Has Uganda’s antigay bill been stopped by Ugandan opposition?

In this post, I want to unpack a bit more the claims of Timothy Shah made in a Christianity Today op-ed posted yesterday (Go to the first reaction here). Overall, I think it was a mistake for Christianity Today to publish an article making so many factual claims without sourcing or evidence. I have been following this story since March, 2009 and do not recognize the narrative advanced by Shah.

In this post, I want to address this paragraph:

But the legislation has received widespread attention not primarily because of its draconian provisions, whose very harshness has repelled virtually all of Uganda’s major political and religious leaders—including the President, the Catholic Bishops Conference, and a parliamentary committee that recommended the bill be thrown out as unconstitutional, effectively stopping it in its tracks. Instead, a major reason for the attention focused on the bill is that many believe it is the fruit of American evangelical homophobia.

Shah claims the bill was “stopped in its tracks” due to opposition from “virtually all of Uganda’s major political and religious leaders.” There are two fact problems here. One, the bill was not stopped and two, bill was not opposed by all of Uganda’s political and religious leaders.

As I have documented, the bill is still alive and may be considered before the end of this Parliamentary session in May. While the committee chair, Stephen Tashobya has expressed some uncertainty about the fate of the bill, he has refused to say that the bill is dead.

Shah says “virtually all” religious and political leaders were repelled by the bill. This is about as uninformed as statement as an observer could make. Going back to April 29, 2009, David Bahati asked the Ugandan Parliament for permission to introduce his private member’s bill. According to the minutes of Parliament, his request was approved without substantial concerns.

At the time, in the gallery were several religious and political leaders:

THE DEPUTY SPEAKER: I am aware of the matter and it is very important. I am going to give you time. There is a matter he wants to raise concerning the community and I am going to give him time. Let us have that motion quickly, get rid of it and get back to the statement. Afterwards we can stay here till midnight and talk about East Africa and all the other things. I am appealing to you.

Let us hear from hon. Bahati. In connection with the motion he is moving, we have in the gallery Apostle Julius Peter Oyet, Vice-President of the Born Again Federation; Pastor Dr Martin Sempa of the Family Policy Centre; Stephen Langa, Family Life Network; hon. Godfrey Nyakaana; the Mayor of Kampala City Council; Julius, a young boy who was sodomised, and his mother. His story has been in the press. They are all here in the gallery. Please, let us deal with them so that they can leave. There is also George Oundo who came out to speak against homosexuality. Please, let us balance the public good and our good since all of them are important. We shall do them all very quickly. Hon. Bahati.


MR DAVID BAHATI (NRM, Ndorwa County West, Kabale): Thank you, Madam Speaker, for the opportunity to move a motion seeking leave of Parliament to introduce a Private Members Bill moved under Rule 47, 105 and 106. Some of the few copies available are going to be circulated in a minute. I beg the indulgence of Members that I move on.

The only way Mr. Shah can be correct is to dismiss Martin Ssempa, Julius Oyet, and Stephen Langa as religious leaders. How about the mayor of Kampala’s city council? Reading the minutes, it is abundantly clear that no MP offers more than procedural concerns. The Parliament had copies of the bill and gave Bahati permission to introduce it.

When Bahati did finally table his bill on October, religious leaders came out in support. For instance, Martin Ssempa told me that the bill had his “total support” and that he hoped it would pass. The day after I posted Ssempa’s views, Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Nsaba Buturo publicly expressed support for the bill in an article on the official government media website with the headline, “Government Vows to Fight Homosexuality.”

In late October, 2009, Parliament’s Presidential Affiars committee held hearings on the bill and included religious leaders. Those leaders objected to the death penalty but did not call for the removal of the bill or a reduction in the sentence of life in prison:

Homosexuals should not be killed but instead imprisoned for life, religious leaders have suggested.

Making their input in the Anti-homosexuality Bill 2009 yesterday, the clergy said the clause on death as a penalty for homosexuality be scrapped.

“If you kill the people, to whom will the message go? We need to have imprisonment for life if the person is still alive,” said Rev. Canon Aaron Mwesigye, the provincial secretary of the Church of Uganda.

These religious leaders did not like the death penalty but were not repelled by the rest of the bill. Then in December, a coalition of religious leaders (including the Roman Catholic church) led by Martin Ssempa expressed strong support for the bill.

The first recorded opposition to the bill by President Museveni was on December 18, 2009 in a AFP report. According to that article, Museveni assured the US of his opposition.

The top US diplomat for African affairs said the bill, if passed, would not only violate human rights, it would also “undermine the fight” against HIV and AIDS by stigmatizing homosexual acts.

He added that it is premature for US government to consider withdrawing aid from Uganda because Museveni himself said he does not support the legislation and the battle is not yet lost.

However, Museveni did not address the bill directly until January, 2010 when he spoke to his party conference about the bill. Museveni did not express direct opposition but advise a dialogue, saying

So therefore, I strongly advise you that you agree to the idea that the cabinet sit down with Bahati, a subcommittee, and see how best to handle this issue because…because… it is a foreign policy issue. It’s not just our internal politics. It is a foreign policy issue, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles, but also takes into account our foreign policy interests.

This statement is not opposition but rather direction to his party about how he wanted to handle deliberation on the bill.

Then, on March 15, 2010, a small cabinet committee headed by Minister of Local Government, Adolf Mwesige issued a report critical of the AHB, saying it was redundant and that it might have been introduced illegally. However, the committee recommended keeping some of the good portions of the bill, namely the provisions on penalizing promotion of homosexuality.

I have just scratched the surface of this topic. There is so much evidence of the support for the bill from many religious and political leaders over the life of this bill that it is stunning that anyone could seriously claim otherwise. Shah paints a picture that is just untrue. Reading this article, one would come to the conclusion that the AHB was stopped by Ugandan opposition. One might think that Bahati’s bill was widely criticized by religious and political leaders.  Although some concerns have been raised, opposition to the death penalty is not the same as being repelled by the bill. The burden is on Mr. Shah to provide evidence for this narrative. I do not believe he can.

As far as I can tell, Shah’s conspiracy theory relies on demonstrating that Ugandans killed the bill. He needs to show this so that he can blame the uproar on something other than the real need to oppose an unjust proposal. Instead of finding some evangelicals involved in supporting what turned out to be a draconian bill, the whole reason Uganda is in focus is because the left loves to bash evangelicals. If only.

Another fact Shah has to ignore to make his case is the existence of a strong reaction from evangelicals around the world to the Ugandan proposal. Opposition to the AHB has not come solely from the left. Readers of this blog will surely attest to that. Shah’s article is not simply misleading, it ostracizes and marginalizes the persistent and growing evangelical opposition to the AHB and criminalization of homosexuality which has grown over the last 2 years. I will return to this point in my next post.

UPDATE: Watch this video for the opposition from Cyprius Lwanga, Archbishop of Kampala. This took place in December, 2009. Note at 1:44, the narrator says that “many conservative religious leaders” support the bill. Lwanga was virtually on his own. And then not long afterwards, Martin Ssempa represented a coalition of religious leaders which called for the removal of the death penalty but still encouraged the passage of the bill. The Roman Catholic church in Uganda was listed as a signer of that statement.

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  • Richard Willmer

    Well, Archbishop Cyprian K. Lwanga (under instructions from the Vatican?) did express opposition to the Bill in its entirety and said it was ‘unnecessary’. I am aware of some fairly senior figures in the NRM who would like the Bill to ‘go away’ (because it is ‘more trouble than it’s worth’ – and they’re quite right about that, of course!). BUT the Bill has NOT been ‘killed’, as we all know, and I doubt that many in the UG ‘body-politic’ would have given too much thought to it without that international outcry (but this is my opinion, and I may be being unfair on some Ugandan politicians here).

    Yoweri Museveni has, some would say, been ‘indulged’ by ‘the West’ over the years. It may well have come as something of a surprise to him when ‘the West’ made a big fuss over the Bill.

    ‘Ordinary Ugandans’ with whom I speak generally dislike the Bill intensely. They are deeply embarrassed by it (in their view it makes Ugandans look like ‘savages’ – which in some ways it does, perhaps unfairly), and think it is at the very least far too harsh and at most downright wrong.

  • Richard – You have the advantage of knowing things behind the scenes. I submit that there is next to nothing in the historical narrative that would lead to Shah’s view that “virtually all religious and political leaders” were repelled by the Bahati bill. Yes, there are some who will express private concerns and the RCC did eventually make a statement but that is it. Publicly, especially in the beginning, support was strong and vocal. Shah wants us to think that there was no support and that the uproar was stirred up by Western liberals.

  • Richard Willmer

    I agree, Warren.

    Shah’s statement does not accord with what I’ve heard and seen. The RCC may have ‘modified its posture’ after pressure from the Vatican, and has been pretty much silent on the Bill since Lwanga’s statement (which was admittedly issued on behalf of the Catholic bishops collectively, in line with normal Catholic practice) of 23/12/2009.

    Other ‘churches’ in UG still seem pretty keen on much (most?) of the Bill, as far as I can see.

  • Richard Willmer

    Oh yes – and in his response to SOS, Ssempa still claims that the Bill is really about rape and child abuse: http://www.americanindependent.com/171663/project-sos-leader-wont-work-with-kill-the-gays-pastor-martin-ssempa-in-foreseeable-future

    Even ‘Maazi’ knows that this is rubbish!

  • Warren, Thanks for this and setting the record straight – so to speak!! I have a feeling Shah has a motive here!! Its just not true what he says. I am in South Africa at the moment and sitting across the table from me are two gay men who have asylum here. I think Shah is complicit in steering us all around the wrong corner- If not his irresponsibility is reckless and reprehensible. Melanie Nathan from LezGetReal

  • anteros

    i’m stunned that anyone would even suggest that ugandans stopped the bill from passing. sure there was some local opposition, but it was nowhere near as timely, constant and formidable as the international opposition to the bill. and to suggest ugandan religious leaders and politicians strongly opposed the bill just baffles the mind… they were the bill’s loudest supporters, propagating hate and countless lies about the bill and gay people the whole time. almost all local opposition to the bill came from civil society, usually from a carefully articulated human rights angle.

  • Richard Willmer

    That is also my impression, Anteros.

    Melanie – you may well be right, but I doubt any serious players in this game will take too much notice of Shah. They know the truth.

  • Richard Willmer

    @ Warren :

    Have just read your update.

    I believe that the Lwanga statement (23/12/2009) post-dated the Ssempa one and may, as I have said, have been in response to Vatican pressure. Of course, Ssempa hates Catholics (and also Muslims, whom he calls ‘friends’ in his letter – another deception), so there may have been other reasons for Lwanga to apparently ‘break ranks’. Lwanga himself is not exactly ‘gay-friendly’, of course, although I did read something last spring that suggested (but only suggested) that he favoured an ‘educational’, rather than ‘penal’, approach (I wish I could find that).

    Another possibility is that some, like Lwanga, didn’t fully understand what the Bill entailed until papal aides had briefed him. The Vatican statement, that didn’t actually mention the Bill but was clearly aimed at it, was released only on 10/12/2009 (i.e. probably around the time that Ssempa and his chums was drafting his little epistle). Here it is again: http://www.calcatholic.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?id=a9849daa-dd60-4028-adc0-2dfa024cb3a9

    I remember that things were moving very fast in those days.

    Meanwhile, Buturo says his goodbyes. Guess what’s uppermost in his mind? Yes, that’s right …


    (His predecessor didn’t seem to think much of him, according to the article.)

    I wonder if Shah thinks that Buturo loves gays really?!

  • ken

    Warren# ~ Mar 16, 2011 at 9:35 am

    “Shah wants us to think that there was no support and that the uproar was stirred up by Western liberals.”

    Wow Warren, you’ve been converted into a western liberal. Just when you thought change couldn’t happen. 🙂

    Seriously though, I think you are doing a good job of not letting this onerous bill go unnoticed.

  • Thanks so much for correcting the story, Warren. Your work is appreciated and admired.

    CT should allow you to write their articles more often! Maybe then the truth would be presented as truth and not just as theory.

  • Richard Willmer

    Another factual error: Shah says a ‘parliamentary committee that recommended the bill be thrown out’. The committee in question was a Government committee – and the difference in important (because the future of the Bill is a matter for [a committee of] the Ugandan Parliament, not the Government, to decide). Furthermore, that Govt. committee still effectively supported attacking freedom of expression when it comes to support for the human rights of LGBT Ugandans.