No LGBT activists win seats on Ugandan anti-HIV panel

Geoffrey Mujisha, executive director of the MARPS Network.

Dr. Geoffrey Mujisha, executive director of the MARPS Network.

An election that could have given LGBT activists a voice in improving sexual minorities’ access to HIV services in Uganda instead ended Feb. 5 amid accusations of manipulation and without any LGBT advocates on a crucial health policy panel.

But the election did accomplish its basic goal — selecting two representatives for the Ugandan panel whose role is to represent the needs of people who are most at-risk for HIV infections, known as key affected populations (KAPs).  Those at-risk groups include LGBT people, but also non-LGBT groups such as truck drivers and fishermen.

Delegates from LGBT groups boycotted the election, charging that it was a sham.  In the election, the two representatives selected to serve on the health panel came from the MARPS Network, which was the same organization that helped make arrangements for the election.

Vinand Nantulya presides at the Feb. 5 meeting of delegates to choose representatives of at-risk groups who will serve on the Global Funds health policy panel for Uganda.

Vinand Nantulya presides at the Feb. 5 meeting of delegates to choose representatives of at-risk groups who will serve on the Global Funds health policy panel for Uganda.

Prof. Vinand Nantulya, who chairs the health panel known as the Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM), said the election was conducted properly. He chaired the election meeting himself at the Grand Global Hotel in Kampala.

LGBT activists said that Nantulya turned over too much organizational responsibility to the MARPS Network. That allowed the organization “to stage another sham election to once again impose heterosexuals on all of us simply because CCM believes gay people are not yet literate on discussing key policy documents that concern them,” one LGBT activist said.

Others said that LGBT activists made a tactical error by boycotting the election, which meant that non-LGBT delegates comprised a majority of those voting.

The CCM oversees programs and makes key decisions about requests for funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which finances many of Uganda’s anti-AIDS efforts.

LGBT activists have been seeking representation on the CCM since 2010, according to Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) executive director Frank Mugisha.  In the past, he said, because effective representation was lacking, key affected populations did not benefit from Global Fund projects.

That’s one of the reasons why the at-risk population of Ugandan men who have sex with men (MSM) has an estimated HIV infection rate of 12 percent to 33 percent, compared to 7.3 percent for Ugandans overall.

Recognizing that lack of CCM representation often translates into lack of health care for at-risk populations, the Global Fund has started requiring every nation’s CCM to include representatives of those most at-risk.

That requirement was to be fulfilled in the election that was held Feb. 5 during which up to five delegates from eight different KAP groups would be eligible to vote.  In the end, that meeting  was attended by only about 21 people. It ended up being dominated by delegates from three non-LGBT KAP groups — truckers (5 delegates), uniformed services personnel (5 delegates) and “fisherfolk” (5 delegates). Five delegates from the sex workers KAP group also attended.

Arrangements for the election were made by the MARPS Network.  The nominees elected by secret ballot to represent KAPs on the CCM were Dr.  Geoffrey Mujisha, executive director of MARPS Network, and Shalince Natukunda, also of MARPS Network.

Delegates who had been chosen by two at-risk groups — MSMs and other sexual minorities — boycotted the Feb. 5 election, saying that the electoral procedure was flawed.  Also absent were all but one of the five chosen delegates from each of two other KAP groups — intravenous drug users and transgender people.

LGBTI activist Pepe Julian Onziema (Photo courtesy of

LGBTI activist Pepe Julian Onziema (Photo courtesy of

“We have chosen not to participate in today’s CCM KAP representatives elections because of it has been stage-managed and we cannot henceforth be part of a process that continuously seeks to undermine and intimidate us,” said Pepe Julian Onziema, SMUG’s programs and advocacy director.

In a press release, LGBTI rights activists praised Nantulya as “a highly respected and liberal-minded person,” but expressed sadness that he would “go against the principles agreed upon and demand we participate in another sham and flawed election.”

On Jan. 21, Nantulya had ruled invalid a previous election of KAP representatives, which had also selected Mujisha and Natukunda.  At that time, he said the “flawed election” was marred by undeclared conflicts of interest, the MARPS Network process of convening a meeting and electing its own staff, and lack of communication, consultation and feedback from KAP representatives and other interested groups.  After the earlier election results were declared invalid, the eight KAP groups were given time to select their delegates to the Feb. 5 meeting.

After the Feb. 5 meeting ended in protests, Nantulya stated in an email:

Dr. Vinand Nantulya, chairman of the Uganda AIDS Commission

Dr. Vinand Nantulya

“I have noted with concern what is being propagated in social media about the elections. I convened all the key affected groups and we worked out a proper representative procedure for conducting democratic elections for the two representatives on the CCM. There are 8 sub-groups or what I call sub-constituencies. We agreed on a transparent process and procedures, including the venue and date.

“[On Feb. 5] when we met only 6 of the 8 sub-constituencies turned up. Two sub-groups absented themselves.  The 6 groups that turned up resolved to proceed and elect the representatives presided over by Chair CCM, with CCM Secretariat as returning officers. Chair wants to see a well-organized constituency of Key Affected Populations.”

The meeting agreed to have MARPS Network continue as the CCM’s secretariat for KAPs.

LGBT activists said that Nantulya had promised that the CCM itself, not MARPS Network, would organize the new elections as a neutral party. But instead, they said, MARPS Network established the rules for participating in the election, contrary to what was agreed upon.

In addition, they accused Nantulya of imposing a last-minute condition that, to be eligible to participate, organizations should be legally registered in Uganda — a difficult or impossible condition for many organizations because the homophobic Ugandan government does not recognize them as valid.

Supporters of Nantulya denied that he had done so.  That accusation is “an absolute lie,” said Solome Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe, chief executive officer at the Nnabagereka Development Foundation. The CCM “is very well aware that most KAPs aren’t legally registered due to the restrictions with the laws. … No CCM constituency has ever been given any such conditions! So why would he give this condition to the KAPs constituency? ”

Lydia Mungherera: "A peaceful way forward will be mutually agreed." (Photo courtesy of

Lydia Mungherera: “A peaceful way forward will be mutually agreed.” (Photo courtesy of

LGBT activists also said that Nantulya attempted to intimidate them: “Nantulya continues to circulate communication suggesting that we either do business with MARPS Network or no business at all. We refuse to be marginalized,” one activist said.

In response to the protests, Nantulya encouraged Lydia Mungherera, an HIV-positive medical doctor and AIDS activist, to convene a meeting of all concerned parties to discuss what had happened and what to do next.

She reported that grievances were aired in a “very amicable meeting” that included representatives of sex workers, LGBTI people and drug users, as well as both Mujisha and Natukunda from the MARPS Network.  The meeting developed proposals for future action, which were “agreed upon by all sides, but they decided to go back and consult their constituencies [and] get feed back” before adopting them. “A peaceful way forward will be mutually agreed,” Mungherera said.

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One thought on “No LGBT activists win seats on Ugandan anti-HIV panel

  1. Pingback: Finally, an LGBT voice on Uganda’s anti-HIV panel | 76 CRIMES

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