Uganda’s anti gay bill is a smokescreen for missing oil debate

This commentary (minus the last paragraph, which was requested as a supplement but arrived too late to be included!), was published on The Guardian (UK) website on February 10, 2012. Back in 2009, when the Anti Homosexuality Bill first hit international headlines, I discussed it in a longer piece, The strange geometry of an anti-gay rumpus.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has distanced himself from the noxious Anti Homosexuality Bill that has resurfaced in the country’s parliament, saying that he cannot interfere in the country’s democratic process. This is ironic coming from a man who, after a distinctly sleazy election victory last year, ordered violent crackdowns on peaceful protests at rising food prices and proposed a new crime of “economic sabotage.”

It is true that this is a Private Members’ Bill, introduced by the now world-famous David Bahati. It is also true that its proposed life-sentence penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ is popular in unashamedly homophobic Uganda. And for that very reason it is a convenient diversion from something that is much closer to the president’s heart: oil.

Since 2006 international oil exploration companies have found 2.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves in Uganda and significant basins remain to be explored, so the eventual total may be higher. Production has not yet begun and, despite growing clamour from NGOs, civic activists and some MPs, the terms of the agreements between the oil companies and the government have not been made public.

In 2010 the UK NGO, PLATFORM, published a report, based on leaked drafts of the production sharing agreements, claiming that the contracts allowed excessive profits for the oil companies, and left Uganda bearing most of the risks.

For the next 18 months the government and Tullow Oil PLC, the Anglo-Irish company that found the oil, were at loggerheads over disputed tax payments. The government refused to renew licences or allow production to start. Tullow, which has also been experiencing technical difficulties in its Jubilee field in Ghana, saw a billion Euro decline in its share prices,

The deadlock was broken a week ago, when the government and Tullow Oil PLC signed new deals on three oil blocks, opening the way for Tullow to finalise a production partnership with France’s Total and China’s CNOOC. Full details of the new deals have not been disclosed but Tullow has evidently made important concessions, including agreeing to an oil refinery in Uganda rather than exporting crude. It is likely that the terms of these deals are more favourable to Uganda than the previous agreements which they supersede.

But if this seems like a cause for celebration, Ugandan civic activists were in fact outraged by the new deals, claiming that they were not merely lacking in transparency but actually illegal.

The illegality claim rests on the fact that, in a stormy debate last October, Uganda’s parliament passed a resolution ordering a moratorium on all oil contracts until long-awaited Petroleum and Revenue Management bills had been discussed and enacted. MPs also accused Tullow of bribery and demanded prosecution of three government ministers on related corruption charges.

Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) has an overwhelming majority in parliament, which had long been seen as merely rubber stamping presidential decisions. The parliamentary rebellion in NRM ranks showed, firstly, that ambitious younger politicians see Museveni as nearing the end of his shelf life and are jockeying for future positions. Secondly, it showed how deep and ubiquitous is the mistrust and suspicion of the man who has ruled Uganda for 26 years.

Many Ugandan intellectuals believe that Museveni needs oil revenues to sustain the personal patronage system that has increasingly characterised his rule, and that gets increasingly costly over time. The last thing he wants, they say, is transparency over oil agreements or a public debate about oil.

However, oil bills that have already been approved by the President’s cabinet will be tabled in the current session of parliament. Their contents have not yet been made public, and civil society activists fear that they will be rushed through, without proper debate or public scrutiny, by MPs who, last week, were each given USD 44,000 for a new car. The basic pay for MPs in Uganda, where the median income is around USD 400 per year, is substantially higher than for MPs in Britain.

Bahati is offering a sideshow that will outrage Western liberals who will spill much ink damning him and, in the process, create a frisson of anti-cultural-imperialist sentiment in parliament. This might not distract MPs entirely from the oil issue, but it will help.

The bill has had two previous outings. It first appeared in late 2009, diverting attention from a major clash between Museveni’s government and the ancient kingdom of Buganda, which left 27 dead in a spate of riots. A year later it made global headlines again as the government pushed an important land rights bill through parliament. Both times, Museveni personally assured foreign governments, which still supply around a third of Uganda’s budget, that the bill would never become law. Provided he gets his way over oil, he will likely do so again.