Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has put a bill imposing strict penalties for homosexuality on hold to give scientists a chance to prove that homosexuality could be triggered by genes and is not a lifestyle choice.
Homosexuality is taboo in African countries and illegal in 37. Few Africans are openly gay, as they fear imprisonment, violence and loss of their jobs.
The US warned that signing the bill into law would complicate its relationship with Uganda, a regional ally in the fight against the spread of radical Islamists in Somalia to whom it gives more than US$400 million in aid every year.
Museveni dismissed the US threat, but said in a statement dated Feb. 18 and seen by reporters on Friday that he would not sign the proposed law until after hearing from scientists.
“What I want them to clarify is whether a combination of genes can cause anybody to be a homosexual,” Museveni said in the statement. “Then my task will be finished and I will sign the bill.”
“Exhibitionism of homosexual behaviour must be punished because, in this part of the world, it is forbidden to publicly exhibit any sexual conduct, even for heterosexuals,” the statement said.
“If I kissed my wife of 41 years in public, I would lose elections in Uganda,” said Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986 and has been seeking support for another term in office.
Museveni said he was initially opposed to the anti-gay law because he thought “it was wrong to punish somebody on account of being born abnormal” — much in the same way that he would not punish an albino or a woman without breasts.
However, he said that advice from scientists in Uganda’s Department of Genetics, School of Medicine and the Ministry of Health showed a “unanimous conclusion.. that homosexuality, contrary to my earlier thinking, was behavioural and not genetic” and therefore should be punished.
Museveni said local scientists would carry out the study, but he invited US scientists to help. It was unclear how long the inquiry would last.
“I therefore encourage the US government to help us by working with our scientists to study whether, indeed, there are people who are born homosexual. When that is proved, we can review this legislation,” he said.
“Africans do not seek to impose their views on anybody. We do not want anybody to impose their views on us. This very debate was provoked by Western groups who come to our schools and try to recruit children into homosexuality,” Museveni wrote.
Presidential spokesman Tamale Mirundi said on Friday that the bill would be on hold for now “until more conclusive research is done, and that’s what the president is saying in that letter.”
The bill, which was introduced in 2009, initially proposed a death sentence for homosexual acts, but was amended to prescribe jail terms including life in jail for what it called aggravated homosexuality.
That category includes gay sex with a minor, where the victim is infected with HIV and where the victim is vulnerable, such as a disabled person.
Museveni last month said he would shelve the bill, which has drawn fire from Western donors and human rights groups.
However, on Feb. 14 he told legislators from his ruling National Resistance Movement party that he planned to sign the law after receiving the advice of the Ugandan scientists.
The president is trying to please a conservative local constituency vehemently opposed to homosexuality, while avoiding alienating Western aid donors.
The anti-gay bill cruised through the Ugandan parliament in December last year after its architects agreed to drop an extremely controversial death penalty clause, although it still says that repeat homosexuals should be jailed for life, outlaws the promotion of homosexuality and requires people to denounce gays.
Museveni, a devout evangelical Christian, last week also signed into law anti-pornography and dress code legislation outlawing “provocative” clothing, bans scantily-clad performers from TV and closely monitoring what individuals watch on the Internet.