Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose party refused to support same-sex marriage in Canada, is being hailed as a gay rights hero—in Uganda. “He’s a human rights activist,” said Brown Kiyimba. “Harper is a liberal guy,” added Emmanueil Turinawe. Both men are from Uganda’s gay community, which is under siege thanks to a bill that calls for life sentences for gays who “touch another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality,” and even the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” such as having sex while HIV-positive or being a “serial offender.” That bill, currently being debated in the Ugandan parliament, was introduced by government MP David Bahati and enjoys widespread support in a nation that already criminalizes homosexual acts. It also calls for the imprisonment of heterosexuals who fail to report gays, and the abolition of gay-rights organizations convicted of promoting homosexuality. And gay Ugandans don’t have to live in the nation to be affected by the proposed legislation, since it can apply to offences outside Uganda.
Until recently, the Prime Minister of Canada never registered on the radar of most gay Ugandans. But at last November’s Commonwealth conference in Trinidad and Tobago, Harper had a private meeting with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. He gave him his two cents’ worth on the anti-gay bill. Shortly after, the East African leader told BBC News, “The Prime Minister of Canada came to see me and what was he talking about? Gays.” For the first time, Museveni talked of the need for “extreme caution” about the bill because it had become a foreign affairs issue. (Though he hasn’t openly supported the proposed legislation, Museveni’s previous statement criticizing homosexuality—he claimed “European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa”—combined with the time and attention the private member’s bill has received in parliament, led many observers to conclude he tacitly backs it.)
Gay and lesbian Ugandans were thrilled. “The Prime Minister of Canada putting it forward was a way for the [gay] community to know the position of the president on this bill,” said Abdallah Wambere, another gay Ugandan. And since Harper and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought up the issue at the Commonwealth conference, other world leaders have followed, including U.S. President Barack Obama.
But Harper’s criticism has also caused a backlash in Uganda. The country’s vice-president even accused him of “fuelling homosexuality.” “Nobody supports men marrying men here,” said Gilbert Bukenya, “but we have pressure because there are some [outside] people who marry men and they are powerful.” Bukenya’s remarks were widely reported in Ugandan newspapers; there is now speculation in Uganda that, if the anti-gay bill passes, foreign donors will cut back on aid to the country. Kiyimba, for one, thinks that would be fair. “Canada gives us money and it deserves to know how it’s spent,” he said. But because the main victims of possible sanctions would be the poor, Kiyimba said foreign donors should target the ruling class. “Those politicians who are saying gays should be banned should be banned from going to the West,” he said, “because that’s where they transact their business.”
Given that Ugandans will go to the polls next year, and there is little support in the country for gay rights, a version of the anti-gay bill is expected to win parliament’s approval. If that happens, Uganda’s gays and lesbians are hoping that President Museveni will use his veto power to kill it. But since Museveni is facing very little opposition to the bill inside Uganda, a veto is only likely if outside pressure continues, Uganda’s gays say. “Harper deserves real credit,” said Turinawe. “He did the right thing at the right time. But if he keeps quiet now, people here will think he’s been silenced.”