will challenge public perceptions of homosexuality.
President Adama Barrow of Gambia reneged on his pledge to do so, despite being ushered into office by US Democratic lobbyists. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta did nothing to further LGBTQI rights in his country, despite his liberal Amherst College education. We must know by now that African politicians – just like their western counterparts – follow public opinion, rather than lead it.
Neither should we be so certain, as some are, that the pervasiveness of anti-LGBTQI sentiment in Africa is owing to some malignant and deceptive Christian influence. Most Africans are refusing to accept homosexuality not so much because of their Christian beliefs, but because they perceive it as a “Western value” being forcefully pushed upon their societies by malignant and invasive outside forces.
This may seem perverse given Christianity itself was brought to Africa by European colonial missionaries. But that was a long time ago. In the present, many Africans express their patriotism and defiance to the West by railing against what they perceive as “modern-day” western interference.
But all this does not mean there is no chance for widespread LGBTQI equality and acceptance in Uganda and on the continent. Times, and people, are changing. In 2014, only 17 percent of the Ugandan population had internet access. Today, nearly every adult in the country has the ability to go online. As a result, the minds of our people are rapidly opening to new ways of thinking and seeing the world.
This newfound access to knowledge, information and differing points of view is having a vast, transformational effect on the electorate. With our youthful population, so many young, knowledgeable Ugandans, who do not carry strong anti-gay sentiments, and even support LGBTQI rights, are joining the electoral roll in every election cycle.
We are already seeing the consequences of this gradual change. Two years after our legal victory against the “Kill the gays bill”, the Ugandan electorate had rewarded me for my efforts by turfing me out of parliament at the 2016 general election. This year, they turfed me back in by a landslide. Among those rejected at the polls this year was the MP whose anti-gay private members bill brought this issue back to parliament. Another was our country’s opposition leader, Bob Wine, who began his political career in 2014 singing pop songs about burning homosexuals. He was defeated this January by a margin of nearly 2.5 million votes.
Will Uganda pass another law criminalising homosexuality in the future? If it does, we will contest it again, fight it again, and overturn it again.
But I doubt another such bill will come to pass. The times are changing. The electorate is changing and, consequently, legislators are changing.
The parliament that voted for last month’s anti-gay bill is now replaced. The legislator that proposed the bill is no longer in parliament. And the current government clearly has no intention to die on the hill of criminalising homosexuality.
No, Uganda is not making it illegal to be gay (again). But being gay is still not socially acceptable in the country – nor, in reality, is it anywhere in Africa. And the LGBTQI fight for rights will not be truly over until it is.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.