Kristof Titeca

Unpacking the geopolitics of Uganda’s anti-gay bill

As the Church rages against Canterbury, Museveni’s authoritarian regime might be the last guarantor of sexual minority rights.

On 1 March, 2023 the Ugandan parliament granted opposition MP, Mr Asuman Basalirwa, leave to introduce the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023. This draft bill prescribes ten years of imprisonment for persons who will be found guilty of homosexuality, aggravated homosexuality, and persons who attempt to commit homosexuality. It also proposes a two-year jail term for those aiding and abetting homosexuality; and a five-year sentence for those promoting homosexuality. Landlords who rent property to homosexuals face a year in jail. Suspected Ugandan homosexuals living abroad could be extradited to stand trial in Uganda.

It is the latest peak of an anti-gay campaign in the country, which seems much more intense than previous episodes. Whereas in the past, the Ugandan government – and President Museveni in particular – has managed to manoeuvre himself around this issue, he has much less space today. In this piece, I first lay out the circumstances in which the current bill came about; after which I explain how the political and social context is different from the previous attempts to pass it. More concretely, I aim to show how President’s Museveni changing relations with the West, and his changing power base, has created a significantly different situation.

A rising storm

The current campaign properly began in August 2022, when Uganda’s NGO Bureau banned Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), one of the country’s most prominent LGBTI organisations, for not having been officially registered. A few months after this, in November 2022, the Deputy Speaker of the Ugandan parliament raised the issue at the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific States)-EU joint parliamentary assembly. The Deputy Speaker expressed his concerns about what he considered the persistent calls by the EU to adopt homosexuality, and how this could not be seen as a human rights issue. He repeated this more strongly in January 2023 when he told the Ugandan parliament of the “painful, grueling stories” he had heard, and how many kids and families were “dying in silence” from the “psychological damage of forced recruitment to homosexuality”.

And indeed, at the center of the current wave of anti-gay sentiments is what is perceived to be the ‘promotion and recruitment’ of the LBGT community -something for which the West is held responsible – and how children are targeted in this context.

In January, the NGO Bureau became involved: a leaked January 2023 report showed how the bureau had asked the government to ‘comprehensively criminalize’ LGBT activities, as well as a clear profiling of those involved in promoting it. Activist Frank Mugisha called the report a “witch-hunt”, and ‘hit-list’.

In February, the issue snowballed on social media. A striking example was a moral panic around rainbows, which were seen as the symbol of LGBTI recruitment: in the words of Uganda’s National Parents Association, rainbow colors were ‘satanic’, signalling an ‘invasion of homosexuality through manipulation of children’s minds’. Shoes with rainbows were condemned on social media; and a freshly painted rainbow in a children’s park – which was at the center of this media storm – was eventually removed.

Second, the religious communities became involved in the issue, and strongly amplified widespread anxieties. An important trigger was the 10 February announcement by the Ugandan Anglican Archbishop, Stephen Kaziimba, declaring his intention to break links with the Church of England. This followed the latter’s decision to allow priests to bless same-sex marriages and civil partnerships. with Uganda’s archbishop stating that the ‘church is under attack’.

“We call on them to have the integrity to form their own Canterbury Communion because what they believe is not Anglicanism and it is not the faith once delivered to the saints. If they want to take their whole church into the belly of a whale, they are free to do that; we are, after all, autonomous Anglican Provinces. They are not free to drag the whole Anglican Communion with them. The Anglican Communion is not an extension of the Church of England, the Church of England has departed from the Anglican faith and are now false teachers,” Kaziimba said.

The Ugandan Church is not alone in taking this position: 12 archbishops aligned with the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), representing Anglicans in Asia, Latin America and Africa (for the latter respectively, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan and Congo) – threaten to break away from the Church of England in a letter signed on the 20th of February 2023.

Things didn’t stop there. On 15 February 2023, the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) issued a statement, expressing concern about the increasing promotion of the LGBTI agenda in the country, and asking for a new and stringent law to address this. Addressing President Museveni directly, Archbishop Kaziimba implored “that the [Anti-Homosexuality Act] you signed previously against homosexuality should be revisited and signed again”. On Ash Wednesday (22 February), clerics around the country stringently condemned homosexuality. The assistant Bishop of Kampala Diocese for example, described it as a ‘global agenda to destroy the young generation’.

Soon after, the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council called on all Muslims to hold peaceful demonstrations after the Friday sermon to express their disagreement with homosexuality,  a vice which has “reared its ugly head targeting, especially young people”. The demonstrations were cancelled at the last minute, but still went ahead in some locations.

Popular singer, Jose Chameleon was forced to apologise for having embraced and kissed (on the cheek, that is) his brother – fellow singer Weasel – at a recent concert. It led to an uproar on social media after influential pastor Martin Ssempa demanded that Chameleon apologize, finding the kissing morally offensive, and asking the police to investigate.

Factors nuancing the current context

What does all of the above mean for passage of the anti-LGBTI law, and the situation of LGBTI people in Uganda?

To begin with, two disclaimers should be made, to nuance the current dynamic.

First, for all the anti-gay rhetoric present in Uganda, there has never been a successful prosecution of consensual same-sex activity in post-colonial Uganda – this, according to activists, analysts and journalists. The existing legislation which criminalizes same-sex relations under the Penal Code Act of 1950 remains largely on paper. It is the same story in the other former British colonies in East Africa. That said, LBGTI people are routinely harassed: there have been numerous acts of violence, and numerous arrests. The current wave of anti-gay rhetoric means these dynamics are further amplified: there have been raids on LGBT-friendly bars and shelters, leading to numerous arrests. The Ugandan gay community has also witnessed the return of forced anal examinations (a form of cruel and degrading treatment, which could constitute torture). There have been attacks and protests on those accused of promoting homosexuality, most recently, the attack on a secondary school teacher in Jinja by parents who accused her of promoting lesbianism. Social media – and particularly TikTok – have played an increasing role in this harassment.

Second, it is worth noting that the President has been key to resisting attempts to revise anti-gay law in Uganda.  Notwithstanding his central role in escalating authoritarianism in the country, he has always seen the ‘bigger picture’ in the anti-gay law.

As a diplomat put it recently: “The President’s point to us has always been: homosexuality existed before colonization, it’s there, these people are here. But: it is against the Bible and is unnatural. Therefore: keep these things private. As long as they don’t bother anyone, that’s fine. But don’t recruit or promote, because that’s not allowed.” He echoed similar points in public interviews. In 2012, Museveni said on BBC’s Hard Talk how “homosexuals in small numbers have always existed in our part of black Africa … They were never prosecuted. They were never discriminated.”

With an economy still heavily dependent on foreign aid, and keen to promote itself as an attractive destination for FDI, Museveni is well aware of the damage official homophobia can do to Uganda’s economy, not least the experience of 2014 when Western governments cut aid worth $100 million  in retaliation to the 2014 anti-gay law.

It is loudly whispered that after he had signed the anti-gay law in 2014, his behind-the-scenes manouevring was central behind the cancellation of the law by the constitutional court. The damage to business and foreign aid – central to his domestic patronage system – was simply unsustainable. When parliament introduced the Sexual Offences bill in 2021 it contained similar elements to the anti-gay bill. Not unsurprisingly, he refused to sign the bill.  Similarly, it is rumoured that during the most recent events, a phone call was made by the president to the Speakers of parliament to ‘calm things down’.

The question is whether the president’s intervention is still possible in the current political context, which has taken its own momentum, and which is substantially different from 2013/2014?

Who holds the cards this time around?

First, there’s the role of activists. In 2013/2014, there was a sizeable human rights community, which played a crucial role in contesting the anti-gay bill. In the last decade, there has been a sustained campaign to intimidate, suspend or shut down civil society organizations working on these issues – the exile of prominent human rights lawyer Nicolas Opiyo, who played a crucial role in defending the rights of the LGBT community, being the most prominent example. Similarly, foreign aid in support of CSOs in the field of democracy and human rights has been targeted by the government, such as the multi-donor pool fund, the Democratic Governance Facility, suspended soon after the 2021 election.

These reversals have hit the LGBT community hard: organizations have been deregistered, and many activists have left the country. The remaining few have borne the brunt of escalating hostility.

Second, there is an entrenched suspicion among the wider Ugandan political elite – and among his supporters  – of the president’s role, and his attempts to block the BillA number of recent statements by high-level government officials, such as the former Speaker of parliament, strongly suggested this. This was also illustrated in the drama around the 2014 bill: it was introduced right before the Christmas break, without being scheduled on the Order Paper – dummying both the ruling party and Western embassies, and much to the chagrin of the former prime minister who led the government’s troops in parliament.

The current Bill has followed a similar path: it was introduced at a moment when the President was not in the country – he was flying to South Africa – and hence could not intervene. Moreover, the Speaker had initially indicated that the bill would be introduced the ‘next day’; it was nevertheless moved on the day itself – again pre-empting any attempts to block it.

Crucially, the bill was introduced by a Muslim member of the opposition, Asuman Basalirwa. He cannot be whipped by the ruling party. Yet, by being close to the Speaker, he’s in a position to push it through. Moreover, as a Muslim, he lends the bill a crucial religious consensus. Tellingly, when national newspaper the Daily Monitor reached out to a range of government representatives for a reaction to the bill, none of them was able to give a comment – indicating that the government had once again been outmanoeuvred as they awaited instructions from the President.

Third, there’s the intensity of the current wave of anti-gay sentiments, which is particularly profound. Many rumors are floating around as to why and by whom it’s being whipped up: some claim it’s a distraction from a series of corruption scandals the government has been embroiled in. Yet, given the consistent presence of these scandals, this does not seem very likely. Others claim it’s a targeted attempt by the NGO Bureau to justify its existence – given the plans to abolish the Bureau as a semi-autonomous entity, and integrate it into the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Observers emphasize the role of the First Lady, Janet Museveni, in the unfolding saga. A devout Christian – she has, for example, repeatedly testified that God chose President Museveni to lead the country – she holds deeply conservative views. An evangelical Christian unafraid of bringing her faith into the political sphere, she was at one point Minister of Karamoja, which she deemed in need of a “spiritual re-awakening”. She has previously argued that there is “a new global agenda to deliberately promote immorality”, while speaking out against the promotion of condom use in schools. It wouldn’t be the first time the interests in Uganda’s First Family appear to run at cross-purposes.

Others claim there’s been a recent influx of funds from the American Christian Right, fuelling these renewed efforts. And indeed, the influence of US evangelicals on the 2013 anti-gay bill is widely known: from 2009 onwards, a number of American conservative evangelicals – centred around Scott Lively – travelled to Uganda, lobbying religious figures such as Pastor Martin Ssempa, or the sponsor of the 2014 Bill, David Bahati.

While the influence of US evangelicals continues to be apparent, for example, in Ugandan anti-abortion clinics, suspicions of their involvement in the current Bill remain unproven. Whatever the case, a number of actors are convinced that it is ‘new money flowing in that got people riled up.’  Others even argue that the current campaign is fuelled by Russia to widen the rift between the West and Uganda. Tweets of the Russian embassy in Kenya do suggest such a line, but are unproven.

Whatever the case, Western actors are in a difficult position. Given the contentious nature of the issue in Europe and the US, they’re under pressure from their constituencies to take action. Yet, public action on the issue would only add to suspicions that an LGBT agenda is being imposed by the West. And, the Western diplomatic community wants to avoid advancing the perception that the issue is a proxy of ‘Western culture wars’. Misguided blanket donor pressure, which does not take into account internal political dynamics – would only whip up populist political sentiments.

While this time around there are discussions among Western embassies on what line to take, there is a consensus to refrain from public action or statements, acknowledging the potential damage such a line could have in a highly flammable situation.

Related to this – and markedly different from 2013/2014 – is Museveni’s increased hostility towards the West. The latter, and its foreign aid in particular, is now increasingly seen as a threat.

This started with the suspension of the Democratic Governance Facility, a multi-donor pool fund for governance and democracy activities, after the 2021 Elections. Although the fund financed both NGOs and government entities, the president accused the entity of inciting violence, wanting to overthrow the government, and financing armed resistance. Although the Fund was – after long delays and negotiations – reopened for a few months, the hostility remained. Subsequently, the government has flatly rejected Western aid in some instances and refused to honour its part in the co-financing of development projects financed by the West, through which it has lost out on important projects (such as a multi-million railroad).  That all of this is happening during a particularly harsh economic downturn, indicates the government’s willingness to go quite far in its refusal to engage with the West.

In the context of the current anti-gay bill, and the strong political and social pressure around it, the question is how much President Museveni still values (the potential loss of) foreign aid. This is a profound difference from 2013/2014, when the contribution of foreign aid was perceived very differently.

Also, other key political actors have been particularly outspoken against the West, in the context of the anti-gay bill. On the morning of the introduction of the Bill, Anita Among, the Speaker said: “We want to appreciate our promoters of homosexuality for the socio-economic development they have brought to the country, …but we don’t appreciate the money that they are bringing to destroy our culture. We don’t need their money; we need our cultures.”

Equally important for Museveni is that there’s been a limited international reaction to recent governance transgressions, such as the killings of at least 54 protestors in November 2020, or the ongoing campaign of abductions and torture of opposition sympathizers. In doing so, a message is sent by the West, namely that it is willing to pay a high price to retain its longstanding ally. This is a profound shift in the balance of power: in the past, Museveni could expect bracing sanctions for governance transgressions. With the anti-gay bill, Museveni appears to be testing the limits of this diplomatic poker game.

Will Museveni’s strategy hold?

In response to pleas by the Church of Uganda, President Museveni recently vowed: "Uganda will not embrace homosexuality and the West should stop seeking to impose its views to compel dissenting countries to normalize deviations (…) These Europeans are not normal, they don’t listen. We have been telling them ‘please, this problem of homosexuality is not something that you should normalise and celebrate."

A Kampala journalist’s deft reading of the subtext was: “‘Stick with me, and I’ll resist those foreign elements promoting the gay agenda’. He’s using this to make sure that the church doesn’t criticize him.” Indeed, in the context of escalating and continued human rights abuses by the security forces – in particular torture and abductions – it’s vital for him to keep the Church on board.

But Museveni’s position is more fragile than it was ten years ago. Both the use of force and the use of patronage – two central pillars of his reduced legitimacy – have strongly increased. His election victory margin in 2021 was slightly reduced from 2016, but the level of election fraud was unprecedented – the reason for his reduced legitimacy. A narrowed political legitimacy gives him little space to push back against populist (and popular) anti-gay rhetoric. It also means that moderating voices in this debate have less of his protection: in 2014, a range of MPs contested the anti-gay bill, such as his former legal counsel Fox Odoi-Oywelowo. In the current climate, this has become close to impossible. All of this raises the question of whether it is still in Museveni’s interest to resist the anti-gay crusade.

What’s happening now?

The ongoing parliamentary debate is following similar lines. On 7 March, the Bill was tabled in parliament.  First, the government tried but failed, to delay the bill. The bill was not accompanied by the mandatory Finance Minister’s certificate that provides an assessment of its financial implications. The government side asked for and was denied, an extra 60 days to prepare the certificate. Under pressure from the Speaker, this was reduced to two days. In a difficult position, Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija, assured the House that he would have the certificate ready. The sense of urgency was underlined by Ms Among, the Speaker: “The fight we are on is a moral fight, a fight to protect our sovereignty and families.” On the 9th of March, the Speaker referred the Bill to the Legal & Parliamentary Affairs Committee for scrutiny – a first step in an accelerated proposal to pass it into law.

Kristof Titeca is an associate professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. He works on governance and conflict in Uganda and Congo. His latest book is Rebel Lives. Photographs from inside the Lord’s Resistance Army.

This article was first published by African Arguments.