Jun 8, 2023, 7:08am EDT

Uganda’s harsh anti-gay law alarms its original conservative backers

Reuters/Abubaker Lubowa

Sign up for Semafor Africa: A rapidly-growing continent’s crucial stories. Read it now.

Title icon

The News

KAMPALA, Uganda — Conservative groups that pushed Uganda to toughen its anti-gay laws now worry new legislation is too harsh and could backfire on their cause.

The law, which came into force last week, imposes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” and carries a 20-year sentence for “promoting homosexuality.” Same-sex relationships were already illegal in Uganda but the new law imposes some of the most severe penalties in the world.

“The Church of Uganda supports life and, in principle, does not support the death penalty,” said Stephen Kazimba Mugalu, Archbishop of Uganda, in a statement issued on May 29, when President Yoweri Museveni signed it to the law. The church supported the original bill proposed in parliament, but capital punishment was later added in an amendment.

Family Watch International (FWI), an American evangelical lobby group, said that its leader Sharon Slater met with President Museveni in April, and suggested amendments to soften the penalties in the first version of the legislation that Parliament had just passed, but the changes were not adopted.

“We are disappointed that the president signed the harsh bill into law,” FWI director Lynn Allred told Semafor Africa. “We believe there are individuals who will not be able to obtain help to align their sexual behavior with their personal values,” Allred added.

Title icon

Know More

U.S. President Joe Biden called the anti-gay law a grave violation of human rights for which the East African nation could suffer cuts to its $1 billion in investment and aid. The World Bank has also signaled it may withhold funds over the legislation which violates its non-discrimination principles. The European Union and Canada also criticized Uganda. In a meeting on Tuesday with US envoy to Uganda Natalie Brown, President Museveni said the West’s criticism of the anti-gay law is unjustified and based on a distortion of facts.

Ugandan human rights activists have taken the fight to court to have the law annulled. Two petitions were filed at the constitutional court in Kampala, challenging the law which the petitioners said contravenes the constitution.

“The law is so draconian that it ought to shock the conscience of any human being,” says Fox Odoi, lead petitioner and one of only two MPs that voted against the bill on the floor of Parliament. Uganda’s Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka told Semafor Africa the government will file a response to the legal action.

The outcome of the petitions could become the blueprint for some 22 African countries, including Kenya and Ghana, that are working on similar laws that would criminalize being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer on the continent.

Title icon

Julius’s view

It’s striking that even local and American conservatives say Uganda’s new legislation is too harsh. The domestic and international blowback, and the possibility of diplomatic and economic sanctions from the West could well mean passage of the bill actually leads to Uganda having to row back its anti-gay positions.


The passage of the bill also suggests lawmakers went further than the government wanted. President Museveni returned the bill to parliament to have it toned down but still signed it with the clauses referring to capital punishment and life imprisonment for same-sex acts. Regardless, the bill would have become law on its  the third reading — with or without his signature.

The future of the law may now be decided in court. Campaigners say due process was not followed in passing the law. After being tabled, the bill on which the law was based was sent to a parliamentary committee for public hearing — a period that is meant to take 45 days, according to parliament’s rules, but was concluded in six days. “We are already a marginalized community and now we are being swept further underground,” gay rights activist Kasha Nabagesera, of Freedom Roam Uganda, told me.

Title icon

Room for Disagreement

Martin Ssempa, a church minister and author, said a “colonial battle” is being waged to reject attempts by the U.S. to impose its views on homosexuality onto Africans. “Aggravated homosexuality is the same offense as aggravated defilement for heterosexual relations, and it attracts a death sentence,” said Ssempa. Aggravated homosexuality is defined here as same-sex sexual acts with children, disabled individuals or anyone else deemed under threat. “Why does anyone want to tell us that it is harsh under homosexuality but it isn’t under straight sex relations? That’s just a frame and we reject that.”

Title icon

The View From Cape Town

“In South Africa the attack on members of the LGBTIQ community is considered a hate crime,” said Theto Thakane Nareadi Mahlakoana, a human rights activist. ”The legalization of same-sex marriage n November 2006 made the country the exemplar for gay and lesbian rights in Africa and there has been no indication of these laws ever being challenged,” said Mahlakoana.

Title icon



  • The “language and presentation of luring and recruitment” in campaigns to crack down on homosexuality is “an export of a made-in-the-USA movement and ideology” birthed in evangelical churches, argues Caleb Okereke in Foreign Policy.