Uganda's 'Kill the Gays' bill: Pastor Martin Ssempa and the anti-gay lobby

You can now be imprisoned for life under Uganda's anti-homosexual law. It was pushed through by religious pastors, whose moralising arm-twisting has silenced moderate voices. If you disagree with them, you may face blackmail.

Morrison Rwakakamba
25 March 2014
Pastor Martin Ssempa

Pastor Martin Ssempa is a leading homophobic voice in Uganda. Credit:

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-homosexual bill into law on the afternoon of February 24, 2014 at State House Entebbe.

The new law targets homosexuals and those perceived as their apologists in Uganda. If you are privy to information that someone is involved in acts of homosexuality and you don’t report to police, on conviction you get no less than seven years behind bars. Those guilty of homosexuality will get 14 years. Those guilty of “aggravated” homosexuality get life imprisonment.

The way this law was engineered by religious or ‘moralist’ groups spells danger for public policy and legislation in Uganda. Uganda is largely a religious country: 80% Christian, 12% Moslem and 8% secular. The anti-homosexual lobby, led by pastors from different churches and faith platforms, understand this and have made full use of it.

Uganda is now in the process of legislating morality: on how people should dress, which pictures to watch, who to love and what sex styles to perform. Few have been spared. Journalists, cultural leaders, local councils, hair saloon operators, bodaboda riders (riders of motorbikes for hire), political leaders – all seem to have been browbeaten into acceptance.

If you disagree with the anti-homosexuality lobby, then you may face blackmail on the grounds that you are a homosexual, or that you have been bought and compromised, or that you are 'an enemy of our children and family life' in Uganda.

In 2009, when Hon David Bahati first introduced the bill, he argued that homosexuals threatened family values in Uganda and that gays from the West were recruiting poor Ugandan children into gay lifestyles with promises of money and a better life. He said a tough new law was needed, as a colonial-era law against sodomy was not strong enough. Martin Ssempa, a leading anti-gay pastor who helped Bahati draft the anti-gay law, says that homosexuality is a sin. In Oscar nominated documentary “God Loves Uganda”, Ssempa is shown screening a sadomasochistic gay porn video and telling his audiences that this is what Western homosexuals have in store for their children.

The pushback from the pro-gay rights lobby on the grounds that homosexuality is not part of Biblical ten commandments has not managed to hold back the avalanche of religiously-motivated hatred.

In October 2013, Ssempa led a contingent of religious groups to Entebbe International Airport to welcome Rt Honorable Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Alintuma Kadaga. Kadaga had previously faced off against Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird over the anti-homosexuality bill, telling him that Uganda is neither a colony nor a protectorate of Canada.

Kadaga received a hero’s welcome and promised to pass the bill as a 'Christmas present' to Ugandans. The pastors cheered her on as a courageous leader. Kadaga delivered on her promise by steering Parliament to pass the bill a few days before Christmas 2013.

Uganda’s Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi has protested that the passing of the bill disregarded parliamentary rules of procedure, since the parliamentary quorum required to pass the bill did not exist. Rule 23(3) states: “At any time when a vote is to be taken, the Speaker shall ascertain whether the members present in the House form a quorum for the vote to be taken. If he or she finds that the number is less, the Speaker shall suspend the proceedings for the House for an interval of fifteen minutes, and the bell shall be rang.”

This could be a key ground for repealing the anti-gay law.

While politicians deliberated, the anti-gay lobby threatened to withdraw their votes from them at every level. Now most voices of moderation in Uganda seem to have gone mute. For fear of blackmail, legislators even fear to debate this issue openly. If evangelists believe homosexuality is sacreligious, then let them open the doors of their worship centers and save homosexuals from sin. That is their business. But they should let Parliament handle its legislative mandate without moralising arm-twisting.

David Bahati worked with Ssempa to draft the anti-homosexual bill before it was introduced to parliament in 2009. He mobilized his followers to support Bahati whenever the bill was to receive a mention in Parliament. When the President signed the law, Bahati told Reuters news agency that the “family life and children of Uganda are now protected.” Bahati also stated: “The law is very much worth it because it will protect our values. I think a society that has no moral values is a contradiction to development.”

In response to aid cuts from major Western donors and the World Bank, Bahati said: “It's also unfortunate that the World Bank would take such a decision... and create an impression that accepting homosexuality is a condition for World Bank money when it is not.” Bahati is one of the leaders of Parliamentary prayer sessions and a devout Christian. It is very hard to separate the motivations behind his bill from his religious beliefs.

President Museveni has widely written on the subject, and I agree with the President that underage involvement in homosexuality or heterosexuality is wrong. I also agree with him that rape committed by homosexuals or heterosexuals is heinous. But Uganda already has laws that deal with these issues.

All laws should be honestly debated to allow a win-win resolution for the diverse society that Uganda wants to be. Instead, our legislators chorused the ‘jail the gays’ slogan before they had even fully debated the bill clause by clause. Instead of aid cuts by Uganda’s western partners and trading accusations and counter accusations, let the debate to reconfigure or repeal this law be encouraged to continue.

Now we have a law on our statute books that is not only difficult to implement but also flatly liquidates the rights and liberties of a section of the citizenry at the altar of evangelical religious belief. 

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