Uganda: Sovereignty has fallen to the prejudices of outsiders

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on February 24, making same-sex relations illegal in the country. (John McCann)

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on February 24, making same-sex relations illegal in the country. (John McCann)

When President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda appended his ­signature to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on February 24, he made same-sex relations illegal in the country, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The currency of this announcement and the debate that has ensued are particularly germane at a time when Nigeria has also passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, making homosexuality a topical African debate.

The winds of moral conservatism, fuelled by fundamentalist Protestant groups from the United States, selected notions of African culture, along with local electoral incentives, are said to be blowing in the continent.

The anti-homosexuality move comes in the wake of similar developments in countries such as India and Russia, and builds furiously on the legacy of colonial laws that already exist in many African countries.

The fight is against a liberalism that seeks to impose the West's assembly of human rights discourses as the only legitimate ones – removed from their historical contexts and contemptuous of complex African histories.

As things stand, the gloves are off, with the World Bank, Norway and Denmark diverting aid to Uganda totalling $110-million, and the US reviewing its diplomatic relations with the country.

Meanwhile, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex activists go into hiding or seek political asylum in the West. This is especially the case after the Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper published the names of the "Top 200 Homos" in Uganda under the headline "Exposed!"

Popular support for the law in Uganda is irrefutable, gaining rhetorical mobility around the notion that homosexuals are recruiting children in schools. The allegiance of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh, Russia, China and India are unwavering, a queue likely to grow longer still with those historically opposed to the US.

I see two problems with the Ugandan law. The first is that it has been enacted as a reaction to a debate constructed, for the most part, outside Uganda.

On one side is the anti-homosexuality faction. It is composed of right-wing, neoliberal American evangelicals who have attached serious funding to the campaign. They have also abstracted religious texts against homosexuality as if people's moralities are purely religious, and are not in constant negotiation with time, personality, history or politics.

They attach their religious fundamentalism to homogenous ideas of one African culture that finds homosexuality abhorrent, alongside anxieties about the death of the nuclear family and the supposed threat of children being recruited into homosexuality.

They ignore the historical evidence that shows that same-sex relationships are not new in Africa. They seek immediate recourse to the law in ways that are deeply reminiscent of colonial propaganda that sought to subjugate and eradicate the myriad ways through which difference was dealt with.

Pitted against them are liberal gay activists, funding their campaign through civil society activism. These funds have attracted activists who had long been deliberating on the rights of sexual minorities. But they have also, like many other international nongovernmental organisations, attracted opportunists whose problematic practices of "activism" could be blamed for the "recruiting" accusations.

Both these "activisms" have in the main based their discourses on homosexuality on American neoliberal identities that posit sexuality and sexual desires as necessarily political identities, and the ultimate truth of the self everywhere – but both are oblivious to the fact that sexuality, like race, ethnicity and gender, though carrying possibilities for universal solidarity, must always be considered within the particular local contexts that animate them.

To be homosexual in Uganda should surely be different in its history, its interaction with other identities and, therefore, in the possibilities that must be imagined, than in the US.

Ideas of freedom and concepts of liberty have different historical agitations and utopias in Uganda in comparison with the US. Like the Christian fundamentalists, recourse is made to the law. And the debate has ensued as if these were the only two options on the table.

I don't mean that this argument has not found local anchorage, but that its framing and the positions had already been constituted elsewhere. We must either be religious fundamentalists and cultural reductivists who think of homosexuality as immoral and unAfrican, or be liberals who think of sexuality through the universal category of gay rights that must be legalised.

This has created a country of pure hardliners: some against and most for the law. There are no other sides, no other alternatives for engagement. One is either for or against the law. What of those who are not for or against the law? What of those who do not seek the law as the primary means through which to address desire?

The second problem is the relation of this debate to the issue of sovereignty. The threats (and realities) from the US and other donor countries to revise foreign relations and withdraw aid have been immediately interpreted as threats to sovereignty.

This at a time when African countries have been galvanising against the seemingly imperialist character of the International Criminal Court. With the withdrawal of aid, the anti-homosexuality assemblies have now become the patriots, abandoning their serious contestations of a corrupt and oppressive government and becoming the defenders of the nation against American domination. The homosexuality debate has in essence become the sovereignty debate, so that those who politically oppose the hegemony of the West in effect become anti-homosexuality proponents and those who support it pro-American neoliberalists.

The diplomatic shift to Russia and the East by the Ugandan government is reminiscent of the Cold War and, outside ideological debates, though all are dedicated capitalists with varying political strategies of exploitation and conquest.

These conflations and these creations of illogical binaries are consciously designed aporia that attempt to obscure the vast political spaces in between. By framing the discussion of homosexuality as one where one must pick either of two sides – sides that have been constructed outside Uganda, sides for or against the African sovereignty debate – we are denying the critical nature of our political positions and the possibility of having conversations about our moral ideals.

We are ceding our social agency to the law. We are saying that soon all the elements of our social lives must be subject to the law. We are, by rejecting conversation, rejecting being human.

Noosim Naimasiah is a PhD candidate at the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

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