Introduction: The foreign and national influences behind Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

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On 2 May last year, the Parliament of Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA). After the President’s signing on the 26 May, it came into force four days later. The law received worldwide attention and condemnation, given its particularly harsh nature: it prescribes life imprisonment for the offence of homosexuality, and the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’, which includes ‘serial offenders’, or sex in a position of authority or through intimidation. The ‘promotion’ of homosexuality gets up to 20 years.

A number of reports have already shown the negative impact of the law on the ground. It has been shown, for example, how since the bill was first discussed in parliament, LGBTQ persons have experienced an escalation of violence and discrimination. It has also been shown that the law has a detrimental effect on the protection of rights in general. At the moment, a number of petitioners are challenging the law at Uganda’s constitutional court – which began its hearings in December 2023.

In a series of blog posts, I will analyze a number of foreign influences behind this law. In a first blog post [click on the link to read], I will discover the role of the American Religious Right in the law and the politics around it. In this post, particular attention will be given to the  ‘African Inter-Parliamentary Conference on Family Values and Sovereignty’, held in Entebbe in March 2023, which brought together MPs from across the continent, and which aimed to scale up the impact of the law across the continent. It will for example rely on previously unreleased recordings from the conference.

In a second post [click on the link to read], I will pay attention to an actor which so far has not been mentioned in the public discussions around the law, but which is very much has been present in private discussions around it, namely Russia. Its role in the legislation has been emphasized by a wide range of actors in the country – ranging from activists to diplomats and officials. The post will analyse the extent to which this is possible – or not.

In a third and last post [click on the link to read], I will discuss the reaction of the ‘West’, and particularly international donors, to the law: what have been the politics around their (in)action?

Before we start, a number of caveats are necessary: foreign influences cannot be seen as the only influence, and its influence should not be overstated. The next section therefore discusses the national dynamics around the law.  

The internal dynamics behind the law.

It should be emphasized that AHA serves important national political goals. I will not discuss these in detail here, but it is important to highlight that the law serves important political goals for MPs. There generally is a low trust in MPs – which are seen as toothless – and grandstanding on an issue like this allows them to gain political capital. This for example led to an escalation of the anti-gay rhetoric by the MPs, who seemed to be outdoing themselves to show their anti-gay sentiments. MP Sarah Opendi, one of the thriving forced behind the law, called for an amendment to the law calling for the castration of gays in the parliamentary debate. Speaker Anita Among, told MPs before the vote: “This is the time you are going to show us if you are a homo or not,” she said.  

At the same time, on an institutional level, the law allowed the Ugandan parliament to ‘talk back’. The Ugandan parliament doesn’t generally hold much power – one piece described the parliament asanother pawn of the president” – and AHA allowed them to talk back to the executive branch.  As I have shown elsewhere, President Museveni has an ambiguous position on the law: he has been key to resisting attempts to revise the anti-gay law – knowing the damage the law has on the country’s reputation and (international) finances – but at the same time also needs to make sure to appease his Ugandan constituency.

This brings us to next point, namely that the law is widely popular in Ugandan society. A 2022 Afrobarometer survey confirms these finding, showing how 94% would ‘somewhat dislike’ or ‘strongly dislike’ having a homosexual neighbor. A 2015 survey showed how 94% would “report relatives – including their siblings and children – as well as close friends and co-workers to the police if they discovered that they were in same-sex relationships”. Among 37 African countries surveyed in 2021/2022, Uganda ranks last in acceptance of sexual difference. In these circumstances, foreign anti-gay influence finds fertile ground. One activists summarized this as: “At this point, not much pushing is needed. Ugandans are very homophobic; the seeds were already planted; not much water is needed. “

The hidden nature of this influence

This series of blog posts aims to understand what this foreign influence entails. A crucial element is that this influence happens largely under the radar. The reason for this is the previous anti-gay legislation in Uganda, and the dynamics around it. In 2009 the ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ was introduced in the Ugandan parliament, a bill which  became worldwide known as the ‘kill the gays’ bill, as it included the death sentence for ‘aggravated homosexuality’. The bill – which was passed into law in 2014, but without the death sentence – received world-wide criticism and pressure, which for example included a series of donor cuts.

There also was specific attention, and criticism, on the role of American Evangelicals, with regards to their role in the preparation of the law. This led to a lot of media attention, such as the documentary ‘God Loves Uganda’, features in US tv-shows, or a whole range of press articles and investigations. Perhaps most importantly, it also led to a court case against the American Pastor Scott Lively in the United States on charges of crimes against humanity, for his role in the law.

Because of all this, foreigners who openly associate themselves with Uganda’s anti-gay bill entail major risks, both reputational and judicial. As one Ugandan official summarized this to me: “The American Evangelicals have learned their lesson: some of them were sued in the US, and have paid a high price.”

As a result, this means foreign involvement in the anti-gay dynamics – by American Evangelicals or others – happens as hidden as possible. To give one example: In the backlash to the 2009-2014 legislation, the American organization the Family, the organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast, for example tried to distance itself from its Uganda affiliate. This didn’t mean that their support stopped, but that they are doing so in a much more hidden fashion – for example by bringing over key-figures to the United States.   

What’s next

In the next series of blog posts, the largely hidden nature of influence will be discussed. A first post will be shown for the American organisation Family Watch International and its role in the law. A second post will discuss the role of Russia, and will try to understand whether the role of Russia is effectively possible, or is only a – widely shared – rumor among those following the law. The series will be finalized by a discussion on how the ‘West’, and particularly international donors, reacted to the bill.

Kristof Titeca is Professor of Development Studies at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His latest book is ‘Nasser Road. Political Posters from Uganda’. Follow him on X at @KristofTiteca

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