This morning, I woke up to the news that various human rights organizations in both the U.S. and Uganda are demanding a recall of the U.S. Ambassadors to Uganda and Nigeria. I first thought it was a joke—but then I read more press releases and saw petitions on Facebook and Twitter. These organizations are falling right into the well-organized trap set by U.S. conservatives.
Last weekend, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni gave a speech “declar[ing] war on the ‘homosexual lobby,’” and called on all Ugandans to stand with him—he was expecting the Western world to react to his declaration. To Museveni and most Ugandans, the ‘homosexual lobby’ includes not only major LGBTQ rights organizations, but the United States and the European Union, which have for many years fought for the rights and dignity of LGBTQ persons on African soil. Western nations and organizations have not fought in the way social justice-minded people have hoped—they have not stopped the arrests, or the beatings—but there is no doubt that their presence and back-room meetings with African politicians has saved LGBTQ lives from systematic persecution, and in some cases, genocides.
It is these nations and organizations that have provided safe spaces for African LGBTQ persons—even in extraordinarily homophobic countries like Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and The Gambia—to share their plight and reorganize after their governments disband them. In Zambia and Uganda, these nations have gone beyond simple meetings with local LGBTQ activists, but are also monitoring and documenting human rights abuses, flooding court rooms when LGBTQ persons appear in court, and have provided safety when African nations declare war on gays. When LGBTQ Africans lives’ are in immediate danger, it is to the U.S. and European embassies they run for safety. These nations’ open protection of sexual minorities in Africa has resulted in charges of “promoting homosexuality in Africa” by both religious and political leaders.
Honestly, had it not been for the presence of the U.S. and European embassies, African gays would have been massacred years ago, without any fear of consequences. For LGBTQ organizations to now demand they pull out of Uganda perilously compromises the lives of LGBTQ persons—who will not have anyone to turn to for safety, and strip our ability to monitor persecution.
I understand that we are all desperate to stop the progression of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. But threatening to leave the country will only boost the political power and credibility of leaders like Museveni, David Bahati, and Martin Ssempa—opening the door for African nations to expand further anti-LGBTQ laws, possibly even including executions and mass slaughter.
Knowing that most people don’t understand the pan-African ethics of solidarity, how African nations perceive the West’s response to Uganda will have effects across the continent, from Kenya to Algeria to Namibia.
We need Western nations’ presence in the fight against the criminalization of LGBTQ persons in Africa more than American human rights activists. Recalling the U.S. ambassador will just confirm the false claim that Western nations are in Uganda for one purpose—to recruit young people into homosexuality. This perception will increase the negative attitudes against LGBTQ persons in Uganda.
It is time to realize that African LGBTQ people are not all activists—most of them exist without public faces.
The withdrawal of the U.S. Ambassador from Uganda and Nigeria would also have some neo-colonial implications, which we should guard against. Uganda is not the first country to pass this Anti-Homosexuality Bill banning advocacy for LGBTQ issues—Russia was first. Nigeria followed, and many more nations are still to follow. How do we explain that no calls have gone out for the U.S. to sever diplomatic relations with Russia, but then call for the cutting of those ties to African nations? Frankly speaking, this move is an invitation for neo-colonial politics—which make even vicious dictators (like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe) heroes in the eyes of African people.
African nations are sensitive to neo-colonial and imperialistic attitudes of the West—hence they are likely to side with Museveni when he is condemned for his handling of homosexuality. The move will only make Museveni a hero not just among Ugandans, but also among his African allies—precisely what he is hoping for after watching his political power fade in recent years. If the West attacks him, and leaves the country, Museveni will have free reign to rule as the dictator he wants to be.
So what is the way forward?
African homophobia is promoted and propelled by religion. In Uganda, Christian leaders (paid for and encouraged by American evangelicals) have been demanding the bill for years, and pushing their followers to vote for the lawmakers who support it. Politicians will always be politicians—they are always looking for votes. In his attempt to win the Evangelical votes in 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama disagreed with same-sex marriage in a debate moderated by Pastor Rick Warren—one of very same U.S. evangelicals who worked with anti-gay pastors in Uganda. But to think that such dynamics only work in American politics is naïve at best, and dangerous, careless, and deadly at worst. Museveni needs votes to remain in power. So the answer to Uganda’s anti-gay bill lies in the primarily Christian electorate of Uganda. We should be demanding that Pope Francis speak directly to President Museveni and Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, and urge Ugandan Roman Catholics to proclaim his already-stated opposition to any law criminalizing LGBTQ persons. U.S. Anglican, and Evangelical/Pentecostal leaders should equally speak to their friends in Uganda about the dignity and fundamental human rights of sexual minorities. And the American people must demand an end to the constant flow of exportation of homophobia from U.S. evangelicals like Scott Lively, Lou Engle, and Rick Warren to Ugandan pastors and politicians.
Open letters, petitions, and press releases will only give Museveni and Uganda lawmakers another reason to sign and enforce the bill.