Anti-gay law assent shakes Uganda relation with West

Bugiri MP Asuman Basalirwa addresses the media at Parliament after President Museveni signed the Anti-homosexuality Bill on May 29, 2023. He said the US and British embassies have cancelled the travel visas of Speaker of Parliament, Ms Anita Among. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • The divide in opinion over homosexuality, made more polarised by Mr Museveni signing of the anti-gay legislation, has stirred a dilemma for development partners on whether to cut aid.

President Museveni has defied international pressure and signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law, opening the floodgates of a legal challenge at home and threats of aid cuts by development partners.

Pro-gay groups and activists raced to the Constitutional Court, seeking to overturn the new law as they did with a 2013 version, while condemnation echoed from London to Brussels to Washington DC.

United States President Joe Biden called the legislation a “tragic violation of human rights”, United Kingdom Development Minister Andrew Mitchell said it “undermines the protections and freedoms of all Ugandans” while the law contravened international human rights law, according to European Union High Representative Joseph Borrell.

The Ugandan Parliament enacted the anti-gay Act on March 21, prescribing death penalty for aggravated homosexuality, and President Museveni signed it into law on Friday, and State House announced the assent only yesterday. 

“I have directed my National Security Council to evaluate the implications of this law on all aspects of US engagement with Uganda, including our ability to safely deliver services under the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other forms of assistance and investments,” President Biden noted in reference to Washington’s nearly $1b (Shs3.7 trillion) annual assistance to Uganda.

He added: “My Administration will also incorporate the impacts of the law into our review of Uganda’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).  And we are considering additional steps, including the application of sanctions and restriction of entry into the United States against anyone involved in serious human rights abuses or corruption.”

Uganda is described on the US Department of State website as a “key” ally of Washington in a restive region where militaries of the two countries have worked together, or continue to collaborate, on operations in Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

The enduring role of the UPDF, as Uganda’s army is formally called, and the ease and frequency with which its troops, unlike that of other neighbouring countries, are deployed on regional assignments have made President Museveni a security doyen of the West and turned the army into a spearhead of Uganda’s foreign policy.

A review that President Biden has ordered will determine how this relationship morphs and what the implications will be for the US, which needs agents and partners on the ground to do what it cannot from across the Atlantic, and Uganda, which still needs America’s $1b yearly spend in its economy.

 News of President Museveni’s assent to the law coincided with a revelation by the sponsor of the legislation in Parliament, Mr Asuman Basalirwa (JEEMA, Bugiri Municipality) that the Americans had revoked a multiple-entry visa to Parliament Speaker Anita Among, a vocal supporter of the anti-gay law.

The decision was reportedly taken on May 12, ten days after Parliament enacted a second version of the legislation.

We were unable to speak to Ms Among, and Mr Chris Obore, the Parliament spokesman, said he would not know whether the visa revocation was related to the legislation or informed by other considerations.

“Ask the US embassy officials because they are best placed to explain the reasons,” Mr Obore said by telephone.

American diplomats in Kampala declined to discuss the decision.

“Visa records are confidential under the US law; therefore, we cannot discuss individual visa cases,” said Ms Ellen Masi, the public affairs officer at the US Mission in Kampala.

The divide in opinion over homosexuality, made more polarised by Mr Museveni signing of the anti-gay legislation, has stirred a dilemma for development partners on whether to cut support to programmes that would indiscriminately punish beneficiaries or target persons of influence for visa/travel denials and other sanctions.   

Speaker Among, who was the first to disclose news of the assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, appeared unfazed by the US decision to revoke her visa.

“We have stood strong to defend the culture, values and aspirations of our people as per objectives 19 & 24 of our National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy [of the Constitution],” she said in a statement shared on social media and in which she thanked President Museveni and parliamentarians for “withstanding all the pressure”.

“By their action,” she wrote and, while calling for speedy implementation, added, “we have lived by our motto: For God and our country.”

The full impact of the anti-gay are yet to be known, pending revelations of specific actions by the West.

EU’s Borrell noted that “Uganda government has an obligation to protect all of its citizens and uphold their basic rights”.

“Failure to do so will undermine relations with [the] international partners,” Mr Borrell noted, without providing details.

The 27-member state union provides the largest bilateral support to Uganda, investing in road and rail infrastructure, agriculture, democracy, good governance and human rights as well as picking the bills for Ugandan troops deployed to pacify Somalia.

On the other hand, the UK, which bolted out of the EU a couple of years ago and has been prospecting bilateral trade and investment opportunities in Uganda through envoy Lord Dolar Popat as part of Downing Street’s accelerated commercial diplomacy, will have to decide whether to cut support or freeze credit for businesses and projects such as Kabaale International Airport under construction in Hoima oil city. 

In Kampala, MP Basalirwa asked the government to turn frugal because “our colleagues in the western world have indicated and actualised their threats [to punish Uganda and its officials over the anti-gay law]”. 

“So if you have money on your account and you are a Basalirwa [anti-gay], remove it because you are likely to be a victim [of financial sanctions],” he opined.

It remained unclear how the government planned to respond to the staccato of western actions, with bothInformation Minister Dr Chris Baryomunsi and Uganda Media Centre Executive Director, Mr Ofwono Opondo, unavailable by press time.

Mr Steven Kabuye, the executive director at Truth to LGBTQI+, a non-governmental organisation working with homosexuals, said the news law will drive them to live in hiding and fear.

“I am deeply concerned about the consequences of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023. This law violates basic human rights and sets a dangerous precedent for discrimination and persecution against the LGBTQI+ community. Let us stand together in solidarity and fight against bigotry and hate,” he said.