Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act endangers relations with US

As the discriminatory provisions of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act start to weigh on the country’s gay community, the World Bank has frozen funding. Relations with the US could be in danger too.



Shortly after bringing one of the world’s harshest anti-homosexuality laws onto Uganda’s statute books, President Yoweri Museveni gave a speech on Africa’s role in promoting “family values and sovereignty”.

“Africa should provide the lead to save the world from this degeneration and decadence, which is really very dangerous for humanity,” Museveni said. “If people of [the] opposite sex stop appreciating one another then how will the human race be propagated?”

He pledged “never to allow the promotion and publicisation of homosexuality in Uganda.”

Rise in discrimination

While same-sex relations have been illegal in Uganda since the times of British colonial rule, the new law criminalises a much broader range of activity, including the vaguely worded “promotion of homosexuality”. The prison sentence for “attempted same-sex conduct” has been increased to 10 years, while those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” now face the death penalty.

Roland Ebole, a researcher at Amnesty International who specialises in East African human rights issues, tells African Business that the impact of the law is already being felt.

“We’ve had reports of people being evicted from their homes because their landlords have suspicions they may identify as LGBT. This has brought in a lot of fear. We’re seeing discrimination in the way healthcare is provided. As we speak right now, Amnesty is preparing some kind of response for individuals who were arrested for allegedly engaging in same-sex activity,” he says.

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Threats to US-Uganda relationship

Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law has been widely criticised by the country’s Western allies. The US, which has traditionally had a wide-ranging partnership with Uganda on everything from military cooperation to healthcare provision, has been particularly vocal. In May, US President Joe Biden branded the law a “tragic violation of universal human rights”.

Secretary of state Antony Blinken said he was considering imposing visa restrictions on Ugandan officials responsible for human rights violations, but the US has so far stopped short of imposing sanctions on the East African country.

Ebole says that Amnesty is pushing for the EU to trigger its global human rights sanctions, but this has also not been forthcoming. The toughest response has come from the World Bank, which in August announced that it would be freezing all new public financing to Uganda.

Given these developments, questions have been raised about how viable the sweeping US-Uganda relationship now is. The two countries have worked together on military issues since the Reagan era, with Uganda becoming a vital US ally across East and Central Africa. Uganda has been particularly valuable for the US in its role combating terrorism in Somalia as part of the African Union missions in the country.

The US government has also been particularly active in strengthening healthcare systems in Uganda. In 2022, the US provided over $950m in health and development assistance and has provided anti-retroviral treatment, crucial for fighting HIV/AIDS, to more than 1.2m Ugandans.

The US has sought to support the Ugandan economy, too, by providing more than $8bn in aid between 2001 and 2019 and offering Uganda preferential trade benefits under America’s African Growth and Opportunity Act. But for how long can this continue given Uganda is now so at odds with what America claims its values are?

Maria Burnett, a human rights lawyer and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, tells African Business that “we’re starting to see the potential for change in the US-Uganda relationship.”

“The United States has definitely become increasingly cognisant of the deteriorating human rights and democratic issues. Not just in light of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, but also because of federal elections [in 2021] that were blatantly not free and fair and involved harassment, arrests, detentions, and violence directed towards the opposition,” Burnett says.

Burnett also notes that the new law poses a direct risk for Americans in Uganda and officials of the US government. “If you are trying to work in a country which has a law that says any individual who has knowledge of someone that may be in a same-sex relationship must report that person, that creates a situation in which the staff of the US Embassy, the staff of the World Bank, are not just liable to be attacked by these laws, but are mandated reporters under the law,” she argues.

Problems for healthcare

The new law makes it particularly difficult for the US to assist Uganda with its healthcare provisions, Burnett believes, because the health system has become one of the main vehicles for discrimination against Uganda’s LGBT community. The Anti-Homosexuality Act includes decreased access to health services for LGBT individuals, with the Harvard Global Health Institute also warning that the law could “undermine public health campaigns, most notably the HIV response, by discouraging health seeking behaviours due to fear of punishment and marginalisation.”

“The law makes it very, very difficult for the US to do the kind of significant health response that it wants to do, and has done for so long, in Uganda. It is impossible under this law to provide healthcare in a non-discriminatory fashion,” Burnett says. “The principle of non-discrimination is part of US law, it’s part of US foreign policy, and its’s part of the US constitution.”

From America’s perspective, there is also the risk that not acting to reduce its assistance to Uganda could encourage other countries in the region to follow suit with similar laws. Frank Mugisha, executive director at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), says “the US should take a really strong stance because we are on a trajectory that is concerning.”

“A similar law is close to being passed in Ghana. Uganda recently facilitated a ‘Family Values Conference’ and invited members of parliament from all over Africa to attend, and now a parliamentarian from Kenya has drafted anti-gay legislation. Malawi is worrying, as is Burundi, Somaliland, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. Of course, we know there have been some gains in Namibia, Botswana, and Angola, but these gains could be reversed,” he says.

Towards closer ties with China?

One of the difficulties that the US has in forming a response to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, aside from its deep and wide-ranging relationship with Uganda, is that Museveni has threatened to seek closer ties with China at the very moment when the US is attempting to counter the influence of its adversaries in Africa.

In the aftermath of the World Bank’s decision to halt further funding in Uganda, Museveni condemned it, along with the IMF, as having “no value addition to the country” and being “anti-growth”. Asuman Basalirwa, the lawmaker who drafted the Anti-Homosexuality Act, said that “we need to look for new friends,” with the president also indicating that he would look to Beijing for “help to transform the economy”.

China has offered Uganda loans and financing in the past but has also been accused of “debt-trap diplomacy” in the country and other parts of Africa. In 2021, there was a public outcry over suggestions that China could take control of Uganda’s only international airport in Kampala if the East African country was unable to service a $200m loan, although the Chinese embassy denied these claims.

Mugisha doubts that any attempts to replace Western funding from alternative sources would be successful. “Even if we were getting funding and support from China or other Asian countries, and not the West, we wouldn’t be able to match what the World Bank was contributing,” he says. Economic necessities mean, Mugisha believes, that “eventually the government of Uganda will see the need for the protection of human rights.”

Burnett is also unconvinced that Museveni’s anti-West rhetoric amounts to a meaningful realignment in Uganda’s foreign policy. “Throughout President Museveni’s leadership, he has made alliances whenever it’s politically convenient for him. There have been relationships with North Korea, with Russia, with China, and with the US. I don’t think his leadership rests on any principles other than those that allow him to retain power.”

Economic consequences

Given this, it seems that something will need to give if Uganda is to avoid serious economic damage at a time when it is already struggling from the legacy of Covid-19 and a difficult global macroeconomic situation. The potential economic effects of the law have already become clear.

The Ugandan shilling plunged in the aftermath of the World Bank’s decision, with the government also forced to revise its 2023-24 budget and cut spending in light of the move. There have been calls for foreign tourists to boycott Uganda which, if it came to pass, would significantly affect an industry that employs almost 15% of Ugandans.

Burnett believes that international corporations that are active in the country, which include oil companies and airlines, could face “a real minefield when trying to do business in Uganda.” This could provide an incentive for such companies to reduce their exposure to the Ugandan market or even withdraw altogether.

But the most immediate and significant impact of the law has been felt not by businesses, but individuals and, in Mugisha’s eyes, millions of Ugandans around the world.

“Uganda’s international reputation is damaged. Personal relationships are damaged. I have friends who live abroad, who aren’t necessarily homophobic but have been called homophobes because they come from a country criminalising LGBT people,” he says.

“It’s not only relationships at a political or bilateral level that have been affected. This law has damaged the entire reputation of the country and that of every Ugandan who lives at home or abroad.”

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Harry Clynch

Harry is Finance Reporter at African Business.