Once regarded as an example of enlightened African leadership, Uganda‘s president, Yoweri Museveni, is currently something of an international pariah. His decision to sign a bill into law that imposes harsh penalties for homosexuality has resulted in cuts to the country’s generous aid budget.
The US described the adoption of the law as a tragic day for Uganda, and the secretary of state, John Kerry, announced that “all dimensions” of US engagement with the country would be reviewed, including the aid budget.
Britain is not following suit. The Department for International Development said all direct support to the Ugandan government had been cut in November after a corruption scandal, but a spokesman said the £97.9m in this year’s budget would not be withheld. “The UK remains committed to supporting the people of Uganda,” he said. The money will now be channelled through alternative routes, including international aid agencies that met the UK’s human rights principles.
Other European donors have taken a tougher line. Norway said it would be withholding $8m in development aid, and Denmark will divert $9m away from the government. “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,” the Danish trade and development minister, Mogens Jensen, said. Austria said it was reviewing its assistance.
Uganda has traditionally been one of the largest recipients of international aid. According to the Overseas Development Institute, the country received $1.6bn (£960m) in 2011, making it the world’s 20th largest aid recipient. Between 2006 and 2010 the US was the biggest donor, providing $1.7bn, followed by Britain with $694m.
Uganda’s recent growth has reduced its aid dependence and the country hopes its newly found oil reserves will bear fruit in 2016. With aid a decreasing share of government revenues, the hold donor countries have over Museveni has weakened. Uganda is also an important strategic ally, providing troops to Somalia in their fight against al-Shabaab.
While Western donors have been scrambling to react to the passing of the bill there has been almost no response from other African leaders, many of whom have similar legislation. South Africa, one of the few African countries to protect the rights of gay men and women and allow gay marriage, has issued a statement calling for clarification from various countries about their laws on sexual orientation, a government official said on Tuesday.
International relations department spokesperson Clayson Monyela said in a statement: “South Africa believes that no persons should be subjected to discrimination or violence on any ground, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”
Masked Kenyan protesters rally against Uganda’s anti-gay law outside the country’s high commission in Nairobi. Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA
The African Union offices in Addis Ababa have been similarly silent. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on African leaders to respect gay rights when he addressed their summit in January 2012, but they have been reluctant to tackle the issue.
“Let me mention one form of discrimination that has been ignored, or even sanctioned, by many states for far too long … discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Ban said. “This has prompted some governments to treat people as second-class citizens, or even criminals.”
Ban’s call for action brought little response. Activists have attempted to raise the issue with the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, but this, too, has met with little success.
Homophobia is entrenched in Africa. The Uganda daily Red Pepper plastered its front page with a single headline: Exposed! Uganda’s Top Homos Named. Photographs of some allegedly gay men ran alongside the text.
There has, however, been one small ray of hope. A Zambian court has cleared a prominent rights activist, Paul Kasonkomona, of encouraging homosexuality after he called for gay rights to be recognised. He was arrested in April 2013 and charged with soliciting.
“This is a great victory for freedom of expression,” his lawyer, Anneke Meerkotter, said. “The mood in the court was one of great relief.”