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Uganda Pride

People hold a banner reading "We are Family" while waving rainbow flags as they take part in the Gay Pride parade in Entebbe, Uganda on August 8, 2015. (Photo: Isaac Kasamani/AFP via Getty Images)

Once Again, Ugandan Politicians Stoking Anti-LGBTQ+ Sentiment to Stay in Power

The Ugandan government continues to use anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policies to rally support amid declining popularity.

On May 31, the Uganda police arrested 44 people at an LGBTQ+ shelter in Nansana, Wakiso district, a few kilometers outside the country’s capital of Kampala. The 44 were later charged with a “negligent act likely to spread an infectious disease."

The group was held for four days before being released on bail, which is a right under the law, but for people whose lives are already criminalized, they were met with stringent bail conditions and even getting sureties was an enormous challenge, as it usually is. Thanks to the great organizing by many LGBTQ+ rights defenders in the country, they were released shortly before Uganda resumed lockdown measures in the face of the second wave of Covid-19 that is currently raging.

"Addressing the impact of colonial laws on the population’s consciousness is lifelong work but decriminalization opens a way for that possibility."

This was the second raid targeting a shelter housing LGBTQ+ persons in a little over a year. Stay-at-home orders during the pandemic have disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ Ugandans who face ostracizing by wider society and are often rejected by their families, leading some to seek refuge at shelters provided by non-profit organizations.

So, as the world commenced the celebration and commemoration of Pride Month, the Ugandan authorities were at it again, harassing LGBTQ+ people, detaining them, and subjecting them to inhumane treatment, including “anal tests." The anti-LGBTQ+ policies and actions of the Ugandan government do not seem to be abating, despite what Ugandan MP Fox Odoi-Oywelowo claimed in a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera.

This latest raid and the grave human rights violations in custody are part of the systemic abuse of Ugandans based on their sexual orientation and gender identity sanctioned by the state, upheld by religion and intolerant social attitudes, emanating from colonial law enforcement. Daily violations often go unreported and worse, unpunished, because the political and social system refuses to recognize the humanity of sexual and gender minorities.

Uganda’s penal code inherited from the British colonial rule criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct and punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with up to life in prison. In 2014, the country witnessed heightened intolerance as homosexuality became a rallying point for many political leaders, as the parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act allowing sweeping legalized violence against LGBTQ+ Ugandans.

President Yoweri Museveni signed the law, as he remained bullish in the face of international pressure, at an event with top government officials and journalists were invited to witness. Prior to the signing, he had commissioned “research” by medical professionals who found that homosexuality is a result of “nurture not nature."

The constitutional court later struck the law down because it was passed legal procedures were not followed but declined to address the substantial human rights issues raised in the case filed by activists and concerned citizens.

"The threat of bringing another stringent law against homosexuality has remained any politician’s favorite tool, especially when they are falling out of favor with the population."

Since then, the threat of bringing another stringent law against homosexuality has remained any politician’s favorite tool, especially when they are falling out of favor with the population.

Faced with a sweeping youth movement for change led by opposition leader and musician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known as Bobi Wine, Museveni recently resorted again to anti-LGBTQ+ electioneering scare tactics. In the heat of the campaign in January 2021, Museveni told the nation that “some of these groups are being used by outsiders … homosexuals … who don’t like the stability of Uganda and the independence of Uganda."

Laying the lives of so many Ugandans who are already marginalized and persecuted at the election altar was not only irresponsible but dangerous. But he did it anyway because he is sure that the mix of morality and nationalist rhetoric, even at face value, works as glue in the growing cracks in his political support base.

On May 3, the parliament passed the Sexual Offenses Bill, which was initially meant to prevent and punish sexual violence, further criminalizing homosexuality. The bill was put forward by civil society organizations working to end sexual violence against women who apparently considered the provisions criminalizing same-sex acts to be rational.

The bill punishes any “sexual act between persons of the same gender” with up to 10 years in prison and also further criminalizes sex work and discriminates based on HIV status. If assented to by President Museveni, this law would also punish Ugandans who perform these sexual acts outside Uganda and uphold a death penalty for certain sexual offenses. It would only add more challenges to the safety, economic opportunity and mental health of LBGTQ+ people in these precarious times.

Networks like Sexual Minorities Uganda voiced their concern that this law would “enhance the already homophobic environment in Uganda and consequently lead the way for further violation of rights." The United Nations for its part noted that it would make AIDS prevention that much more difficult, as “many vulnerable groups of people, such as gay men and other men who have sex with men and sex workers, continue to be less likely than the general population to receive the HIV treatment, prevention and care services they need."

Days after the parliament voted on the law, President Museveni, who has been in power for 35 years, was sworn in for another term, after overseeing one of the most violent elections in decades. His government is currently under pressure from some international actors over election-related violence and the arbitrary detention of political opponents. There is a push for accountability for killings of innocent citizens, like the November 2020 shooting of dozens of civilians by security forces in Kampala in response to protests against another arrest of Bobi Wine on the election campaign trail.

"To guarantee the human rights and security of LGBTQ+ Ugandans, the government of Uganda must allow organizations that support them to carry on their work free from harassment and intimidation."

While Odoi-Oywelowo paints a progressive picture of Museveni and makes promises that are not in his control, the president has used anti-gay rhetoric as fuel to keep his supporters appeased for a decade and continues to do so.

Equating being gay to being anti-Uganda throws minority lives in the political arena, putting them up to be debated and dehumanized way past the election cycle. This kind of hate speech from the most powerful office in the country is mimicked and recreated at various levels to the demise of many Ugandan LGBTQ+ lives. Upholding the idea that homosexuality is a Western value or tool, when the West found it entrenched in Africa and went ahead to criminalize it, is to play to populism.

The government of Uganda appears to be intent on appeasing Western backers through claims that the law will not be assented to, while simultaneously weaponizing anti-West and nationalist rhetoric against LGBTQ+ Ugandans. In short, they want to eat their cake and have it too.

The assertion by a member of the ruling party that Uganda will not criminalize homosexuality (again) is meaningless in the face of already existent laws which are used by both private citizens and state actors alike to arbitrarily detain, blackmail and mistreat LGBTQ+ Ugandans.

To guarantee the human rights and security of LGBTQ+ Ugandans, the government of Uganda must allow organizations that support them to carry on their work free from harassment and intimidation and take concrete steps towards repealing laws that erode the rights of LGBTQ+ persons, instead of making empty declarations that a law already passed by parliament will not be assented to by the president.

Addressing the impact of colonial laws on the population’s consciousness is lifelong work but decriminalization opens a way for that possibility. Countries like Botswana and Angola moved in 2019 to expunge these leftover colonial laws that criminalize people of diverse genders or in same-sex relationships. Ugandan leaders should be looking up to them, instead of entrenching the inherited oppression.


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Godiva Akullo

Godiva Akullo

Godiva Akullo is an Advocate of the High Court of Uganda and a feminist organizer with a Bachelor's degree in Law from Makerere University and a Masters in Law from Harvard Law School. They are a lecturer on law and a legal consultant with special interest in sexuality, gender and the law as well as women’s human rights.

Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire is a feminist writer, award-winning blogger and social-political commentator. She is the curator and editor of African Feminism- AF, a platform that documents experiences of African women. 

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