By JOE OPIO
Street News Service
It's often said that the first casualty of war is truth. That time-honored truism has gathered more weight in Uganda over the past week as conservatives and human rights campaigners exchange conflicting theories over the demise of prominent gay activist, David Kisuule Kato.
For the government of Uganda, the timing of Kato's death couldn't have been more unfortunate. Kato was killed on January 26, a national holiday perennially reserved to commemorate the ascent to power of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.
Kato was the face of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an advocacy group actively campaigning against the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
His death provided the kind of press the NRM would have happily done without as the government had to share the following day's headlines with the story of Kato's murder.
And it's a story that has proved enduring ever since, forcing the government on the defensive.
The international press, foreign governments and gay rights activists have cast Kato's death as the inevitable result of the prevailing climate of homophobia in Uganda, a charge the government refutes.
Kale Kayihura, the Inspector General of Police, insists that Kato's murder had nothing to do with his activism, adding that he was just a victim of a private disagreement.
"The circumstances surrounding this incident have no indication regarding Kato's campaign against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill before Parliament," Kayihura said days after the murder became public.
Human rights activists, though, beg to differ. They maintain that it's no coincidence that Kato got killed a mere month after his face appeared in a local tabloid that published pictures and addresses of Uganda's "Top 100 Homosexuals" under the screaming front-page headline, "Hang Them!"
In a press release soon after the police statement, the activists wrote: "The Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and the entire Ugandan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Community stand together to condemn the killing of David Kato and call for the Ugandan Government, Civil Society, and Local Communities to protect sexual minorities across Uganda. David had been receiving death threats since his face was put on the front page of Rolling Stone Magazine [no connection to the music magazine of the same name], which called for his death and the death of all homosexuals."
Kato's lawyer claims that the activist had feared for his safety prior to his death, even alerting police. But the government and conservatives believe that by condemning Kato's murder as homophobia-driven, the local gay rights movement and its foreign supporters are intent on pushing their agenda by converting a victim of random violence into a martyr.
The heated war of words between the conservatives and human rights activists has cooled down a notch since police arrested Enock Nsubuga, who confessed to perpetrating the murder.
But the two sides continue to exchange harsh rhetoric.
"The killing was an act of thuggery," Information and National Guidance Minister Kabakumba Masiko stated at a recent press conference. "It was not organized because of what he was. Much as homosexuality is prohibited by the Constitution, his death was a (private) mission gone bad. The government is doing whatever it takes to ensure that those who killed Kato are brought to book."
Val Kalende, the Chairperson of the Board at Freedom and Roam Uganda however asserts that the government can't wash its hands clean of its culpability.
"David's death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S. evangelicals in 2009. The Ugandan Government and the so-called U.S. evangelicals must take responsibility for David's blood!"
But who exactly is telling the truth?
Gay activists remain bitter that soon after Kato's death, local police tried to dismiss the murder as just the latest in a spate of crimes orchestrated by iron bar wielding thugs.
The police maintain that their initial position was a logical assumption, given that Kato was a resident of the same Mukono area which has seen over a dozen people clobbered to death using iron bars in the last two months.
The police have since changed their stand, especially after arresting Nsubuga, an ex-convict.
Nsubuga admitted guilt over Kato's murder in an extra-judicial statement he recorded at Mukono magistrate's court.
The 22-year-old Nsubuga revealed that he killed Kato for enticing him into homosexual practices with material and financial promises that never materialized.
"The suspect was working in Kato's garden at the time of the activist's death," revealed police chief Kayihura. "According to the suspect, Kato, 46, promised to pay him money for having sex with him. But Kato never fulfilled his promise. The suspect then took a hammer from the bathroom and fatally beat Kato. The attack was not a hate crime, as has been widely reported, but rather stemmed primarily from the suspect's desire to get money from Kato."
Kayihura nevertheless cautioned the public and anti-homosexuality pastors against being insensitive to the gay community in the country. "You must be sensitive. You should stop engaging in extremist campaigns that can be interpreted differently."
If the police had hoped that Nsubuga's confession would put the matter to rest, they must have been monumentally disappointed.
Gay rights activists have questioned the veracity of Nsubuga's confession, stating that, if anything, the latter's claims are designed to further portray gay people in an unflattering light.
"Nsubuga's reasons for murdering Kato depict Kato as a deceitful human being," a SMUG official said. "He's also portrayed as someone who used promises to make Nsubuga do things the latter didn't want to do. This is consistent with messages from homophobes who have accused the gay rights movement of using gifts and money to entrap and entice young students into homosexuality. This is wrong. It's also a calculated attempt to smear Kato's name even in death and to further depict the gay rights movement in Uganda in negative light. By showing that Nsubuga murdered Kato because of lies, the police might even be trying to send out a message that all gay relationships are bound to end this way; in cold-blooded murder."
Some activists have gone on to express fear that Nsubuga might just be a fall guy, as the government strives to deflect the international scrutiny that could fall upon Uganda were Kato's death to be proven to have been motivated by bias toward gays.
It's an understandable, if not verifiable suspicion, seeing as Uganda's sodomy laws that punish homosexual acts by 14 years to life in prison and the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill that seeks the death penalty have already foisted an unforgiving international spotlight upon this landlocked East African nation of 30 million inhabitants.