As Uganda defies post-gay law pressure, the West is unrelenting  

President Museveni (second left) and his US counterpart Joe Biden (second right) with Ugandan First Daughter Natasha Karugire (left) and US First Lady Jill Biden (right) at the White House last year. PHOTO/PPU

What you need to know:

  • Uganda, in defiance of international pressure, passed a controversial anti-homosexuality law. However, the Western world’s deliberate and strategic response now poses a significant threat to both the nation and the previously cherished alliance with its regime and leader.

During his close to 40-year reign as ruler, the West has on many occasions shown that it has lost patience with President Museveni’s led Uganda but somehow the incumbent has found a way to draw them back in. 

Historically, the Western nations have employed both incentives and punitive measures to influence President Museveni and his government on various matters, including the reinstatement of a multi-party political system. However, President Museveni, known for his assertive stance, has consistently found ways to navigate through these challenges.  

The fallout from the controversial 2021 General Election, and more prominently, the controversial enactment of the anti-homosexuality law, points to a systematic and surgical campaign by Western powers to punish and, in some cases, isolate their once-beloved ally.

Amid the United States and other Western powers’ preoccupation with the war in Ukraine and, more recently, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, President Museveni appears to have lost a crucial bargaining chip - the war on terror. The atrocities attributed to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels have seemingly garnered scant attention.

All politics is local
Activists Stella Nyanzi and Andrew Karamagi conclude in their paper The Social-Political Dynamics of the Anti-Homosexuality Legislation in Uganda, which analyses, among other things, the response to the annulled law of 2014 that, “The anti-homosexuality law became a paradoxical symbol for nationalism, sovereignty, economic autonomy, Africanness, traditional culture, Christian conservatism, progressiveness, propriety, defiant sexualities, foreign intervention, and neo-imperialism.”

In this paper, the duo explores the question of “foreignness within the debate on homosexuality,” observing that both anti-gay and pro-gay camps partnered with foreign allies sympathetic to their divergent causes. 

Nyanzi and Karamagi illuminate how both pro-gay and anti-gay factions engaged with foreign allies, adding layers of external influence and dynamics to an already contentious debate. 

In the intricate interplay of local and global forces that shape the discourse surrounding homosexuality in Uganda, President Museveni and his local allies, this time, seem more focused on playing to the local forces in the hope that their global allies will fall in line. Will they? 

In less than six months, since the enactment of the anti-homosexuality law, the World Bank has suspended its funding to Uganda, the United States has cautioned its businesses not to invest in Uganda, warned citizens against travelling to the country, moved to remove Uganda from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), and imposed visa restrictions several times on Uganda government officials, among other measures.

In 2014, after Uganda passed a similar law, various measures, including diplomatic, military, and economic sanctions, were imposed in an effort to persuade the government to reconsider the legislation.

The United Kingdom, United States, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Ireland opted to either withhold or reroute their foreign assistance away from the government’s general fund, directing it instead toward progressive civil society groups.

This time, Norway largely did nothing beyond condemning the law until on October 13 when Norway announced it was closing its embassy in Kampala as part of the “structural reforms” of the country’s Foreign Service.

The real reason for the embassy closure can be gleaned from the words of Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt.  

“In a rapidly changing world,” she said, “it is essential for us to have diplomats in places where they can monitor global issues that have implications for Norway and promote Norwegian positions.” 

“At the same time, we must continually assess where it is best to maintain a presence in order to safeguard Norwegian interests optimally with the resources we have,” she added.

The closure of the Norwegian embassy in Uganda is indeed indicative of a broader shift in the strategic interests of many nations. 

Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt. PHOTO/INTERNET

Ms Huitfeldt’s statement underscores the evolving priorities of many countries when it comes to Uganda which may no longer be of as much strategic interest as it once was. 

The US has clothed her actions as part of a wider campaign “to promote accountability for Ugandan officials and other individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda, abusing human rights, including those of LGBTQI+ persons, or engaging in corrupt practices”. 

In a surprising move that dismayed pro-gay advocacy groups, the European Union (EU) declared its intention to maintain its financial support to Uganda, despite the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and calls to suspend the aid from the EU.

Jutta Urpilainen, the European Commissioner for International Partnerships, in September, justified this decision by emphasising that discontinuing financial aid to Uganda because of the law, which imposes severe penalties for specific same-sex activities, would result in the withholding of vital support from vulnerable communities.

Ms Urpilainen argues that suspending EU financial assistance to Uganda would leave the most vulnerable populations, including LGBTIQ individuals, without essential support and that EU disengagement could potentially create voids that might be filled by other entities not aligned with EU values.

Aids fight safe
In the course of the effort to pass the anti-homosexuality law, the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) programme, a major source of funding for Uganda’s response to HIV/Aids, declared a delay in the completion of the country’s operational plan. 

This delay, US authorities said, was prompted by the need to thoroughly evaluate the legal and programmatic consequences of the Bill.

Serious concerns had also arisen regarding the potential impact of the ongoing review of a programme initiated during the tenure of US President George W. Bush, which has been widely credited with saving millions of lives in Uganda and other regions.

The apprehension centred on the possibility that beneficiaries from Uganda might face adverse consequences as a result of this review. Excluding Ugandans from this programme could have dire consequences. Health authorities in Kampala have since sought to alleviate these fears by making firm commitments to provide essential healthcare services to all citizens, regardless of their background, without any form of discrimination.

Dr Henry Mwebesa, the director general for Health Services at the Health ministry has since repeatedly underscored that access to healthcare is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda. Thus, denying anyone access to healthcare services would contravene the supreme law of the land.

The Uganda government and health authorities could, therefore, have got a reprieve with the announcement by the new US ambassador to Uganda William Popp that his country will continue to support Uganda’s fight against HIV/Aids. 

“Our goal is to ensure that everyone who had access to treatment for HIV or our preventive services before AHA [Anti-Homosexuality Act] continues to receive it. The assistance will continue,” he said. 

There is a caveat. “There will be some redirection and some adjustment in that space. We want to ensure no matter what we are doing with any of our assistance that there is never discrimination against anyone…”

The US ambassador’s words resonate with a broader shift in the international development community, a direction that the World Bank is likely to take as well. 

While government officials led by President Museveni have continued to talk tough asserting Uganda’s sovereignty, heated talks are happening in the background in an attempt to convince Uganda to drop its position. 

On October 17,  Monitor wrote to the World Bank inquiring about reports that the World Bank Group is poised to reinstate its funding to Uganda.

Last month, Reuters disclosed that the World Bank is actively working to prevent discrimination against gay and transgender Ugandans in its programmes as a prerequisite for resuming new funding to Uganda. 

According to Victoria Kwakwa, the World Bank’s regional vice president for Eastern and Southern Africa, project documents will contain clear provisions emphasising that LGBTQ individuals in Uganda should not be subjected to discrimination, and the bank’s staff should not be at risk of arrest for their involvement with these marginalised communities.

We asked the Bank to clarify on how it intends to ensure the implementation of this law does not “fundamentally contradict” the group’s values which is the crux of the institution’s decision to block new funding following the enactment of the law. 

We also asked the bank to provide an update on the status of discussions with the Ugandan government concerning this law, and the bank’s official position in case it had changed. We did not get a response from the World Bank.

In 2016, the World Bank terminated a $265 million transportation project due to accusations of construction workers harassing schoolgirls and findings of substandard treatment of labourers.

Unlike the immediate stance that government will adjust the budget to face the realities of the World Bank funding cuts, the route of negotiations appears to have taken root. Government is now banking on a positive outcome from the negotiations with the lender to avert the painful cuts. 

On October 31, Henry Musasizi, the State minister for Finance, informed Parliament that the government and the World Bank are deeply involved in discussions regarding the suspension of funding to the nation following the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. He expressed confidence in a favourable resolution.

“We have continuously provided all the information and addressed all the issues that they keep raising, and we are optimistic that we shall reach a position between us and the World Bank which is very positive, so there shouldn’t be any reason to worry about the decision World Bank took,” he said.

President Museveni and his government, once hailed as the darlings of international aid donors, now find themselves in a precarious position as allegations of widespread corruption and human rights violations continue to mount.

In his paper, Managing Donor Perceptions: Contextualising Uganda’s 2007 Intervention in Somalia, Jonathan Fisher writes that President Museveni’s decision to intervene in Somalia, for example, is an example of “his regime’s multi-pronged ‘image management’ strategy in which the President has involved Uganda in numerous foreign and domestic activities to ensure that donors perceive his government in a particular way vis-à-vis their interests: as an economic success story, a guarantor of regional stability, or, in relation to Somalia, an ally in the global war on terror.”