KAMPALA - On a normal Sunday, Dr Abed Bwanika would have been at the pulpit of Christ Witness, a local Pentecostal church located down a windy dirt road in Ntinda, Kampala, inspiring his throng of supporters.
But on this day, the veterinarian turned businessman, church founder and three-time presidential challenger was in another campaign season, and had a busy week ahead to plan.
Bwanika, a candidate with Uganda’s People’s Development Party (PDP), has made many interesting election pledges in the lead-up to the country’s February 18 polls, in which he’s trying to unseat President Yoweri Museveni, after what he called an “exhausting” 30 years in power. He has vowed to repatriate the remains of dictator Idi Amin, and to supply two oxen for every household if he wins office.
However, it’s Bwanika’s promise to “rehabilitate homosexuals” that has raised eyebrows among the gay community in Uganda, where a draconian anti-gay law was overturned by a court more than a year ago, but homosexual acts still remain punishable with jail sentences under a colonial-era Penal Code.
“We don't want that ‘gayism’,” said Bwanika, 49, using a term popular with the east African country’s politicians and others, during a recent interview.
“Gayism is acquired…it can be cured,” he insisted, adding, “the West does not have the proof, nobody has the proof that somebody can be born a gay”.
Uganda, Bwanika was adamant, would “never be a pro-gay nation” under his leadership.
The idea of curing gays is not new to Ugandans. According to Dennis Wamala, 30, the programs director at Icebreakers, a local LGBTIQ NGO, the “whole idea” was introduced to the God-fearing country during a visit by American pastor Scott Lively and two other US evangelical Christians in 2009.
“Scott Lively even brought an ‘ex gay’ to the conference as proof that people can be cured,” said Wamala, who attended the event “undercover” with two other activists. He and other campaigners have accused the Americans of fanning the flames of homophobia, which they say already existed among Ugandan preachers.
Lively, who allegedly drafted the anti-gay bill introduced into Parliament right after the conference, a charge he has denied, is currently defending an action for crimes against humanity by Ugandan activists in a US court.
The next major hearing is set for September, and will determine whether the case should proceed to full trial.
“I think the hateful rhetoric and the promotion of homophobia that Lively and others propagate in Uganda, and elsewhere abroad, has largely gone unnoticed here by many Americans."
“I think the hateful rhetoric and the promotion of homophobia that Lively and others propagate in Uganda, and elsewhere abroad, has largely gone unnoticed here by many Americans,” said Jeffrey Smith, an international human rights expert based in Washington, DC, who works with activists in Uganda.
“This is mainly because it doesn't affect us like it does people on the ground in Uganda, for instance, where LGBTIQ people have been subject to egregious abuse, including vigilante and state-sponsored violence, which is inspired by Lively and those like him.”
According to research by the NGO Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), there were at least 89 cases of violence against gay people in 2014, and discrimination is continuing.
Smith pointed out that despite being “exported abroad” by influential American evangelical Christians, and not being based on “any actual science or reality”, the “distorted and abusive practice” of gay conversion therapy was banned in many parts of the US.
Wamala said it was “horrifying” that the idea was still being given space in Uganda in 2016.
Bwanika has claimed to have cured “many” gays in the past. But when asked to explain how exactly he has done this, he offered little detail, apart from pointing to his Bible.
“You must take [gays] through counseling, help them to recover… show them the origin of a human being,” he said, speaking in his office behind the church where the first of two Sunday services were getting underway.
A Ugandan flag was draped over one of his cabinets. Down the road, stuck to a brick wall but muddied and torn by the recent wet weather, were three official electoral posters baring Bwanika’s face and the words “now our moment”.
He is one of two pastors running in the election race who is vehemently anti-gay.
Joseph Mabirizi, 40, is an engineer and businessman by profession, and an “evangelist” by calling.
“I’m against homosexuality 100 per cent,” said the married father-of-three, adding that he would introduce a “family day” for the nation to discuss Uganda’s moral values if he gets into the state House.
“We may not need another law, but I think we need to make sure that [the current law] is working,” said Mabirizi.
Activists acknowledge that the pair are using the anti-gay vote as politicking, in the lead up to the election, and that they faces little chance of beating Museveni, believed to be at least 71, and one of one of Africa's longest ruling leaders.
“We were ready for such rhetoric,” said Wamala.
“Bwanika, having failed to garner support over the past decade of electioneering believes that he can tap into homophobes as an escape route to popularity,” he continued, adding the political aspirant’s attempt to “moralise” the polls would not succeed.
Prominent gay rights activist Frank Mugisha, 32, of organisation Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) said he didn't think Bwanika would win.
“He is a right wing conservative who thinks he can use homosexuality propaganda to gain support,” he said.
Sandra Ntebi, 33, who oversees security for the gay community, said the pastor was desperate for an audience and “even his family won’t vote for him”.
However others stressed that Bwanika’s message was still harmful, especially in light of MPs having vowed to introduce a new anti-gay bill.
“Once those statements are made in the media by people seen as leaders… the community [thinks] ‘this is something that’s acceptable, this is something that we can do’,” said Adrian Juuko, HRAPF’s executive director.
With the competition between Museveni, his former ally Amama Mbabazi and three-time presidential challenger Kizza Besigye tight, he said anything can cause violence in the lead up to the election, and beyond.
“In case of violence, LGBTIQ people are likely to suffer because they’re softer targets,” said Juuko.
The likes of Lively needed to be put “on the spot”, said Smith.
“Name and shame them, and use public advocacy to expose his hatred and the detrimental effects it has had on good people,” he said.
“Staying silent, in cases like this, is not an option.”