Uganda’s Anti-LGBTIQ law; a Country on Dangerous Trajectory

The World Bank has announced it will halt new loans to Uganda over the harmful anti-LGBTIQ law. On 26 May, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni assented to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023, which criminalises engagement in and promotion of same-sex relations in Uganda. It is the second time in his long 37 years of rule that the president has signed even a more repugnant law into force.

Activists in Uganda have been pushing for responses to move the government, which has been entirely behind the law and its religious fundamentalist backers, to recede it. Two petitions have already been filed in courts challenging the law, including one that was joined by mothers of queer Ugandans who wrote an open letter to the president in March. 

In 2014, Uganda passed a previous anti-homosexuality law but was struck down by the constitutional court on procedural failures. The British introduced the criminalisation of same-sex relations under their colonisation project that brought this country into being. Intolerance seed planted along with other ways colonised robbed us. To date, Uganda is among more than 30 African countries where homosexuality is criminalised under the inherited penal codes or polished-up versions.

The new law in Uganda slaps a life imprisonment sentence on anyone convicted of committing same-sex acts, the death penalty for so-called aggravated cases, which include many grounds, including having same-sex with a child, being in a position of authority, being a parent or where someone is infected with a life-long illness including HIV.

The legislation also criminalises “attempts to commit homosexuality” with a maximum of ten-year imprisonment, and the offence of “promotion of homosexuality” attracts 20 years imprisonment.  Promoting homosexuality, among others, includes facilitating “activities that encourage homosexuality, leasing premises, operating an organisation that promotes homosexuality” and “knowingly allowing any premises to be used for purposes of homosexuality.” The law also requires citizens with “reasonable suspicious that a person has committed or intends to commit” to report to the police, failure upon which can lead to 5-year imprisonment.

The law has attracted outcry among LGBTIQ communities, many of whom the debate of this law had already driven out of their homes and face death threats and attacks for merely existing.

Queer rights organisations in Uganda have registered a sharp increase in attacks and evictions as many people live in fear. At least nine people have been charged under Uganda’s repressive Act in a June report. The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) reported a wave of violence against LGBTIQ people, with more than 69% of people surveyed reporting: “some form of negative treatment or action targeting individuals because of their presumed Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (SOGIE)”. 

“Two month after, evictions have overtaken violence as the main violation,” HRAPF says. “From 1st to 31st July 2023, 84 cases were handled across the legal aid network, with 53 of these containing actions that specifically targeted people for negative treatment on the basis of their sexuality, affecting a total of 67 persons.This represents 63.1% of all cases handled.

Impact on Rule of Law

This law utterly erodes people’s right to privacy and creates a tier of citizens for whom the Constitution’s protections on non-discrimination and the right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment are inapplicable.  The law and the atmosphere it has bred are a danger to the safety, lives and humanity of queer Ugandans. It is hate in its purest form, and can only serve to advance a society that legalises erasure and extermination of people based on who they are. 

Here we see the State systemically targeting an already socially marginalised community and further outsources and advancing vigilantism and policing of private lives. The results will be devastating unless the law is rolled back and safeguards are put in place to protect the queer community in Uganda. This is a collective failure to uphold our constitution and surrender to powerful religious fundamentalists that informed the crafting of the law and the continued promotion of hate speech in the country.

This law strips LGBTIQ persons of their humanity, denying them safety, housing, education and healthcare. In a country where AIDS is still an epidemic with high incidence rates among men who have sex with men, trans women, and sex workers, this law criminalises healthcare provision and defeats the long struggle to end HIV/AIDS. Ahead of the World Bank announcement, the Ministry of Health in Uganda stated, ‘ The constitution recognises that health is a fundamental right and access to health services for all. They urged all health workers to provide with no discrimination or stigma based on any reason, including sexual orientation. But the law has already prevented members of the community from going to clinics where they fear they could face abuse and be reported.

The provisions on promoting homosexuality under this law have had far-reaching consequences for health workers. They still pose a threat to media and rights defenders as it labels anyone who attempts to protect the rights of queer Ugandans a criminal. The criminalisation of opinion and work puts the safety of all of us in jeopardy.  In a country where freedom of expression is already under threat and political critics are tortured, jailed and harmed, this law is an additional tool for the state to use. Anyone working to advance better governance in this politically fragile environment must be concerned because this is an added tool.

LGBTIQ people were in Uganda before Uganda existed, and they will continue to exist.  The historic oppression that relegates at personal and systemic level to a life that is deemed ‘violatable” without consequences must be faced, we must end it. Now more than ever, pay attention to well-orchestrated transnational religious and anti-rights networks from Western countries, emboldening influential people and officials in our countries to fan the flames and ensure fundamental politicisation of  LGBTIQ African lives.

Many African communities have always and still exist with gender diversity. Recently, we have seen countries like Angola, Cape Verde, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Lesotho, Rwanda, and Botswana move to decriminalise these colonial laws despite the backlash globally and regionally. 

Uganda can choose a different path, one of building social cohesion and not arming the majority against marginalised communities.

Often such decisions by institutions like the World Bank are labelled imperialist, but we all know these institutions don’t serve our long term interest – financial freedom. But to claim imperialism when lives have been put at stake is a double standard. 

Doing good by all of the citizens of this continent is what is necessary, particularly those whom colonialism taught us to hate and deny existence. The route of intolerance might seem easy, but bringing back a scarred nation from the brink of destroying a part of its population, history tells us, is much harder. We must de-escalate the drummed-up collective fear of others and remove this harmful law urgently; for the dignity of our queer citizens. If we are to put up a real fight against imperialism, we must first learn from our history and look to the humanity of those most oppressed among us. We shouldn’t have to suffer first or be forced to look inward just because we want to uphold colonial religious bigotry and hate. We must work to reverse the dangerous trajectory Uganda has embarked on at a time of economic strife which affects further the very marginalised groups. 

Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire is a trained journalist, award-winning blogger, pan-African feminist and socio-political commentator. She has expertise in media, human rights, gender, peace and conflict issues, feminist liberation movements. She received the Anna Guèye 2018 award for digital democracy, justice and equality by Africtivistes. She is the co-editor of a book: Challenging Patriarchy: The Role of Patriarchy in the Roll-Back of Democracy. Rosebell has expertise in human rights, gender, peace and conflict issues. Her writing appears in international media like The Guardian, Al Jazeera and Quartz. Rosebell was recently recognized by Avance Media as one of the100 Most Influential Women in Africa for 2021 edition.

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