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Nelson Sewankambo

Nelson Sewankambo

R. Stone/Science

Ugandan academy president speaks out on antigay law

On 1 August, a Ugandan court struck down a draconian antigay law that had drawn condemnation from Western countries. The legislation, signed into law on 24 February by Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, mandates prison terms of up to 14 years for homosexual acts and life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” such as sexual acts with a minor. The court invalidated the law on a technicality, citing Parliament’s passage of the legislation without a legal quorum the previous December.

In the days before Museveni signed the bill, the Uganda National Academy of Sciences (UNAS) avoided being drawn into the controversy by declining a request from the government to conduct a rushed review of the scientific evidence about the causes of homosexuality. Instead, it will team up with the Academy of Science of South Africa for an in-depth study expected to be completed next year, says UNAS President Nelson Sewankambo.

In justifying his support for the law earlier this year, Museveni cited the findings of a Health Ministry panel tasked with preparing the cursory literature review that UNAS declined to tackle. The rapid effort—the panel had less than 2 weeks to produce its report—concluded that “there is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality,” that homosexuality is not a disease nor abnormal, and that being gay can be influenced by environmental factors such as culture and peer pressure. In a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on 18 February, Museveni stated that the panel’s “unanimous conclusion was that homosexuality, contrary to my earlier thinking, was behavioural and not genetic.”

The antigay law has been a trial by fire for Sewankambo, 62, who was elected to a 4-year term as UNAS president last January. Sewankambo, an internal medicine specialist and head of Makerere University College of Health Sciences who has spent years strengthening science capacity in Africa, spoke with ScienceInsider on the sidelines of a U.S. National Academy of Sciences meeting on collaboration with African science academies, held from 5 to 8 August in Washington, D.C. The transcript was edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What were the origins of the antigay law?

A: The international community tends to think that intolerance for gays started after the Christian activists visited Uganda in 2009. That’s not correct. Just like in many African countries, intolerance for gays has been going on for years. The coming of the [Christian] group may have accelerated antigay feelings within the government. [Government officials] felt that they had support from the international community. They thought, “Oh, the timing is now right.”

Q: After Parliament passed the antigay legislation last December, your academy was asked to weigh in?

A: We were brought into the picture very late, a week or so before the report was required. I’ve been in the AIDS fight for 30 years, since the epidemic began. I was involved in documenting that AIDS exists in Uganda. To me, gays are part of society. When a request comes in to produce a report in 1 week on this issue, I said, this academy, which stands for independence, has to use evidence and produce a credible report. Let’s see, shall we be able to produce a credible report together in 1 week? This did not look like a task we can undertake in 1 week. I also knew that this report would define the reputation of this academy. If the report was not well done, if it was wishy-washy, it would put a label on this academy that would be difficult to shed. So we declined.

Q: Was President Museveni’s office disappointed?

A: I honestly don’t know; we’ve never interacted with them on that issue.

Q: Now UNAS will study the issue with South Africa’s academy. What is the charge to the panel?

A: Let me put it this way: The charge is still being refined.

Q: How did the collaboration with South Africa come about?

A: All the African academies were informed of the existence of resources to do a study to address the issue. The opportunity was there for any academy interested to join. So far, just South Africa and Uganda have said they want to participate. Ask yourself the question: Why won’t the others participate? Some say this is too hot an issue, they will not touch it with a 20-foot pole. That actually gives you a sense of the feeling of the rest of the African continent. It gives you a sense, this is untouchable. Some say, How will the public look at me: I was part of a report that is pro-gay? We have heard all of those comments.

Q: Uganda has paid a diplomatic price over the law. Has Uganda’s scientific community suffered?

A: No. To me, Western countries have overreacted. I think it will take time for acceptance of the gay community [in Uganda]. It will take time. After all, even here [in the United States] there are states where these are real issues. There are still states where [homosexuality] is taboo. It’s unreasonable to expect our country to change overnight. Come on.

Q: Is the law shelved for now?

A: The government is free to appeal, and they haven’t indicated yet. They are still thinking through it. The government may say we are not going to follow this up. But members of Parliament are free to reintroduce it.