Uganda is an exemplary case of the democratic erosion that typifies a number of nations in Sub-Saharan Africa. Post-colonial democracies around the world are backsliding into autocracy. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this is often characterized by strongmen and corruption. Another trend that characterizes Sub-Saharan African politics today is homophobia. Here again, Uganda is an exemplar. Widely painted as one of the world’s most homophobic nations, Uganda is a perfect case study of the nature of homophobia in Africa. The source of this homophobia bears examination as more concrete legislative steps are taken to limit the rights of LGBT+ Ugandans. It is also valuable to understand the role of religion as both a motivator for homophobia and, as I will argue, as an advocate for democratization. Religion in Uganda plays a major role in the political realm, and conclusions about the ways it affects democratization may be generalizable to Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.
II. A Brief History of Uganda
The borders of modern-day Uganda contain 3 major kingdoms: Buganda, the largest and origin of the nation’s name, [the other two]. Uganda’s colonial boundaries were created by Britain in 1894, only shortly after the first European missionaries contacted the continent. These missionaries were primarily British Protestants and French Catholics, now the two largest religious groups in Uganda at 45.1% and 39.3% respectively. As world religions began taking hold in Uganda, there was a power struggle between Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims (who had begun to crop up somewhat before Christians). Ultimately, Protestantism, in conjunction with British rule, won out and took its place as a quasi-institutional religion (Ward, 2013, p.129). Uganda gained its independence from Britain in 1962 but retained its position in the Commonwealth of Nations. Post-independence, Uganda’s politics was characterized by a whirlwind of strongmen, human rights abuses, and conflict. It began with the rule of Milton Obote, followed closely by Idi Amin, whose dictatorial regime cost the lives of approximately 300,000 people. In a national coup, Obote took over again from Amin, but unfortunately, his human rights abuses killed another 100,000 people (CIA World Factbook, 2018). Obote’s main political rival during his second presidency was Yoweri Museveni, who had played a significant role in the uprising against Idi Amin (Lyons and Kiwanuka, 2019). He formed an opposition group called the National Resistance Movement, waging a battle against Obote’s government and eventually taking over in 1986. Museveni has retained power since 1986, making him Uganda’s longest-running leader.
III. Democratic Backsliding in Uganda
Uganda is perhaps one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s best examples of democratic backsliding in practice, illustrating some of the most insidious and problematic elements of an illiberal democracy. Democratic backsliding most broadly “denotes the state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy” (Bermeo, 2016, p.5). Uganda exemplifies this; “previously considered a reforming and promising African country, economically and politically, Uganda has in recent years suffered substantial shrinkage of democratic space” (Khisa, 2019, p.343).
Uganda’s democratic backslide is illustrated in a number of ways. Most notable are actions by current President Yoweri Museveni, to retain power and reduce democratic institutions. Many of the freedoms associated with liberal democracy have been severely limited under Museveni.
From a political standpoint, Museveni’s actions can be understood as textbook executive aggrandizement, defined by Bermeo as “elected executives [weakening] checks on executive power one by one…”(2016, p.10). In recent years, Museveni has eroded the independence of Uganda’s parliament, the judiciary, and legal institutions. Through electoral malpractice, Museveni has severely limited the autonomy of Uganda’s parliament, reducing their ability to serve as a vehicle for executive oversight (Khisa, 2019. P.345).
Additionally, Museveni has clearly been making moves toward the path of “president for life” as illustrated by a number of moves to reduce the check on executive power. He began his assault in the early 2000s, with an attack on presidential term limits. His removal of term limits came after almost 2 decades of single-party rule. Subsequently, Museveni, now 75 years old, recently enacted a law removing the presidential age limit, which was set at 75, a move that will likely make him president for life. These actions illustrate the trend of executive aggrandizement the Museveni and other state actors follow in the process of democratic backsliding.
Other elements of Uganda’s illiberal democracy include limitations on rights such as the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the press, and freedom of association. Under Museveni, all of these have been severely restricted. Peaceable assemblies and demonstrations are routinely blocked, and the media is heavily regulated by the government including the arrest of a number of high-profile journalists. Freedom of association represents a huge problem in Uganda, with specific legal actions being taken against Non-Governmental Organizations. This, in part, reduces the power of political enemies of the state, but it has also severely reduced democratization efforts in Uganda.
IV. LGBT Rights Abuses as an Element of Illiberal Democracy
In recent years, perhaps Uganda’s most noted human rights issue regards the treatment of LGBT+ Ugandans. Widely recognized as one of the world’s most homophobic nations, Uganda has made headlines for draconian legislation against the LGBT+ community.
Same-sex relations are currently criminalized under Ugandan law and legislation has been proposed to further punish those accused of homosexual activity. In addition to this legislation, police have “failed to end the practice of forced anal examinations of men and transgender women accused of consensual same-sex conduct” (Human Rights Watch, 2019). This and practices like it characterize Uganda’s blatantly anti-homosexual culture and practices, illustrating a wide-spread and systemic human rights abuse that typifies illiberal democracy.
Perhaps most notable in the annals of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality legislation is the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014. This bill, first introduced in 2009, would have required life imprisonment as a punishment for “aggravated homosexuality” and proposed years in prison for anyone who counsels or helps gays or lesbians (Karimi and Thompson, 2014). This law, eventually struck down by Uganda’s Constitutional Court on a technicality, was widely criticized by the global community and Uganda faced a number of threats from other nations to pull aid should the bill pass.
While it ultimately failed, this bill has far from left the collective social consciousness in Uganda. In fact, just this year, Uganda again threatened to reintroduce the anti-homosexuality act. This actually illustrates perfectly the relationship that homophobia has to democratic backsliding. Aside from being a human rights abuse characteristic of a backsliding democracy, Uganda’s homophobic legislation is typical political gameplaying from a strongman trying desperately to hold onto power by any means necessary.
V. Complexity Around the Sources of Ugandan Homophobia
It is also worth examining the source of Uganda’s homophobic tendencies. While Ugandans today argue that homosexuality is a Western export, historical data suggests that pre-colonialism, Uganda’s kingdoms had a widely accepting attitude toward homosexuality. The first anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda came from the British in the Colonial era. These were later enshrined in Uganda’s legal schema upon gaining independence in the 1960s. In this way, we can understand the source of anti-homosexuality sentiment to be primarily Western and Colonial. This is simplistic, however, and widely denied by most Ugandans. Most argue that homosexuality itself is a Western export and it is often framed as antithetical to traditional Ugandan Christian values. This presents a complexity around the source of homophobia in Uganda. In some way, we must understand it as simultaneously of Western origin and uniquely Ugandan, deeply rooted in their religious and political tradition.
One possible root of Ugandan homophobia is the event known as the Mwanga Martyrs. The situation is often used as a justification for anti-homosexuality sentiment, though the details are somewhat unclear because much of the story has been changed to fit the propagandized account that justifies homophobic legislation. Broadly, in pre-colonial Buganda, the Kabaka Mwanga II killed 31 people for refusing to renounce Christianity. By all accounts, the Kabaka was threatened politically by the growing religious zeal in his country, and the killings were committed primarily based on this political motive. That has not stopped the use of the Mwanga Martyrs to justify homophobia, however. It is also widely reported that the Kabaka had the “vice of homosexuality,” and that the killings of the martyrs were primarily based on their refusal to do him sexual favors (Blevins, 2011, p.55). This telling of the story, though probably not a source for the homophobia that characterizes Ugandan social politics today, is clearly a major part of its roots and functions as a justification of anti-homosexual legislation.
The story of the martyrs also illustrates a problem in the narrative that modern Ugandans have around homosexuality. Ugandans often argue that homosexuality is a Western export and to be gay is completely foreign to Uganda. As argued by Rahul Rao, the idea that the “public commemoration of these events can coexist with the claim that same-sex intimacy is alien to Uganda,” illustrates a cognitive dissonance in the narrative surrounding Ugandan homosexuality (Rao, 2013, p.1).
Though many Ugandans argue that homosexuality is of Western origin, it may be more accurate to say that homophobia is of Western origin. A number of American Pentecostal and Evangelical campaigns have been blamed for spreading homophobic tendencies to Uganda (Ward, 2013, p.138). Whether or not the US can or should shoulder the blame for Ugandan homophobia is complicated, to say the least, but it is undeniable that, to some extent, US groups are responsible for putting homosexuality on the agenda of Ugandan groups. While they may not have actively made Uganda homophobic, Pentecostal and Evangelical groups from the US definitely contributed to the centrality of homophobia in Ugandan politics.
VI. Christianity as an Agent for Liberal Democracy
Although it is undeniable that religion has in some ways been a serious detriment to democracy in Uganda, specifically through the reinforcement of homophobia, it can also play a major role in democratization. Specifically, there is compelling evidence that Catholic and mainline Protestant churches in Uganda are actively fighting for more democratization. This takes a number of forms, most commonly pastoral letters in support of liberal democratic institutions like rights affirming laws and free and fair elections. That said, there is also evidence that even in the issue of LGBT+ rights, there is religiously based support for more rights. Pastoral letters are written communications from a church or religious organization that advocate or argue for a particular issue
One pastoral letter from the Uganda Episcopal Conference, the local branch of the Roman Catholic Church, illustrates how Ugandan religious organizations support democratization efforts. This letter primarily advocates free and fair elections by addressing the corruption that characterizes Uganda’s political system. They specifically argue against intolerance, saying “there is no justification whatsoever for individuals or groups preventing others from freely exercising their political rights” (Uganda Episcopal Conference, 2015, p.4). While probably intentionally nonspecific, this argument against intolerance may be a veiled reference to homosexuality. Uganda’s Catholic Church is not publicly pro-gay, however, this reference to intolerance at the very least illustrates the possibility of advocating tolerance for the gay community. They also specifically deal with many aspects of Uganda’s backsliding democracy such as police brutality, election issues, and political conflicts. Whether or not the Church supports LGBT+ rights, we definitely see evidence of explicit support of liberal democracy.
There are, however, a number of LGBT+ affirming organizations in Uganda. Possibly because of the centrality of the homosexuality debate, there are a number of pro-gay and lesbian organizations, many of which have a religious perspective. Christianity holds a central place in Ugandan social life, so even organizations that support LGBT+ people have religious roots and leanings. New Ways Ministry, an organization whose goal is to connect Catholics to the issue of homosexuality, is one way that the gap between LGBT+ people and religion is bridged (Ward, 2013, p.139). This bridge is a necessary one in a nation where Christianity is so central to cultural life, and it illustrates the role that religion might play in politics as time goes on.
Even within the Church of Uganda, Uganda’s official mainline protestant church, there are voices in support of LGBT+ rights. According to Kevin Ward, retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo became one of the first to speak out in support of gay and lesbian Ugandans, for which he received considerable backlash. Another who has spoken out against the prevailing homophobia is Canon Gideon Byamugisha, a prominent HIV activist and Anglican priest (2013, p.138).
Overall, there is a minor but noticeable trend in mainstream Ugandan Christianity in support not only of liberal democracy but tolerance and human rights as a function of liberal democracy. If we understand Uganda’s LGBT+ rights issue as a human rights issue, elemental to democratic backslide, as we should, then we can see religious efforts against democratic erosion as rights affirming. The centrality of religion in Ugandan politics makes Christianity a vital player in democratization, and, based on pro-democracy trends in both the Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches, we can understand religion as a force against the democratic backslide that characterizes Uganda today.
Ugandan Christianity has already begun to play a major role in shaping democracy in the nation. The trend toward rights affirming democratization among both the Ugandan Episcopal Conference and the Church of Uganda is important in an otherwise backsliding democracy. And though it is often minor, religious support for the LGBT+ community illustrates a rights-affirming element of this support for democracy that may be generalizable to other Sub-Saharan African nations. Uganda exemplifies the trend of democratic erosion today. But it may also exemplify the solution. Religious support for rights-affirming democracy may be an invaluable part of many Sub-Saharan nations’ move