Uganda’s president, Yowere Museveni, signed the country’s controversial anti-gay bill today, which will impose sentences of up to 14 years in prison for first-time “offenders”.
It will come as no great surprise to many. Despite the tutting of the West, and the efforts of Uganda’s small – and brave – gay rights community, the law has the backing of large numbers of Uganda’s conservative churchmen, who are not exactly in the Lambeth Palace school of right-on thought.
What’s also worrying are the comments from Mr Museveni’s spokesman when he made the announcement this morning. The president, he disclosed, did not opt to quietly sign the bill over the weekend, while the world was distracted by the revolution in Ukraine. Instead, he wanted “the full witness of the international media to demonstrate Uganda’s independence in the face of Western pressure and provocation”.
In other words, this is no longer just about gay rights, in Mr Museveni’s view, but about the West lecturing an African country on how to run its internal affairs, in this case on a matter of sensitive sexual morality.
That, of course, is an accusation that the Foreign Office is normally anxious to avoid. Whenever I’ve met diplomats in my time as a foreign correspondent, they are at pains not to sound like a colonial viceroy. But on the question of gay rights, it’s fair to say that, in recent years, the Foreign Office has not been scared of causing offence.
When Chris Bryant, the openly gay former Anglican vicar, served as a Foreign Office minister between 2009 and 2010, he openly encouraged British diplomats around the world to show public support for gay rights, even if it drew anger from their host governments. And in a similar vein, HMG’s policy now is that countries which pass anti-gay legislation can expect to lose donor money.
At the risk of sounding like an apologist for Museveni, I think this policy is a little misjudged. For what may sound perfectly reasonable in metropolitan London does not come across as such in many other parts of the world, be it Africa with its conservative churchmen, or the Arab world with its conservative imams.
Take it from me, in many parts of those worlds, the West is already seen as a place of somewhat loose morals, given that much of what they see is through the medium of MTV-style videos on satellite TV, featuring little else but scantily-clad women. Talk of gay rights simply reinforces that impression, just as it probably would have in Britain about 100 years ago.
All too often, they view it simply with utter incomprehension, to the point where I fear it discredits other Western messages such as the need for good governance. And it’s a gift to loopy African leaders like Gambia’s Yahyah Jammeh, who throws his critics in jail and who claims to have invented a cure for HIV. He, too, is able to con his people that it’s Western governments that are barmy, not him, because they support policies like gay rights.
I also a detect an inconsistency here. After all, on many occasions, Britain avoids open criticism of other countries for fear that we will be seen as interfering. For example, after last June’s military coup in Egypt – in which an elected Islamist government was ousted with the deaths of thousands of protesters – William Hague pointedly declined to call it a “coup”. Clearly, HMG’s unspoken view was that in order to have any sway with the new regime, it was best to keep criticisms private. So why be diplomatic on some issues and outspoken on others?
I am not suggesting that gay rights is not a cause worth defending in Uganda, or anywhere else in Africa. It is, apart from anything else, a welcome sign of rising living standards in the region’s better-off nations, creating a liberal middle class that is more open to alternative lifestyles. And no one can doubt the courage of the likes of Frank Mugisha, the country’s leading gay rights activist, whose colleague, David Kato, was murdered in 2011, and who has been roughed up more times than Peter Tatchell.
But I can’t help wondering whether this is a battle that Mr Mugisha would be better off waging in tandem mainly with other civil rights organisations, be it Stonewall, Amnesty or whoever. Roping in the help of outside governments brings in all manner of political and colonial baggage that allows the issue to be clouded. It’s not about the rights and wrongs of homosexuality in Africa, but about what strategy HMG should take, and in allowing Mr Museveni to play that old card about colonialism, that strategy seems to have backfired.