News | Gender Relations - East Africa Opposing Museveni’s Moral Panic

Uganda’s shocking “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” may have been delayed, but the fight is far from over

Ugandan LGBTI refugees pose for a photograph in a protection section of the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, 14 October 2018. They fled Uganda after the first “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” was passed in 2014. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community around the world breathed a sigh of relief late last month when Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni declined to sign into law the so-called “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” that had been passed by an overwhelming majority in Uganda’s parliament one month prior. The bill, which would impose lifetime imprisonment on anyone convicted of engaging in gay sex and even threatens the death penalty for those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality”, sparked an outcry around the world. Its temporary delay gave LGBTI people and their allies time to regroup and plan next steps.

The author of this commentary is a Ugandan civil rights activist who chooses to remain anonymous in the interests of ensuring her personal safety.

Many observers in Uganda believe that Museveni rejected the law because of the significant external pressure exerted by Western governments that fund the Ugandan state and provide other forms of aid and foreign direct investment. Essentially, they let him know that signing the bill into law would not be good for business and could even cost him crucial foreign funds.

Another factor that may have influenced the president is the overt debunking by other African leaders of his claims that homosexuality was alien to Africa before being imported from abroad. The Economic Freedom Fighters, a South African political party led by Julius Malema, picketed the Ugandan Embassy in Pretoria to protest the bill, and Malema opined that the real motivation behind the law was for the Ugandan president to use it against his political opponents. Closer to home, Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s statement that “homosexuality is not a problem in Rwanda” and his open invitation to high-profile LGBTI figures such as Ellen DeGeneres to visit Rwanda stood in stark contrast to the atmosphere in Uganda.

Rehabilitating Discredited Tactics

Of course, Museveni did not acknowledge that his choice was motivated by external pressure, but rather credited his own wisdom as an experienced statesman. According to his senior press secretary Sandor Lyle Walusimbi, the president had “no objections to the punishments, but [would like] the issue of the rehabilitation of the persons who have in the past been engaged in homosexuality, but would like to live normal lives again [reviewed and modified] before he can sign it into law”.

This claim can be interpreted as a face-saving measure for the benefit of the Ugandan electorate, which had been whipped into a moral panic in the months leading up the bill’s passage. Walusimbi’s measured backpedalling portrayed the president as tough and in charge, while at the same time nourishing hopes that the bill’s delay was only temporary.

Yet some political analysts — conspiracy theorists, if you like — opine that this was the government’s plan all along. One tweeted: “Y’all seem to have forgotten the ‘ping-pong’ politics at play. Pass a clean bill, but tactfully and deliberately add harsh clauses. The President with the knowledge of this will not assent to it, sends it back with earmarked clauses for adjustments. Shelved for another decade.”

There may be some validity to this claim. After all, the bill already provides for “rehabilitation of a homosexual”. What more does the president want reconsidered and added? Moreover, how is this even good? In essence, “rehabilitation of a homosexual” entails turning them into who they are not — subjecting the person to a barrage of human rights violations and abuses of civil liberties. Might Museveni’s move represent a clandestine attempt to legalize and normalize conversion therapy in Uganda, a damaging procedure that scientists have long proven to be ineffective?

It would be foolhardy for human rights activists to think that the president not signing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is the end of the story.

It took about ten years after the Constitutional Court nullified the last Anti-Homosexuality Act (passed in 2009 and signed into law in 2014) for the current bill to re-surface. Back then, many thought nullification was the end of the story. Consequently, when the process to enact a new anti-homosexuality law began again in 2023, human rights activists in Uganda were caught off-guard.

The manner in which the bill was rushed through parliament — both in March and now a second time, with parliament passing it again on 2 May largely unchanged — has left many in Uganda befuddled. The swift pace lends credit to the view that the president wants it in place in time for the 2026 presidential and parliamentary election campaigns. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the Ugandan Constitutional Court unanimously nullified the last version of the act, it did so only on procedural grounds — parliament passed the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill without a quorum. The court did not rule on the merits and demerits of the act’s actual substance, emboldening homophobes to try again, thinking they can “win” on the merit of persecuting homosexuals.

The president has 30 days from the date the bill is presented to him to either sign it into law or return it to parliament. The bill is in limbo once again, with attention back on the president. Should he sign it into law, legal teams in Uganda have already indicated that they will challenge the act in court. This means that whatever the president does will lead to the bill being in a state of limbo for some time — if he signs it into law and it is challenged in court, or if he returns it to parliament.

Leaving the bill in limbo may be to the advantage of the ruling party. After all, as long as it is in limbo it remains a live issue, and could be useful to divert attention from other problematic legislation or accusations of corruption and malfeasance. As per Malema’s observation, a revival of the bill may be driven by the fact that the regime’s gag laws are no longer in place, and it needs another way to silence activists and political opponents.

In March 2020, the Constitutional Court annulled the Public Management Order Act, which the regime used to infringe on the freedoms of political parties and non-state actors and restrict them from freely interacting with the public. This year, the Court annulled section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act used to gag activists, especially prolific writers such as Dr. Stella Nyanzi and Kakwenza Rukirabashaijja, criminalizing their writing as “offensive communication”.

No doubt, the bill has already served its political purpose — whipping the electorate into outrage and moral panic, then providing the president with the opportunity, while appearing statesmanlike, to blow a political dog whistle and signal that he supports the killing and imprisonment of gay people and punishment of all those who support and shield them. At the same time, the move allows him to appear magnanimous — he wants to help gay people to avoid punishment through the fallacy of “rehabilitation”.

The consequence of this political game for the LGBTI community in Uganda is that their lives are now even more in danger. Homophobes have received political backing from the highest office to harass, maim, and murder them.

Casualties of Uganda’s “War against Gays”

In 2019, public officials’ threats to restart the process to enact anti-homosexuality laws ignited a spate of brutal killings of LGBTI citizens and activists, as reported by Human Rights Watch at the time:

Brian Wasswa, an activist working for non-governmental organisations as a paralegal and peer educator, was struck on the head multiple times by a sharp object. The police identified the murder instrument as a short-handheld hoe found in Wasswa’s home. A group of motorcycle taxi drivers beat a young transgender woman Fahad Ssemugooma Kakwere to death.

These are only two of many documented cases that occurred around the same time — fostered by rumours that the bill was going to be revived.

Earlier, during the lifecycle of the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill, gay and lesbian people were targeted, harassed, and brutally murdered, the most prominent of which was David Kato, a teacher and a human rights activist working in the NGO sector who openly identified as a gay man. On 26 January 2011, a man hit Kato twice on the head with a hammer in broad daylight. He died while being rushed to hospital.

Prior to Kato’s murder, he had won a case against a tabloid newspaper that published his name and photograph as well as of hundreds of other members of the LGBTI community, inciting homophobes to attack them. The tabloid’s managing editor, Giles Muhame, remains a popular media figure in the country to this day, and is on record as having said “the war against gays will and must continue”.

We need to identify politicians, religious leaders, cultural leaders, and celebrities who are sympathetic to LGBTI people and willing to lend us their influence.

The “war against gays” rages on in Uganda, waged from church pulpits, mosques, religious meetings outside houses of worship, and other social gatherings during which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other non-straight people are demonized as evil sinners. The media gleefully devotes print space and airtime to homophobic rants, peddling falsehoods of rising incidents of homosexual sex with underage children purely for the purpose of manufacturing outrage and moral panic.

Media reports allege that many of those entrusted to care for children and the elderly engage in homosexual sex with those under their care — a blatant lie they use to paint a picture that likens LGBTI people to paedophiles and rapists who harm Ugandan children, recruiting and teaching them to become homosexuals themselves. This media scare provides justification for vigilantism in the name of God and under the pretext of protecting children and traditional values.

The ongoing campaign is by no means restricted to gay people, however, but extends to anyone who recognizes them as fellow humans who should be protected from discrimination. In particular, civil society organizations are targeted and branded as foreign agents. In 2012, the Ugandan NGO Chapter Four documented that the government had banned 38 NGOs that it accused of “receiving support from abroad for Uganda’s homosexuals and ‘recruiting’ young children into homosexuality”.

The current bill and the president’s dog-whistle politics as he returns it to parliament have only added fuel to the fire. The likelihood of an increasingly hostile working environment for non-state actors is high, particularly considering that the draconian and repressive Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) Act of 2016 is still in place. The current bill has further weaponized the act, which is already being misused to target individual civil society leaders and organizations.

Continuing the Fight against Hate and Homophobia

Therefore, it would be foolhardy for human rights activists to think that the president not signing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is the end of the story. We must see it as a sign that activism succeeded in raising external pressure on the president and continue to organize — for there is still much to be done to counter the prevailing homophobic narrative.

We need to identify politicians, religious leaders, cultural leaders, and celebrities who are sympathetic to LGBTI people and willing to lend us their influence. They could be Ugandans, Africans, or others. The two members of parliament who did not vote for the bill, as well as the celebrated media personality Andrew Mwenda, who openly and forcefully urged the president not to sign it, could be a good starting point. We need to familiarize ourselves with the views of people sympathetic to the LGBTI community and amplify their voices to counter the toxic narrative around gay people now prevalent in Uganda.

External pressure on the president should continue, and indeed should be increased until parliament withdraws the bill entirely. In addition, similar external pressure should be brought to bear on the main proponents of the bill in parliament and on MPs who have made it a habit to seek cheap popularity through homophobic rants. We must name, shame, and sanction them. We may not stop them from being homophobes, but we can certainly reduce their urge to spew their hate in public.

In a similar manner, we must call out and pressure individual religious leaders of all faiths who have made it a habit to propagate misinformation and brand LGBTI people as sinners. Such pressure should also be extended to media personalities, publications, and media houses, the latter which can easily be blacklisted, denied reach, and revenue.

More importantly, every effort should be made to get the Constitutional Court to rule on the legal substance of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and its predecessors — to categorically declare such legislation unnecessary, unconstitutional, and egregious in its violation of LGBTI people’s fundamental human rights.