An anti-LGBTQ law in Uganda is damaging the economy


Sitting on a couch in his small office, Simon Azarwagye, owner of a travel company called Azas Safaris, points to numbers on his laptop: visual aids to a story he still feels miserable telling.

“Check it out?” she says, pointing to a chart marked “quote requests.” It represents the 89 potential clients she was communicating with at the beginning of the year. They had all inquired about tours of Uganda's lush forests; Expeditions cost around $15,000 per couple for 13 days of hippo and gorilla watching.

That was before the country's Parliament began debating one of the harshest anti-LGBTQ laws in the world. It included a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality” – defined as same-sex relations with someone who is disabled, HIV positive, or elderly, among other categories – and criminalized the advocacy of gay men and lesbians in public.

News of the bill made international headlines. On the day it was signed in late May, President Biden and leaders across Europe threatened sanctions that Uganda, which has an inferior economy to Libya and Sudan, cannot afford. Within weeks, 60 of Azarwagye's 89 potential customers, most of whom come from Europe or the United States, canceled their plans or stopped returning messages.

“I was fooled,” he said, noting that he typically gets paying clients on two-thirds of all consultations. “Some of those who spoke to me explained, 'It's not safe to come to Uganda because of that law.'”

Since the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023, as the law is officially known, there have been arrests and hundreds of human rights violations involving LGBTQ people, according to a report by Convening for Equality, a coalition of human rights groups. Landlords have evicted gay and transgender people, as required by law. And fear prevents gay and transgender patients from going to health clinics, which are required by law to report them to the police.

More quietly, the law is taking a grim economic toll.

The hotel industry is suffering, hoteliers say. Textile makers say buyers in the United States, Britain and across Europe have canceled orders, fearing that a “Made in Uganda” label on a garment is now bad for business. Construction companies in Uganda say Western financial backers are scared.

“We had a face-to-face meeting with an American private equity firm, and one of the guys who runs the firm made it clear that he had a moral problem with the law,” said Venugopal Rao, CEO of Dott Services. , a construction company in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, which recently applied for loans of around $100 million. “We could get money for our projects in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But not Uganda.”

Animosity toward homosexuals runs deep in this landlocked East African country of 49 million people. A survey conducted in 2022 by Afrobarómetro, a nonpartisan research network, found that Ugandans were very tolerant of people of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds, but very intolerant of homosexuals. About 97 percent said they favored laws criminalizing homosexuality, and 94 percent of Ugandans said they would report a gay family member or friend to the police.

Business and political leaders attribute Uganda's intolerance toward LGBTQ people to the sharply conservative tendencies of Catholicism and evangelicalism that dominate the country.

“This is a Christian country, and especially African Christians have a different view on homosexuality,” said Herbert Byaruhanga of the Uganda Tour Operators Association. He was explaining why his organization did not lobby against the Anti-Homosexuality Law or issue a press release on the issue. There was no time to analyze the law before its passage, he said, but even if he had had weeks to study every word, resistance would have been futile because the law is immensely popular.

“We couldn't oppose Ugandan culture,” he said.

The country's veteran president, Yoweri Museveni, is the wild card in this whole matter. He has ruled Uganda with autocratic control for nearly four decades and, in testimony submitted to the International Criminal Court, he has been accused of torturing and killing dissidents in the 2021 elections.

He has publicly maintained that homosexuals undermine peace and stability and called them “disgusting” in an interview with CNN. But several confidants, including Andrew Mwenda, a journalist who is also a spokesman for the president's son, say the president is primarily a pragmatist who worries about the state of the economy and hates the idea of ​​Uganda being seen as a pariah.

Mwenda and others have filed petitions against the Anti-Homosexuality Law, hoping that the courts will declare it unconstitutional or throw it out on a technicality. It has happened before. In 2014, the courts struck down a bill dubbed “Kill the Gays” on the narrow grounds that it was passed without the required quorum.

A spokesman for the president did not respond to messages.

Uganda's Constitutional Court held a hearing on the Anti-Homosexuality Law on Monday, and some observers believe a decision could be made before the end of the year or early January.

“This is the best law that Parliament could have passed,” Mwenda said. “Do you know why? Because it's so bad that no court could confirm it.”

More than half of Africa's 54 countries have anti-gay laws. Proponents of the laws see them as a way to get rid of a vestige of colonial rule and combat what they see as the decadent customs of the West. On the day of the vote on the Anti-Homosexuality Law, the Speaker of Parliament, Anita Annet Among, proclaimed: “The Western world will not govern Uganda.”

Uganda has had an anti-sodomy law since 1950, passed during the era of British rule, which punishes homosexuality with life in prison. Britain liberalized its sodomy statutes in 1967, but in Uganda, starting in the early 2000s, right-wing Christians coalesced into a political force that viewed homosexuality as a baneful influence on culture.

The anti-LGBTQ movement went silent in Uganda after the demise of the “Kill the Gays” law, stung by the loss and groping for a strategy to regain momentum. Three years ago, the issue once again began to feature prominently in the national conversation.

Gay activists place much of the blame on two groups, Family Life Network in Uganda and Family Watch International, an evangelical organization in Gilbert, Arizona. Family Watch is led by Sharon Slater, who has pushed for conversion therapy for gays and has been involved with what the group calls “family-centered” politics in Africa since 2002.

“Ugandans are very homophobic, but they won't act on it unless someone wakes them up,” said Frank Mugisha, who runs Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group that was shut down in August last year. “Family Life Network and Family Watch rejuvenated the movement.”

Family Life Network did not respond to requests for comment. A Family Watch spokeswoman, Lynn Allred, said in an email that the group's opponents “make things up and wait for disreputable reporters to perpetuate them.” The group posted a lengthy “get the facts” page on its website, stating that it never lobbied for the Anti-Homosexuality Law and, in fact, opposes it.

Mugisha says the rejuvenation began at the National Prayer Breakfast held in Parliament in 2020, when a lawmaker suggested an anti-gay law should be resurrected. Shortly after, highly incendiary stories about LGBTQ people began to emerge and multiply on social media. An unfounded rumor was insisted upon again and again: homosexual teachers were attacking and “recruiting” students.

Homosexuality quickly became synonymous with pedophilia. Uganda receives billions of dollars in annual aid and tax breaks from various sources, and some announced retaliatory measures after the Anti-Homosexuality Act became law. The World Bank said it would not start any new projects in the country, saying in a press release that it wanted to “protect sexual and gender minorities from discrimination and exclusion in the projects we finance.”

In late October, the US State Department warned about the reputational risks of doing business in the country. More recently, he expanded a list of Ugandan officials who are restricted from visiting the United States. Direct U.S. aid has been restricted, and on Jan. 1 Uganda is scheduled to be removed from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides tariff-free access to U.S. markets for sub-Saharan countries.

These measures are intended as punishment, but some Ugandan politicians believe they have a positive side. This includes James Nsaba Buturo, a soft-spoken 73-year-old former ethics minister, who on a recent afternoon was sitting in his office in Parliament with a Bible and a copy of the regulations on his desk.

“The good books,” he said.

He thinks cutting foreign aid could cure Uganda of its perennial corruption problem. The logic is the following: if less money enters the country, those who steal from public coffers will think twice because the consequences of that theft will be more dire.

“When the World Bank threatened us I was very happy,” he said. “What we steal from ourselves is worth three times more than what we receive from other countries. “This is an opportunity for us to get our house in order.”

The consequences of the Anti-Homosexual Law are already affecting Uganda's economy, although the extent of the pain will become clearer in the coming months. The country has been growing steadily in recent years, said Corti Paul Lakuma, senior researcher at the Uganda Economic Policy Research Center. There was double-digit growth in gross domestic product in the 2000s and 6 percent growth between 2010 and 2019. He believes the success is due to improvements in infrastructure and moves to privatize the banking industry. The country is also safer.

“In the 80s, you had to be indoors by 7pm, otherwise you could die,” Mr Lakuma said. “This is now a 24-hour country.”

In the long term, he is optimistic about Uganda, in part because he believes the courts will strike down the Anti-Homosexuality Law. Others believe the threat of sanctions and penalties has made it difficult for judges to overturn the law without appearing to have bowed to foreign pressure.

Still, the country may already be serving as a warning to other African countries considering anti-gay laws. A lawmaker in Kenya has proposed a draconian proposal, but political observers say it is unlikely to pass parliament or be approved by the country's relatively independent judiciary. And the broader trends in Africa are in the direction of tolerance. Six African countries have legalized same-sex relationships in the last decade.

Uganda risks becoming an outlier. This pains Mr. Azarwagye, the owner of the safari company who lost business when the anti-gay law was passed. In early December, he moved his office out of town, in part to make rent cheaper.

“Nobody's been in touch,” he said of the roughly 60 clients who stopped communicating with him this summer. “Most people who ghost you go on vacation to neighboring countries, like Kenya.”

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