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Uganda’s anti-gay sentiment like Canada’s anti-polygamy stance: Envoy

By Sneh Duggal      
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One day after Ugandan High Commissioner John Chrysostom Alintuma Nsambu presented his credentials to Governor General David Johnston, he was back at Rideau Hall to take a crack at skating. 

“It was more or less a shocker for me, but I enjoyed it,” Mr. Nsambu said. 

He counted the number of times he fell: Eight. 

“I have always been watching this sport on television and I always thought it was so easy, but after getting into the rink, I felt so helpless,” Mr. Nsambu said from his downtown Ottawa office on Feb. 3—his first official day as high commissioner. 

“I asked myself why on Earth I decided to go into the rink in the first place,” he said. 

But Mr. Nsambu realized that Mr. Johnston was skating amongst the group of diplomats on Feb. 1 and was getting his staff to assist the envoy each time he hit the ice, so he felt encouraged. 

“I have resolved that I get myself a personal trainer so that next winter, instead of being taught, I will be the one teaching other Africans how to do it,” he said with a smile. 


Political background

Mr. Nsambu is a political appointee and former minister. 

After studying in Germany, he returned to Uganda and decided to join politics. He was elected as a member of the Ugandan parliament in 2001 and re-elected in 2006. 

That same year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni appointed him as minister of state for information and communications technology—a role he kept until 2011. 

Mr. Nsambu said the government looked at communications as a tool for development. They tried to encourage people to start using cellphones. He also worked to set up computer labs in secondary schools by working with Microsoft in Seattle.  

He hopes to continue this push for technological expansion in Ugandan schools by working with Canadian universities and schools. 

Having Canadians go to Uganda to teach students there about how to set up email addresses or research on the Internet, for example, would be helpful, Mr. Nsambu said. 

Mr. Nsambu didn’t win a seat in the 2011 election, but he said Mr. Museveni nominated him the following year to be the ambassador to Eritrea. He never made it there, because the president decided to switch his destination to Canada. 

“In no time, he realizes that the relationship we have between Uganda and Canada was deteriorating, [and says] ‘No, John, go to Canada now,’” Mr. Nsambu said. 

“I think there’s something he expects of me, and I can guess his expectation is…harmonization and bringing common understanding between the nations.”


Gay rights controversy

In December, the Ugandan Parliament passed a controversial bill that criminalized homosexuality. The bill aimed to prohibit “sexual relations between persons of the same sex” and “the promotion or recognition of such sexual relations in public institutions and other places,” according to the Ugandan parliament’s website. 

The bill in Uganda was sent to the country’s president, who did not sign it into law, Mr. Nsambu said. He said it was important to note that the proposed legislation was sent to parliament as a private member’s bill. 

“When you talk of democracy, you don’t follow democracy where it suits you and you decide to run away from democracy where it doesn’t suit you,” he argued. 

“I think Canada would be the first country to condemn the government of Uganda if we did not allow people to express their democratic rights within parliament.”

But he added that the government saw the bill as a controversial and sensitive topic and felt domestic and international consultation was necessary, and that they had been consulting others since the bill was introduced in 2009. 

Mr. Nsambu said the president was hesitant to sign the bill because while he agreed that promoting homosexuality in schools or among youth, for example, should not happen, he didn’t think people should be punished for being gay. 

“The government does not want to sniff into people’s homes and see what they do in the night,” Mr. Nsambu said. 

He argued that open sexuality is not part of Uganda’s culture. 

“When you walk along the streets of Kampala…you will hardly see a man and woman holding hands on the street, so it begins from there,” he said. 

Mr. Nsambu appealed to Canadians, saying they shouldn’t condemn the Ugandan government.  

He likened the idea behind the bill to polygamy, which is banned in Canada but legal in Uganda.

“It’s a bill presented by a man whose views are similar to a Canadian who cannot accept polygamy.”

Mr. Nsambu said this could be a wake-up call for the West to realize that certain cultures can accept certain things while others may not. 

Personally, Mr. Nsambu said he doesn’t think a person should be punished for who they are.

“Whether someone is polygamous, whether someone is homosexual…if you are given a job as an engineer…what matters is if you are doing the job properly,” he said. 

He said the president wrote a letter to the Ugandan parliament’s speaker saying the law wasn’t necessary at this time, pointing to the country’s international image.

If the parliament votes on the bill and sends it back to the president, who again refuses to sign it, the speaker could just “lay it on the table and call for approval,” Mr. Nsambu said. 

Foreign Minister John Baird has criticized several countries, including Uganda, for their treatment of gays and lesbians. 

“Fear for personal safety and the likelihood of being ostracized by society is a daily reality for gay people in that country,” he said during a speech to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in 2012. 

Mr. Baird noted that a Ugandan tabloid published photos of known homosexuals with a headline saying “Hang Them.”

Since he only presented his credentials last week, Mr. Nsambu’s conversations with Canadian officials on this matter have only been in casual settings. But now he’s looking for some official talks on this. 

“I am going to seek appointments with the key people so that we can discuss this issue and make the people understand that Uganda is not out to murder people based on their sexual orientation.”

He said Mr. Baird expressed concern about the issue when they met and promised the high commissioner an appointment to talk about it more. 


Trade, peace

Boosting trade ties is another item on Mr. Nsambu’s agenda. He said he’d like to see more Canadian firms investing in Uganda’s real estate, tourism and oil sectors.

“It is an open secret that the best engineers and technologies in extracting oil and gas [are] developed by Canadians—we want to take advantage of that,” he said. 

He also wants to work with Canada in helping promote peace in the region around Uganda. One example he noted was in South Sudan.

“Uganda is aware of Canada’s peaceful efforts for South Sudan; I want to work with the group responsible for that region and see how we can continue that co-operation and bring lasting peace to South Sudan,” he said.



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