What awaits Uganda if gay law is enacted

Bubulo East MP John Musila displays his attire with anti-gay inscriptions during the debate on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023, at Parliament on March 21. PHOTO/DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • Past precedents return something of a mixed scorecard, with the US, which annually supports Uganda’s health sector to a tune of $950m, wasting no time in warning of the pernicious effects of enacting the legislation.

As the move to restore an anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda continues to gain traction, questions continue to abound about what the response from the Global North will look like.
Past precedents return something of a mixed scorecard. The US, which annually supports Uganda’s health sector to a tune of $950m (Shs3.6 trillion), has wasted no time in warning of the pernicious effects of enacting the legislation.

Mr John Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesperson, stopped short of forecasting “repercussions … perhaps in an economic way” should President Museveni assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023. 
Ms Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, warned that “Uganda’s international reputation” will be “damage[d]”, the promotion of “tourism … deter[ed]” and “progress in the fight against HIV/Aids … jeopardise[d]” if the Bill “is signed into law.”

Nine years ago, when President Museveni signed the 2014 anti-homosexuality Bill into law, the US warned that “all dimensions” of US engagement with Uganda would be reviewed. Mr John Kerry, then Secretary of State, made clear that this included the aid budget. In fact, the World Bank postponed a $90m (Shs339b) loan to Uganda.
Interestingly, the United Kingdom (UK) opted not to make a budgetary cut but rather channel the aid “through alternative routes, including international aid agencies that met the UK’s human rights principles.” 

Elsewhere, Norway and Denmark took a tougher stance by immediately withholding $8m (Shs30b) and $9m (Shs34b) respectively.
“We cannot distance ourselves too strongly from the law and the signal that the Ugandan government now sends to not only persecuted minority groups but to the whole world,” Mogens Jensen, the then Denmark’s trade and development minister, said.
Slap on the wrist?

Nigeria is not the only country that has received the proverbial slap on the wrist for marking out queer people. Egypt, one of the most strategically important countries in Africa to the Global North, has no explicit law making homosexuality illegal. Open homosexual acts in the North African country are, however, prohibited. Homosexuals are often arrested on oblique charges such as “debauchery” (excessive indulgence in sex, alcohol, or drugs).

In 2017, members of the Council of Representatives—Egypt’s equivalent of a parliament—drafted a Bill to criminalise what they termed as “acts of homosexuality.” Their aim was to constrain queers in Egypt. In the toolkit of the Bill were five articles, with the first one defining homosexuality as any sexual intercourse with someone of the same sex.

Article 2 proposed punishing individuals engaging in acts of homosexuality in a public or private place with a term of imprisonment of between one and three years; Article 3 stipulated that  anyone who supports or promotes the acceptance of queer individuals in Egyptian society or the rights of the LGBT community in Egypt would be punishable upon conviction with a term of imprisonment of between one and three years ; Article 4 proposed three years of imprisonment of representatives of the media (journalists and TV show hosts) who defended LGBT individuals and their presence in Egypt; Article 4 also said any individuals who organised or participated in any gathering, including music parties involving the LGBT community, would be punishable with three years of imprisonment.

Article 5 prohibited the display of any signs or flags or symbols of the LGBT community, including the rainbow flag. Individuals violating this prohibition would be punished upon conviction with a term of imprisonment of between one and three years.

Notion of trade, not aid
In spite of such moves, Egypt has continued to receive foreign aid from the US. In 2020, Egypt received $1.43 billion in foreign assistance, chiefly from USAID. In 2021, the Donald Trump administration doled out $1.4 billion in bilateral assistance for Egypt to purchase and maintain US-made military equipment. The Biden administration has also disbursed $176.1 million to Egypt.

While the US’ economic aid to Egypt has significantly decreased over the past two decades, observers say this cannot be tied down to the country’s clampdown on the queer community. They, for instance, point out the fact that bilateral relations between the two countries began stressing the notion of “trade not aid.”
According to the American Chamber of Commerce, the  US is Egypt’s second-largest trading partner after China, with a total trade volume of  $9.1b in 2021.

“Regionally, Egypt was one of the largest trading partners for the US. In 2020, it was the fourth largest trading partner by volume in the Middle East and the largest in Africa. Egypt accounted for five percent of all MENA (Middle East and North Africa) exports to the US in 2021 and nine percent of the region’s imports from the US. For the US, Egypt was its 50th largest trading partner by volume in 2021, and the US continues to be a net exporter to Egypt,” the America Chamber of Commerce says.
It remains to be seen whether Uganda can follow the path that African heavyweights like Nigeria and Egypt charted after making clear their anti-gay stance.

Against the grain?

Uganda was not the only country to bring in an anti-gay legislation in 2014. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, passed a near identical law. The Nigerian law contained penalties of up to 14 years in prison while banning gay marriage, same-sex “amorous relationships” and membership of gay rights groups.
Just like Uganda, sodomy is punishable by jail as per Nigeria’s prevailing Nigerian federal law. The anti-gay law in Nigeria proceeded to introduce a much broader clampdown on homosexual people who live a largely underground existence.

While the US threatened to withdraw economic aid to Nigeria for enacting an anti-gay law, this did not quite materialise. The US has continued to support Nigerian efforts to rid West Africa of Isis and Boko Haram’s terrorist influences. A year after bringing in the anti-gay law, the US set aside $6m (Shs22.5b) in International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding for the Nigerian military. The funding occupied financial years (FY) 2016 to 2021.

“Nigeria is also a partner in the Africa Military Education Programme (AMEP) and has benefited from $1.1m (Shs4b) since FY2016 to support instructor and/or curriculum development at Nigerian military schools.  From FY2016 to FY2020, $1.8m (Shs6.7b) was obligated for Nigeria in Foreign Military Financing to support maritime security, and military, “ the State Department said, adding, “Our joint efforts are focused on increasing cooperation on maritime and border security, military professionalisation, counterterrorism efforts against Boko Haram and Isis-West Africa, defence trade, and strengthening the governance of the security sector.”

In 2021, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said it would spend $787m (about Shs3 trillion) in development and humanitarian assistance in Nigeria. Although the US has castigated anti-homosexuality laws on grounds that they impede the fight against HIV/Aids, USAID described Nigeria as one of the biggest success stories in the fight against Covid.