A Ugandan leader has likened LGBTQ+ people to “terrorists” as his government cracks down on supporters of a popular presidential candidate.
In an interview on a local news program, General Elly Tumwine spoke out against the People Power, Our Power movement inspired by popular singer Bobi Wine. The 37-year-old musician and MP announced in July he planned to run against President Yoweri Museveni in the 2021 elections and has long been a vocal critic of the Ugandan government.
Authorities have arrested and jailed him many times for his role in protests of the administration, but Wine’s supporters say the criminal charges are an anti-democratic attempt to silence him. His most recent arrest in August was allegedly for “annoying” Museveni.
On Monday, the Ugandan government banned people from wearing red berets, a symbol of Wine and his political movement. The government classified them as military gear, and anyone caught wearing a red beret could face jail time.
In a statement, Wine called the decision a “sham.”
“It is a blatant attempt to suffocate a successful threat to the autocratic status quo,” he said. “But People Power is more than a red beret, we are bigger than our symbol. We are a booming political movement fighting for the future of Uganda and we will continue our struggle for democracy,”
But on Thursday, Tumwine went on television to declare the People Power movement a terrorist group which associates with LGBTQ+ people and gives young people drugs.
“I want to warn the public, there is a terrorist organisation called the Red Movement [People Power],” he said on NBS TV, adding: “It is associated with [LGBTQ+] and cryptocurrency and things that want to break the established order.
“They want anarchy,” Mwesige continued.
Museveni’s government has ruled Uganda since 1985, and the president has long held homophobic views, labeling gay people as “abnormal.” Last year, he tried to ban oral sex because “the mouth is for eating, not for sex.”
Gay sex is illegal in Uganda and carries a punishment of life imprisonment for those convicted. That sentence was downgraded from the death penalty in 2013 after a global outcry when the country tried to introduce a “Kill the Gays” bill. The updated law also included a penalty of seven years in jail for any person or institution who performed a same-sex marriage ceremony.
Museveni signed the bill in 2014 after commissioning a group of “scientists” to research whether sexuality was learned. Their researchers alleged sexuality was a choice, to which Museveni said, “I was regarding it as an inborn problem.”
“Genetic distortion, that was my argument,” he said at the time. “But now our scientists have knocked this one out.”
Tumwine, who is one of the highest ranking military officials, has been a MP since 1986 and is a close ally of the president. He joined Museveni in the late 1970s to form the National Resistance Army (NRA), which would go on to overthrow the Idi Amin regime in 1985.
While he has not made many public comments about the LGBTQ+ community he has long supported Museveni. Last month, the Ugandan parliament found him guilty of assaulting fellow MP Cecilia Ogwal after she accused him in the chamber of allegedly pulling a gun on her.
LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations in Uganda have universally condemned the general’s remarks, saying they will only provoke more persecution and discrimination against vulnerable groups.
“The comments on Thursday further endanger Uganda’s [LGBTQ+] community, which already faces persecution and violence,” Edwin Sesange of the African Equality Foundation told Out. “The Uganda [LGBTQ+] community is under threat already, but this statement makes the threat severe.”
Sesange called on Tumwine to withdraw his comments and apologize.
“Terrorism should be condemned, but to link it to [LGBTQ+ people] is out of order,” he said. “It is a deliberate move to increase the persecution of the [LGBTQ+] community. It’s the [LGBTQ+] community in Uganda which has faced acts of violence, but the minister is trying to shift the blame to the victims.”
Wine is no stranger to controversy when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues, one of his songs encourages his fans to “burn all the gays.” In 2014, venues across the U.K. canceled his performances after pressure from LGBTQ+ groups. He responded to the cancelations by saying he had “been banned from other countries because of [his] ideology of fighting gay people.”
“Uganda does not support or allow gay people,” Wine said at the time. “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
But the musician has since softened his position on the LGBTQ+ community and in 2016 began promoting a message of tolerance. The change in his attitude came after meeting with queer and transgender Ugandans, including Sesange. The activist believes Wine’s embrace of LGBTQ+ rights shows that further progress is on its way.
“If Bobi Wine can preach tolerance, after his message of hate, then it means that the work we do to change people’s attitudes change is happening,” Sesange said in 2016.