Petition against Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda

Today a coalition of petitioners, including a law professor, former leader of the Opposition in Parliament, journalist, LGBT activists, and a current member of Parliament filed a Constitutional Court challenge of Uganda’s recently passed Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Excerpt from today’s press release:

“Prof. J Oloka-Onyango, Hon. Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, Andrew Mwenda, Prof. Morris ogenga-Latigo, Dr. Paul Nsubuga Semugoma, Jacqueline Kasha Nabagesera, Julian Pepe Onziema, Frank Mugisha, as well as the national organisations Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) and the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) today filed a Constitutional Court challenge of the Anti Homosexuality Act, which was signed into law by President Museveni on February 24, 2014.

The petition was filed under the auspices of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a coalition of 50 indigenous civil society organisations that advocates for non-discrimination in Uganda. The petition, available at http://www.ugandans4rights.org and at http://www.hrapf.org, argues that the Anti Homosexuality Act violates Ugandans’ Constitutionally guaranteed right to: privacy, to be free from discrimination, dignity, to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, to the freedoms of expression, thought, assembly and association; to the presumption of innocence, and to the right to civic participation.”

Ugandan courts have not missed their fair share of interference, but the judiciary is still a pillar of government that can exert some degree of independence from the executive, certainly more so than parliament. The legal community is vibrant and powerful, and not afraid to make their voice heard.

Daniel Kalinaki foretold the petition on February 20, just days before Museveni signed the bill, concluding, “Such a challenge would hold up the law in the courts for at least a couple of years. If the courts uphold it, it wasn’t me, the President would say. If they strike it down, it still wasn’t him. Throw in a few more years on appeal in the Supreme Court and you have a Bill all dressed up with nowhere to go.”

The coordination of those who have opposed the bill all along comes a bit late, but perhaps acting reactively is the best that could be done in the the face of overwhelming popular support. One thing is certain. The president comes out ahead regardless of the eventual ruling. It’s a “heads I win, tails you lose” kind of situation. A bit of a running theme around these parts.

The Academy in the time of Influenza: American medicine and the Great Pandemic

American medicine up until the twentieth century was an unmitigated disaster. Or so argues (quite convincingly) John Barry in his fascinating book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. The first two sections of the book cover a brief history of American medicine and medical research, and I’ve only just gotten to the outbreak of the pandemic that killed between 20 and 50 million people, according to the best estimates. For comparison’s sake, WWI claimed 16 million lives, and AIDS an estimated 33 million.

Barry highlights a strong link between war and disease, namely, the emergence of epidemics or even pandemics. I’ll return to a discussion of this thesis when I’ve finished the book, but for now, what has been most striking is the utter catastrophe that was American medicine up until relatively recently. While scientists and physicians in Europe, including Robert Koch, Pierre Louis, Louis Pasteur, and John Snow were pioneers in epidemiology, germ theory, and more, the study of medicine in America was stagnant, suggesting the importance of healthy academic and scientific competition on the European continent.

Evidence of the United States’ relative backwardness is abundant. Charles Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, wrote in his first report as president that, “The ignorance and general incompetency of the average graduate of the American medical Schools, at a time when he receives his degree which turns him loose upon the community, is something horrible to contemplate.” When Eliot proposed reforms within Harvard, including examinations (of all things), Professor of Surgery Henry Bigelow, had this to say:

Charles Eliot, Harvard President 1869-1909

“[Eliot] actually proposes to have written examinations for the degree of doctor of medicine. I had to tell him that he knew nothing of the quality of Harvard medical students. More than half of them can hardly write. Of course they can’t pass written examinations…No medical school has thought it proper to risk large existing classes and large receipts by introducing more rigorous standards.”

At the end of the 19th century, Barry reports that American universities had “nearly two hundred endowed chairs of theology and fewer than five in medicine…” showing where both the money and the power lay.  It was ultimately the initiative of a few individuals, combined with big money from illustrious families such as the Hopkins and Rockefellers, that turned the ship around.

The Great Influenza is an excellent read, and fodder for thought not only for those interested in medicine, epidemiology, and virology (guilty as charged), but also for those interested in the academy as an institution – how it evolves or stagnates, and the factors that generate innovation and massive leaps forward in our understanding of the world.

Ugandan politics: history on repeat

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On Saturday, March 1, Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi (@AmamaMbabazi) held his occasional tweetup, #askthePM. It was the best attended tweetup to date, with virtually all local media represented. And there was was plenty to discuss.

The primary topics included Uganda’s recently passed Anti-Homosexuality and Anti-Pornography laws, as well as party politics within the ruling party, National Resistance Movement. The Observer has captured much of the verbatim proceedings, so I won’t repeat them here. Instead, I’ll offer some thoughts on what Saturday’s discussion says about the current state of Ugandan politics. In short, we are watching history on repeat.

Recent events and Mbabazi’s comments suggest the younger generation of the NRM – amongst those most active in supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill – may be out of step with long-time cadres. Or rather, NRM youngsters (relative term, here) comprise an unwieldy arm that may wittingly or unwittingly push the party, once again, into some awkward contortions.

Mbabazi, like Museveni previously, suggested that he had never supported the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. He thought the new bill was redundant, since homosexuality was effectively banned in the existing penal code, thanks to British colonial laws. Further, unlike many Ugandan politicians (and pastors), Mbabazi said that homosexuality was not “un-African,” and has “always been here.” He contended that in Africa sexuality is a private affair, suggesting it should be left that way, with consenting adults left to do as they please.

Mbabazi’s comments, together with the reassuring statement from longtime NRM cadre and health minister Ruhakana Rugunda that, “All people whether they are sexual orientation as gays or otherwise are at complete liberty to get full treatment and to give full disclosure to their doctors and nurses,” suggest that the older generation of the NRM was caught flat footed by the speed at which the bill moved between December 2013 and February 2014. Younger MPs battling in a fiercely competitive electoral environment with no “historical” basis on which to draw support pulled it instead from populist, if draconian, legislation, and dragged everyone else along for the ride. It did not help that President Obama’s statement may have forced Museveni into a corner from which he had to come out and fight, ultimately signing the bill he had opposed not long before.

Flat-footedness and youthful scheming may have been a running theme for the month of February, and extended to Kyankwanzi, where Youth MP Evelyn Anite brought forward a resolution proposing President Museveni stand unopposed as the party president in 2016. Mbabazi contended that the position of the caucus, for which Anite is the spokesperson, was merely an opinion. But the consequences of this “opinion” cannot be so easily dismissed.  Anite’s proposal harkens back to another made by a young woman MP a decade ago. In 2002, then woman MP for Adjumani, Jessica Eriyo, made a motion to remove term limits at the meeting of the party’s (then, Movement’s) National Executive Council. The motion, like Anite’s proposal, took many by surprise, but its consequences were profound. History has a funny way of repeating itself, many times over in the case of Museveni’s candidacy.

And so here we are. The prime minister, who could have carried the torch, is taking fire, again, and MPs too young to remember any other president angle for his good favor, and their political careers.