Anti-gay campaigners celebrated at the national theatre in Uganda’s capital, Kampala on Monday (February 24) after President Yoweri Museveni signed into a law, a bill that imposes harsh penalties for homosexuality.
Pastor Martin Ssempa a long-time campaigner against homosexuality spoke to a crowd gathered for a weekly musical performance at the theatre as his supporters cheered and the band played.
“Somebody go tell Barack Obama Africa says no, Africa says no to Sodomy, we only know one way to love – a man marrying a woman. I am going to make one announcement here, if there is anyone who has been ruptured because of homosexuality, am setting up a clinic for repairing rectums, we are going to put up a redemption centre, if a boy thinks he is a girl, if a girl thinks she is a man, we want to help you so you want to get my address, we want to pray for you, we want to help you out because you know, every woman needs a man and every man needs a woman,” he said.
Uganda’s President signed the law, defying protests from rights groups, criticism from Western donors and a U.S. warning that it would complicate relations.
The new bill strengthened existing punishments for anyone caught having gay sex, imposing jail terms of up to life for “aggravated homosexuality” – including sex with a minor or while HIV-positive.
It criminalised lesbianism for the first time and made it a crime to help individuals engage in homosexual acts.
Gay and lesbian organisations fear the bill would encourage other governments to strengthen penalties, increase harassment, discourage people from taking HIV tests and make it impossible to live an openly gay life.
Gay rights activists in Uganda said they planned a legal challenge. Spokesperson for Uganda’s Gay and Lesbian community, Julia Pepe Onziema said that they would study the final draft of the bill carefully before presenting a petition.
“Clause by clause, article by article, we are going to definitely make a case, we already have papers prepared but we are going to have to look through again because the final copy that the President signed today, we haven’t had a chance to look at,” said Onziema.
“For my community, the moment parliament passed it, they were like we are dead, we cannot be here so people started leaving one by one and they are seeking asylum in different countries in East African countries and African countries that are legal for them to be who they are and also Europe and the Americas, in terms of numbers at least by today, there are thirteen people who have left,” she added.
Homosexuality is taboo in almost all African countries and illegal in 37 – including Uganda, where rights groups say gay people have long risked jail. Fear of violence, imprisonment and loss of jobs means few gays in Africa come out.
Western donors immediately criticised Uganda. Norway and Denmark said they were withholding or diverting aid money and Austria said it was reviewing assistance. Britain condemned the new law but did not mention aid cuts.
On the streets of Kampala, residents expressed widespread support but there was local criticism of the law on social media with some saying Uganda had bigger problems.
“The President to sign the anti-homosexuality bill was extremely good because all Ugandans decided not to adopt that homosexual behaviour; it was actually extremely very bad for Ugandans to adopt that. All Ugandans are happy about that,” said Richard Byarugaba, a Kampala resident.
The legislation exposes the wide gulf between the continent’s often culturally conservative administrations and many of the foreign donor states that support them. Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh last week called homosexuals “vermin”.
While African leaders broadly court Western donors with promises to tackle human rights abuses, many have won popular support by describing homosexuality as “un-African” behaviour.
The Uganda’s move should please conservative voters ahead of presidential elections scheduled for 2016.
In neighbouring Kenya, a group of MPs has called for the enforcement of existing anti-gay laws that have been largely ignored. Some Kenyans praised Uganda’s actions.