Yoweri Museveni

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 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?

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