The grit in the osyter

President Museveni would like more tourists to visit Uganda.  He says it’s a much better destination than Spain – less humid and cooler because it’s higher.  He may well be right in that respect.  Uganda was once called the “pearl of Africa”, albeit mainly for potential colonists anxious to get their hands on it.  It doubtless is beautiful and interesting.  But I’m afraid I won’t be rushing there for a holiday in the near future.

President Museveni seems to have a way of getting what he wants.  He’s been in power for nearly 30 years now, and seems keen to win the next elections to be held in 2016.  A key way that the president seeks to maintain his hold on power is, it seems, to pass new legislation, increasing the ability of the government to stifle dissent. 

The key piece of legislation in this respect is the Public Order Management Act 2013 (POMA).  The passage of this act followed a couple of years which saw the harassment and arrest of members of civil society groups which were trying to articulate concerns about rising living costs and the threats to the country’s finances from corruption.  POMA gives the police significant powers to regulate the conduct of public meetings, in a way similar to one which had been found unconstitutional under previous legislation.  The effect, as described by Ugandan human rights activists, is to limit legitimate activities and shrink the space for public engagement.

Among the civil society groups targeted by such laws are sexual minorities.  Lesbians and gay men, bisexual people and those associated with them face persecution in today’s Uganda from the Anti-homosexuality Act 2014.  This act, originally based on a private member’s bill, has actually been declared null and void due to procedural errors in parliament, but this is being appealed by the government.  If the act is enforced, it will criminalise a wide range of vaguely-defined activities such as “promoting homosexuality” and “aiding and abetting homosexuality”, as well as specifying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality”.

Such legislation is scarcely surprising – it’s very common for a leader seeking oppressive powers to target minority groups, especially where those minority groups may not have great popularity (or, indeed, where attacking minority groups can pander to populist demands).  In this respect sexual minorities can be thought of as a “canary in the mine”, an early indicator of a regime becoming unhealthily authoritarian.

Some will argue that homosexuality is unAfrican.  However there is evidence from the pre-colonial history of Uganda that this isn’t the case.  Christian missionaries arriving in the country in the late 19th century were horrified at some of the practices they encountered, and fiercely denounced them as unchristian.  Sadly, this continues, and there is evidence that some of pressure for anti-gay legislation in Uganda today is provided by American evangelical Christians.  Meanwhile, those who have seen the film Call me Kuchu, about the life and death of David Kato, an openly gay man in Uganda, will know of the work by local indigenous activists in organisations such as Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).

Currently there is more legislation in the pipeline, to amend the requirements for registration of non-governmental organisations and to require official accreditation of all civic education, which activists fear may be used to stifle promotion of anti-corruption initiatives among others.  Civil society organisations in Uganda are at the forefront of campaigns to ensure that such legislation does not have a negative impact on public life there.  Please show your support for such organisations by sending a solidarity card to them.  The work of such groups in any country may provide challenge to the government – but such grit in the oyster can be what makes of the society a pearl.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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