Opposition politicians were divided in opinion about whether to oppose the Bill. Some genuinely supported and even co-sponsored the Bill because their conscience demanded it. Others opposed the Bill privately but preferred to play safe politics fearing the wrath of the majority of their constituents who support the Bill. They knew that all their opponents had to do was to call them homosexuals or gay sympathizers and that would surely wipe out their votes come polling day.
The political leaders whose world view was shaped to believe that homosexuality is so repugnant that they were willing to append their name to legislation that condemned homosexuals to death by hanging are not my target today. They acted according to their conscience however warped we may consider it to be. But what about the rest? The ones who told journalists that they privately opposed the Bill but dare not vote against it when it comes up for hearing; The ones who waited to take the cue from Donors rather than their conscience, and the ones who will now condemn the Bill because it is safe to do since even President Museveni has developed cold feet and turned into a gay rights apologist? What are we to make of those political leaders?
They failed to articulate to the public the difference between supporting the spread of homosexuality and the repressive nature of Bahati's Bill. They were more concerned about the political ramifications of supporting the Bill than on the potential of human rights violations that could result from passing the Bill. The irony cannot be lost on them that it has taken Museveni - with a little help from our development partners (read: Donors) to put this Bill into a human rights perspective. He set aside his personal homophobic inclinations and prevailed over those who were stampeding the nation into embracing this monstrosity of a Bill.
While his intervention is welcome we must not lose sight of the influences that have temporarily subdued his homophobia and transformed him into the voice of reason. It was not because he was suddenly enamored by the gay community or gay rights, it was not because Ugandan voters (his bosses) prevailed over him and begged him to have mercy on the gays, nor was it a change in his conviction that gay rights are human rights but rather it was in deference to Donor country demands that he reframed the issue as a foreign policy issue. The New Vision reports 'Museveni said he had been questioned about the bill by several foreign leaders, including the Canadian prime minister, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He said Clinton called him for over 45 minutes over the issue.
“I told them that this bill was brought up by a private member and I have not even had time to discuss it with him. It is neither the Government nor the NRM party. It is a private member,” Museveni told the NRM meeting at State House Entebbe. '
Museveni effectively washed his hands and the hands of government of anything to do with Bahati's Bill. He also reframed the issue as a foreign policy (rather than human rights) issue! Nsaba Buturo, should be feeling like an idiot. He is after all a spokesperson of the government on issues of morality and ethics. Ha!
Now some conspiracy theorists may believe that Museveni hatched the whole plan from scratch and put Hon. Bahati and Buturo up to some mischief in order to get where we are today. I personally doubt that Museveni could have predicted how this particular debate would unfold. I tend to agree with those who believe that President Museveni saw an opportunity to get out of a bad situation, grabbed it and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. The anti-homosexuality debate brought too much unwanted focus on Uganda's political and human rights crises and that is not where Museveni's government wants to be ahead of election time. So his finely tuned political antennae told him to feed Bahati and Buturo to the wolves whilst using the same opportunity to emerge as mediator, the voice of reason, the one who brings back sanity before some extremist elements drive the country over a cliff.
And so there is a collective sigh of relief from the West. Gay activists are appeased and Donor government's like the USA which need Museveni to continue protecting its interests in places like Somalia and sending mercenaries to Iraq, but dare not antagonize the powerful gay lobby at home; are once again at peace. In order for them to continue their game of 'see no evil, speak no evil' in Uganda, the US government must ensure that it's citizens are not agitated enough to put their African partner under closer scrutiny. That scrutiny might uncover more rights abuses, corruption, nepotism, abuse of office, election malpractices and other evils that the US likes to condemn in countries that do not do the US' bidding, or supply it with critical resources like oil or mercenaries.
So what does that say of our politicians and politics in general? To my friends in the opposition who kept tight lipped when their conscience told them otherwise I will quote Abraham Lincoln: To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.
To those who were repelled by the excessive punitive proposals in the Bill but then chose to play it safe for fear of political repercussions I will quote Martin Luther King, Jr: Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right.'
Throughout history the men and women who have distinguished themselves as leaders have not chosen the 'safe' line in defiance of their conscience or the popular line to please voters or Donor. They have instead chosen to stand up and defend what their conscience dictates and usually that aligns naturally with the common good for all humanity. And here is another quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: 'Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.'
The lesson we learn from this saga is that intense lobbying by Donors can cure an African Head of State of homophobia. Or more to the point the threat of withdrawing funds from critical programs like PEPFAR can deliver a human rights lesson better than any text book on the subject. But let us remain acutely aware of the influences that shape our political decisions and national policies?
This Bill was not stalled because of the voice of Ugandan voters - given its popularity among Ugandan voters. Nor was it stalled because of a 'Saul - to - Paul' moment which touched the conscience of our benevolent ruler making him extremely sensitive to the rights of gay people. Sadly, this saga reminds us that the center of real power is not even in the State House that the opposition is trying to wrest from Museveni.
President Museveni remains as homophobic as he was when he warned the youth a few weeks ago against homosexuality but his conscience like that of my silent colleagues in the opposition is quite accommodating when he senses a potential threat to his political survival.
To the many friends abroad that we have made during this battle I say, do not turn your attention away from Uganda because of this small victory, for as soon as you look away the same forces (read: religious fanatics) that introduced the idea of this Bill will re-emerge and recreate themselves to fight the battle another day in another way. Their disengagement at this point is not based on principle, good will, or deference to their conscience, but on political expedience. It was because you cared enough to look closely at Uganda and to lobby your governments to act that homosexuals have won a temporary reprieve.
Remain focused on Uganda.