Ugandan MP's lonely anti-gay law battle
For months he’s been threatened, taunted, spat on and had stones thrown at him.
“They will say you’re a homosexual or you’ve been paid to take this position,” MP Fox Odoi told the Mail & Guardian while sitting in Uganda’s Constitutional Court last week.
Now, with Uganda’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 declared “null and void” when the ink on it had barely dried, the only MP who publicly supported its legal challenge awaits the next step.
“If I’m not re-elected [in 2016] on the basis of this, it’s a small price to pay,” said Odoi, one of 10 petitioners who successfully challenged the law.
When asked what the five months had been like since the law — which prescribed life sentences for some homosexual acts — was signed by President Yoweri Museveni, human rights activist Frank Mugisha said: “It’s been very hard ... So many violations.”
Mugisha said he would be “celebrating” after five judges on August 1 found the legislation was invalid because it had been passed in December without a proper quorum. They ruled that the speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, acted illegally when she allowed a vote on the Bill, despite at least three protestations that not enough MPs were present.
It’s one thing to have an anti-gay law struck down on a technicality. It’s another to change the attitudes of a society that is, according to Odoi, “99.9% homophobic”, and where a penal code imposed by the British, which remains in place, provides sentences of up to life imprisonment for those convicted of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”.
Odoi (44), who chalked up 15 years as a legal adviser to Museveni and as a ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party MP, before becoming an independent in 2011, said the passage of the anti-homosexuality Act suggested that the government wanted to turn Uganda into a “theocracy”.
“We want to legislate every perceived moral value and my position has always been that, first of all, we do not even agree that these are moral values. But even if we agree they are moral values, we don’t have to use the law to set uniform moral standards.”
In December, in about 24 hours, the Parliament passed the anti-homosexuality Bill and another that banned women from wearing miniskirts in public. In May it approved legislation that criminalises the “wilful and intentional” transmission of HIV.
That Bill awaits the president’s signature. Scientists and campaigners have labelled the criminalisation of HIV a giant step backwards.
On the other hand, evangelical preacher and “anti-sodomy” activist Martin Ssempa describes himself as a “general in the fight against HIV and AIDS”.
In Uganda in recent times, the anti-homosexuality movement has been sponsored by the country’s Pentecostal churches. Ssempa has had backing from the United States.
Odoi said: “They manage to live in the US, a very liberal country [and] when they come to Uganda they want to set very high moral standards at all costs. If you have used the law, which is just another instrument of coercion to set your religious agenda, once that is exhausted you will certainly resort to violence, except if you’re stopped. We must stop them.”
Last week, before the ruling, Ssempa was playing up for the large press pack that filled the courtroom, taking selfies with activists including Mugisha. His teenage son acted as family photographer. Before the ruling Ssempa had said the case hinged on a “question between the civilised and the barbarians”.
On the court steps he later ranted that the decision had come at “lightning speed” ahead of this week’s United States-Africa Leaders Summit with US President Barack Obama, which Museveni has attended amid pressure on the Ugandan judiciary after the US had cut aid and imposed travel bans against those who championed the anti-gay law. (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the World Bank also took similar action.) “We are deeply grieved, we are distressed,” Ssempa said. “The battle continues.”
He urged the state to appeal in the Supreme Court, a decision which one state lawyer said had not been made, and for Parliament to investigate “the independence of the judiciary”.
Confident of appeal success
David Bahati MP, the law’s architect, was confident an appeal would be successful. Another MP, Medard Bitekyerezo, said if this failed, Parliament should have a re-vote.
Odoi conceded that the law could “be passed again tomorrow”, but said he now had more MPs on his side, even if they’ve been “sufficiently intimidated” and would not act publicly.
In the meantime there is more room to preach tolerance in the community with the statute struck down.
“I have told my constituency you don’t have to agree with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community but you have to tolerate them,” Odoi said. “We need to change the mind-set of the people of Uganda ... we shall get there.”
A week before Museveni signed the Bill, Richard M Kavuma, editor of local paper the Observer, speculated that the fact that the legislation had been declared unconstitutional could later work in the leader’s favour.
Ugandan journalist Allan Ssenyonga said after the ruling: “Museveni is going to blame ‘unpatriotic judges’.” Ssenyonga expected the law to be left for the next Parliament to sort out.
“The gay issue has never been such a priority except as a scarecrow [in the] the same way parties in Europe play the anti-immigration game before an election.”
A day after the law was thrown out, Museveni declared he was “going to Washington with the Bill” and the NRM caucus would discuss its nullification.
According to Wednesday’s Daily Monitor, 91 out of the required 125 MPs have signed a document to initiate a move to have the “trashed” law brought back to Parliament for passing, when Parliament resumes later this month. The Observer has tweeted that over 100 of the 385 MPs have signed to have the law re-tabled and passed again.