Uganda enacts repressive law putting LGBTQ+ communities at serious risk

Image of LGBTQ community protest in Uganda, on the Africanews YouTube Channel.

May 2023 was a watershed period for Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. On May 2, the Ugandan Parliament passed a bill that left this community under threat of imprisonment and capital punishment. On May 29, President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in office since 1986, enacted a law against homosexuality that human rights defenders and the international community consider extremely repressive.

An official announcement was made on the presidential Twitter account.

An anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment by the head of state

Ugandan lawmakers have often taken a hardline approach towards LGBTQ+ people on the basis of traditional family values, religious beliefs, and cultural grounds. For example, on March 21, 2023, they passed a bill that carried lengthy prison terms for homosexuals. After facing pressure from the international community, Yoweri Museveni called for this law to be reviewed.

However, despite this pressure from the country’s donors, financial backers, and partners, primarily calling for economic sanctions against the enactment of said law, the president remained undeterred. He instead granted approval of the lawmakers’ bill. After all, Yoweri Museveni has never been in favor of Uganda’s LGBTQ+ community. In one speech, he described them using the local term “Ekifire,” which translates to “undead” or “half dead.”

Museveni previously tried to pass an anti-homosexuality bill in 2014 with the backing of American evangelicals. This bill, which Museveni ultimately signed into law, was issued by David Bahati, a member of the country's governing party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). However, on August 1, 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court annulled this law.

Thousands of lives at risk

The enactment of this law now means that LGBTQ+ lives are at serious risk. As is explained in this article by U.S. international broadcaster Voice of America (VOA):

Dans le nouveau texte, les parlementaires ont toutefois maintenu, contre l'avis du chef de l’État, une disposition faisant de ‘l'homosexualité aggravée’ un crime capital, ce qui signifie que les récidivistes pourront être condamnés à mort.

Despite the Head of State’s advice, lawmakers maintained a provision in this law that makes ‘aggravated homosexuality’ a capital offense. This could thereby see serial offenders being sentenced to death
In a BBC Africa report, a gay Ugandan man, Ali (a pseudonym used to hide his identity), explained that their ongoing trauma only adds to this. His birth father and home community don't want anything to do with him anymore. In this interview, he said:

Mon père m'a dit : Je ne veux plus jamais te voir. Tu n'es pas mon enfant. Je ne peux pas avoir un enfant comme toi. (…) En 2020, la police a fait une descente dans le refuge. Nous étions alignés et le public nous appelait pour nous dévisager, se moquer de nous et nous humilier. Les gens nous crachaient dessus. Lorsque nous sommes arrivés en prison, certains détenus connaissaient déjà notre histoire. Ils l'avaient lue dans les journaux. Nous avons dû nier que nous étions homosexuels pour rester en sécurité.

My father told me: I never want to see you again. You’re not my son. I can’t have a son like you. (…) In 2020, police raided the refuge. We were lined up and the public shouted and stared at us to mock and humiliate us. They spat at us. When we were taken to prison, some inmates already knew our story. They had read about it in the newspapers. We had to deny being gay to stay safe.

A source of inspiration for other countries?

The enactment of this law is especially distressing as it could encourage other African countries to take similar measures, as Robert Waffo, an activist at the African branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), explains in this Africanews video report:

According to an ILGA report aired on Tv5Monde, 15 countries (Mali, Burkina-Faso, Niger, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Madagascar, Angola, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, and Benin) have followed South Africa’s lead in decriminalizing homosexuality in their constitution. South Africa is a trailblazer on the continent when it comes to enacting laws that protect members of the LGBTQ+ community. Although five other countries (Ghana, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Eswatini) have partially legalized homosexuality, it is strongly condemned with prison sentences in more than twenty other countries.

In Uganda, restrictions on LGBTQ+ freedoms stem from British colonial-era laws that Ugandan authorities have maintained under Article 145 of their country’s criminal code. According to this article:

L’homosexualité est illégale et ‘toute relation charnelle contre nature est interdite’.

Homosexuality is illegal and ‘any carnal knowledge against the order of nature is prohibited.’

Strong reactions

There have been strong and polarized online reactions from Ugandan citizens. Many homophobic individuals are applauding the president's decision. Jordan, a young Ugandan anti-LGBTQ+ activist, said:

As for the LGBTQ+ community, this is seen as an arbitrary decision that deprives queer people of their rights. Shaun Mellors, a gay South African man, stated the following in response to Museveni:

Worldwide disapproval

As a result of his decision, the Ugandan president has come under fire from the international community and organizations that support Uganda’s LGBTQ+ community. Several statements from international leaders strongly condemned this law upon its enactment.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk:

Le vote de ce texte discriminatoire, probablement le pire au monde en son genre, est un développement profondément troublant.

The approval of this discriminatory law, which is probably the worst of its kind in the world, is a deeply troubling development.

The Amnesty International Director for East and Southern Africa, Tigere Chagutah stated:

Cette loi ambiguë, vaguement formulée, criminalise même ceux qui ‘font la promotion’ de l’homosexualité. Museveni devait urgemment mettre un veto à cette loi consternante. Elle institutionnaliserait la discrimination, la haine et les préjugés » contre la communauté LGBTQ+».

This vaguely worded ambiguous law even criminalizes those who ‘promote’ homosexuality. Museveni should urgently veto this appalling law. It would institutionalize discrimination, hatred, and prejudices against the LGBTQ+ community.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, condemned its enactment on Twitter. He said:

This outpouring of support for Uganda’s LGBTQ+ community could ultimately impact the relationships that Yoweri Museveni would like to maintain with his Western donors and investors.

According to preliminary data published by the Bank of Uganda in April 2022, the country’s public debt stood at UGX 4,714.4 billion (almost USD 20 billion), which is 48.8 percent of the country's GDP. The country’s main financial backers include the United States via USAID, the EU, the United Kingdom, the World Bank, and the IMF. Further alienation of the LGBTQ+ community could potentially put this cash flow at risk.

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