President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed into law the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which targets those who “hold out as a lesbian, gay, transgender, a queer, or any other sexual or gender identity that is contrary to the binary categories of male and female.” The law imposes sentences of up to life imprisonment for anyone caught in a homosexual act and up to ten years for attempted homosexual acts. The death penalty has been introduced for aggravated homosexuality, defined as non-consensual same-sex with anyone younger than 18 or older than 75 or disabled or mentally ill.
There was swift condemnation from the international community when news broke on Monday 29 May 2023. US President Joe Biden issued the usual threats of sanctions (the sanctioned club is growing!) and the State Department may impose visa restrictions on certain government officials. The UK International Development Minister, Andrew Mitchell, cited democracy, human rights violations, the fight against HIV/Aids and the damage to Uganda’s international reputation in his official statement criticising the new law.
Understanding anti-homosexuality laws across Africa
Uganda is one of nearly 70 countries around the world with anti-homosexuality laws: 32 in Africa, 21 in the Middle East and Asia, and the remaining countries in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
Across Africa, the laws vary by definition, scope and severity of punishment. Most laws focus on the actual sexual act aka carnal knowledge. Promoting homosexual rights and identifying as a homosexual – two points that the Ugandan bill originally intended to introduce – are generally outside the scope. Some laws date as far back as 1861 (Sierra Leone), 1913 (Tunisia) and 1945 (Tanzania), with punishment ranging from a few days to several years imprisonment or in the most extreme case, death by stoning in Mauritania.
Curiously, the Gambian Act also includes “carnal knowledge of the person through the anus or the mouth” and “inserting any object or thing into the vulva or the anus of the person for the purpose of simulating sex,” which effectively means blow jobs and sex toys are illegal for straight people too. In many countries, anal sex for both men and women is illegal.
What is the anti-gay trap?
African politics generally lacks a consistent political ideology that defines how parties compete. However, anti-homosexuality is often a lever that politicians pull to win votes in many conservative countries. This provides a quick win for politicians and is easier than trying to deliver real change such as creating jobs or reducing poverty.
One of the reasons African leaders latch on the bandwagon is in response to provocation from western leaders who visit the continent on a pro-LGBTQ+ crusade. When US Vice-President Kamala Harris visited Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania in March 2023, she used that as a platform to campaign for LGBTQ+ rights as have other Western leaders in the past. Yet, rarely do you see LGBTQ+ rights feature so prominently on the agenda when the same Western leaders visit Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, where Sharia law dictates punishment by death, imprisonment, flogging and even chemical castration. If we are being honest, the agenda is a reflection or how little the West thinks of Africans leaders and we fall for this every time.
In reality, most anti-homosexuality laws around the world are by design difficult to implement and prosecute because one must be caught in a sexual act. Furthermore, in practice whilst most politicians are gung ho about signing the law, there is little appetite to enforce them. Until 2022, Singapore had strict laws that criminalised sexual intercourse between men but the courts struggled to convict in many cases. Politically, the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong married his boyfriend in Cape Town in 2019, which made the law seem all the more redundant. It was finally repealed in 2022. In December 2019, the US Ambassador to Zambia, Daniel Foote, was booted out of the country by former President Edgar Lungu for strongly and openly condemning a 15-year sentence handed to a gay couple. The Ambassador lost his job, relations between the US and Zambia deteriorated to an all-time low and Lungu was forced to pardon the couple after six months. The political risk for following through on the law is far greater than the benefits gained.
What is the way forward?
#1 Why have we maintained anti-homosexuality laws from the colonial era?
Most people are unaware that the anti-homosexuality laws in former British colonies were inherited, which makes the condemnation from the UK government so ironic. In the UK, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 only decriminalized homosexuality for men over the age of 21. The criminalization of anal sex was finally repealed by the Sexual Offense Act of 2003 in England and across the entire United Kingdom – with Scotland being the last to the party – in 2013. So, the next time the UK government condemns an African country, please remind them of their own very recent history and legacy.
Dubious colonial legacy aside, the argument by many African Christians is that the Bible condemns homosexuality and they cite the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed by God for their “wickedness”. I’m not sure what God would make of present-day Tel Aviv, located close to where Sodom and Gomorrah stood in biblical times, being the gay capital of the Middle East…
Anyway, if we are following the Bible, then why are adultery and corruption not up there with homosexuality in terms of focus and energy, public sentiment and legislation? It makes no sense to cherry-pick what biblical laws should be implemented and which ones can be ignored. The time for reckoning is upon Africans to ask ourselves why we need to police anyone’s sexual preference.
#2 What do anti-homosexuality laws actually achieve?
You would think with the time and effort that goes into making these laws, that there is real impact and a measurable improvement on the lives of ordinary citizens. Does anti-homosexuality create jobs, reduce poverty and increase GDP per capita? In the grand scheme of things, this moral pursuit achieves nothing and is a waste of resources and energy which should be channeled elsewhere.
#3 Set a new agenda with the West
I am convinced that the LGBTQ+ crusade is used by the West as a distraction from real issues. When will Africa be compensated for slavery and the deaths of our people who broke their backs to build the economies we now seek to emulate? When we get an apology and reparation for colonialism? When will France finally release Francophone Africa from the invisible chains of neocolonialism? When will the stolen goods that generate millions of dollars in museum revenues in Europe be returned to Africa? Where is the money promised for fighting climate change? When will the International Criminal Court (ICC) indict Western leaders for crimes against Libya and countless other countries?
There is a laundry list of sins the West has yet to atone for including invading sovereign countries and human rights violations and yet we are always on the defense, allowing them to set the agenda. The next time Ms Harris visits the motherland, I hope our leaders flip the conversation to dollars and sense.