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Uganda’s decision to overturn anti-gay law ‘no coincidence’

Uganda’s overturning of anti-gay laws is a win, not a defeat for President Yoweri Museveni, analysts say, with the veteran leader thawing donor relations while burnishing a strongman image at home.

Branded draconian and “abominable” by rights groups – but popular domestically – the six-month old law which ruled that homosexuals would be jailed for life, was scrapped on a technicality by the Constitutional Court on Friday.

Observers say that it was a “wily piece of realpolitik” managed by Uganda’s longtime leader amid aid cuts by international donors, allowing him to avoid appearing to cave in to foreign pressure. “This is good news for Museveni, who has been able to say to a lot of supporters: ‘Listen, I did what I could, I stuck my neck out’, while at the same time, potentially allowing for some aid money to return,” said Harry Verhoeven, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University’s department of politics and international relations.

The law caused an international outcry when  Museveni signed it in February, with the United States secretary of state John Kerry likening it to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany.

Critics said Museveni signed the law to win domestic support ahead of a presidential election scheduled for 2016, which will be his 30th year in power. But it lost him friends abroad, with several international donors freezing or redirecting millions of dollars of government aid, saying the country had violated human rights and democratic principles.

Then, in a surprise hearing last week, constitutional judges met and  ruled it had been passed in December without the necessary quorum of lawmakers in Parliament. “The court’s speedy hearing and ruling was pretty much unprecedented in Uganda,” said Maria Burnett from Human Rights Watch. “It is hard not to speculate that the Anti-Homosexuality Act jumped the court’s queue due to significant internal and external pressure.”

The decision was “not a coincidence”
The fact the hearing came just days before US President Barack Obama hosted Museveni and other African leaders at a landmark summit in Washington was “not a coincidence of course”, Verhoeven said.

Museveni – who said the court’s decision had “nothing to do” with his visit, nor the sanctions and travel bans the US had slapped on its east African ally because of the laws – was pictured grinning alongside Obama at the summit.

Uganda’s Observer newspaper said the timing had “led to speculation that perhaps President Museveni … sought to use the court to do what he couldn’t do for political reasons”.

Over $100-million in aid had been frozen, and economists said donor cuts had hit the country’s public finances, despite the denials of Kampala. “Given the position he was in, the best thing for him was to sign the law and hope for the court to void it,” said Peter Mwesige, an analyst from the Uganda-based African Centre for Media Excellence.

Opposition leader Kizza Besigye was equally sceptical, noting he had been awaiting a decision of the Constitutional Court since 2007. Besigye has previously accused the government of using the issue of homosexuality to divert attention from domestic problems, such as corruption scandals or Kampala’s military backing of South Sudan’s government against rebel forces.

The situation remains tough
Lawmakers this week began signing a petition calling for a new vote on the bill, and to bypass parliamentary rules that require it be formally reintroduced – a potentially lengthy process, with the last such bill taking four years from introduction to the final vote.

But while Museveni himself has made clear his abhorrence of homosexuality – an apparently growing popular sentiment with American-style evangelical Christianity on the rise ‐ he is expected to block reintroduction of the bill.

“Museveni is a very canny operator, he will carefully weigh the costs and benefits of this,” Verhoeven said. “I think that in the longer term, he will be keen to shelve this, he’ll make some symbolic gesture, throw some meat at the key constituents on the evangelical side, while not going ahead with any new legislative initiative.”

But while activists celebrated the court ruling, the situation remains tough for homosexuals. Homosexuality in Uganda remains illegal and punishable by jail sentences under previous legislation based on British colonial laws, which is expected to return after the court’s decision. Gay men and women face frequent harassment and threats of violence, and rights groups said the passing of the law triggered a sharp increase in arrests and assaults. – AFP

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