- - Wednesday, July 4, 2012

KAMPALA, Uganda — The Ugandan government is seeking to ban 38 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that it accuses of promoting homosexuality — a move that critics say aims to divert attention from the administration’s political troubles.

“I have investigated and established beyond reasonable doubt that these NGOs have been involved in the promotion and recruitment in terms of the [gay] issues,” Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo said.

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, and has been the focal point of violent attacks. In February, a lawmaker reintroduced legislation that would have imposed the death penalty for “serial” offenders.

Mr. Lokodo, a former Catholic priest, has submitted to the Internal Affairs Ministry a confidential list of local and international groups to be investigated and subsequently banned. He accuses some NGOs of conspiring with foreign backers to recruit children into homosexuality.

According to the Ugandan weekly newspaper the Observer, a leaked portion of the list includes the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, the Refugee Law Project, the Rainbow and Diversity Organization, the Angel Support Group, Trans Equality Uganda and the Rainbow Foundation Mbarara.

The partial list could not be independently verified.

Anti-gay fervor

The move to ban the NGOs was made during sharply declining support for the government and power struggles within the administration.

An Afrobarometer poll in March found that Ugandans’ approval of President Yoweri Museveni's government had fallen to 26 percent, from 64 percent in January 2011.

Meanwhile, news outlets reported late last month that Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi are angling to unseat the 68-year-old president, who has been in power for 26 years.

“This campaign against sexual minorities is meant to shift attention from the challenges this country is facing and the issues affecting day-to-day lives,” said Hassan Shire, executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project.

NGOs have become more vocal and critical amid the government’s increasing reliance on patronage to retain power, massive unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and violent crackdowns on journalists and activists.

Late last month, Internal Affairs Minister Hillary Onek accused NGOs of “stabbing the government in its back” for criticizing the government’s brand of politics and urged the groups to stick to humanitarian work.

The anti-gay fervor in Uganda peaked early last year, when the international community threatened to withdraw financial support if the legislature approved a bill that would have made it illegal to rent property to a homosexual and would have required citizens to report to police people they suspect of being gay or else risk a fine or prison sentence.

The bill was reintroduced in February, but it will not contain the death penalty clause when it is brought to parliament for a vote, likely later this year, according to its sponsor, lawmaker David Bahati.

Local politicians and preachers had framed opposition to the bill as a case of outsiders threatening Uganda’s sovereignty and values.

‘No [trading] of cows’

In January 2011, teacher and gay-rights activist David Kato was bludgeoned to death with a hammer under murky circumstances. Months earlier, his name and picture appeared with those of 100 other Ugandans accused of being gay in a local tabloid under the headline “Hang Them.”

Fervor subsided amid a lack of presidential support for the legislation and legal troubles for two of the anti-gay movement’s most prominent pastors. Martin Ssempa and Solomon Male were charged in January with conspiring to defame a megachurch pastor, Robert Kayanja, by accusing him of sodomizing boys.

Kato’s close friend Pepe Onziema, program director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, said activists’ attempts to dispel fears about homosexuals among parliamentarians and the general public have helped. “We don’t recruit or receive money for recruitment,” she said.

Ms. Onziema said most of society was against gays several years ago, but now “2 out of 5 people are saying, ‘Let them be.’ “

Gay-rights activists also have moved to hold accountable those who violate their constitutional rights to association and assembly. They are suing Mr. Lokodo for breaking up a workshop they held in February. Police raided a similar workshop on June 18.

Museveni press secretary Tamale Mirundi said the president thinks homosexuals should not be persecuted but that they should not be allowed to display their sexuality in public.

“Let us amend the law [in that direction],” Mr. Mirundi said. “This would be a fair compromise.”

Allowing gay marriage is out of the question because a bride is traded by her parents for cows, he said. “If a man marries a man, there is no [trading] of cows.”

Mr. Mirundi said the ethics minister’s move to ban NGOs is not an attempt to silence criticism of the government. “They don’t pose a threat to the government on the ground. They get European money. … They are a problem of the Europeans.”