Vous êtes ici : Accueil » Communiqués / luttes et débats » Livres Etudes Débats » “God-fearing nations” – understanding the rise of homophobia and homophobic (…)

“God-fearing nations” – understanding the rise of homophobia and homophobic legislations in East Africa and beyond

D 28 octobre 2023     H 14:43     A Barbara Bompani     C 0 messages

Barbara Bompani takes aim at the dominant narrative that rising homophobia in Africa is the result of external actors, and in particular US conservative Christian groups. Drawing from more than a decade of research and analysis, she argues rising homophobia is not simply the result of external influence, but is shaped by the complex role religion has played in shaping new forms of nationalisms on the continent. What we are observing in several African countries, she contends, is the emergence of a new politics that threatens untold and profound harm to LGBT communities.

By Barbara Bompani

Learning from Uganda

After almost a decade away from the public eye, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB) reappeared in the Ugandan Parliament in early March 2023. Following parliamentary debate the Bill was voted for and passed to the President’s Office to be signed into law, opposed only by two members of the Ugandan Parliament. The new Bill was harsher than the earlier version that passed in December 2013 (‘a Christmas gift’ to the Christian community, as announced by the then speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga), was signed into law by President Museveni in February 2014, and was ultimately nullified by the Constitutional Court in August of the same year.

The 2023 Bill added further criminal offenses including prosecution for ‘promoting homosexuality’, for anyone ‘supporting homosexuality’ (under such a large interpretative umbrella that even journalists writing non-critically about LGBT rights could be charged) punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and the recommending of the death penalty for certain same-sex acts. The Parliament passed it for a second and final time on 2 May with minor changes to align the Bill with Uganda’s Constitution and President Museveni signed it into law on the 29 May 2023, despite the dismay of the international community.

The Anti-homosexuality Act (AHA) 2023 emerged in a different climate from the 2013/4 attempt, benefiting from broader support from a network of national and international actors. While religious figures have always been behind the proposal and passage of the Bill, a decade ago mainly Ugandan Pentecostal-charismatic actors were at the forefront of this punitive legislation, inspired by their very public and vocal fight against what the majority of Pentecostal leaders consider the irreconcilable “a-moral LGBT community” (Bompani 2016). Along with Pentecostal premillennial visions of moral decay and their call to fight to ‘restore’ a moral Christian nation, prominent political figures were clearly associated with this Christian denomination, most notably the First Lady and Minister of Education, Janet Museveni, MP David Bahati (promoter of the very first Bill in 2009), and the then speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga.

However, with the AHA 2023 the situation is markedly different as high-profile religious leaders from all main religious groups publicly supported the legislation (see Anglican leaders and the Muslim minority), the act was promoted with funding from conservative US Christian groups, and support for more punitive anti-LGBT legislation was growing across other East African countries. Some even argue that this recent anti-LGBT campaign is fueled by Russia to push Global South countries away from the West. While Tweets of the Russian embassy in Kenya and fresh Russian attention on Africa (harking back to the Cold War) perhaps suggest this, for now these claims are not supported with evidence while Russia is deeply committed to other geopolitical causes.

The passing of the 2023 AHA highlights the multiplicity of actors, motivations, and narratives at work. It is apparent that most recent analyses and readings of the AHA place a strong emphasis on the ‘external actors’ with influence (financial and beyond) over President Museveni pushing for the passing of the law, with particular attention paid to the role played by US conservative Christian groups. Indeed, much media coverage and other analyses unpacked direct links between the re-tabling of the Bill with the renewed work of US conservative evangelical Christian networks, to which Pentecostals belong.

The promotion of the Bill even in its very first version in 2009 can be considered in part inspired by the US conservative Christian right mobilisation that emerged from a March 2009 conference entitled ‘Exposing the Homosexual Agenda’ organised in a hotel in Kampala by the Uganda based Family Life Network, the American pastor Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries (then challenged by the LGBT Ugandan organisation SMUG in a lawsuit in Massachusetts) and the American Dan Schmierer of the ex-gay Exodus International (a Christian umbrella organisation that promoted the idea that gay people could change their sexual orientation).

The 2023 AHA has been depicted by many observers (academic, human rights activists and politicians) as the culmination of more than a decade of collaboration between Ugandan elite interest groups and US ultra-conservative groups. In particular, the US-registered non-profit Family Watch International, through Sharon Slater (a US citizen), brought together 150 ultra-conservative campaigners in Uganda, with the organisation apparently convening a private WhatsApp group including several Ugandan politicians (Wepukhulu in OpenDemocracy 2023). It is widely accepted that Family Watch International has, for a decade, been encouraging African politicians and religious and civic leaders to oppose comprehensive sexuality education across the continent (see for example on social media, Twitter, 10 April 2023).

The US-registered Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family in Uganda, is an active actor in the ‘National Prayer Breakfast’ which has frequently been defined as an ultra-conservative group. The same David Bahati leads the Thursday parliamentary Breakfast Prayer group modeled on the weekly prayer breakfasts that take place in US Congress and he has clear links to the The Family (along with the Ugandan Pastor Steven Langa of Family Life Network and other Ugandan religious and political leaders, including First Lady Janet Museveni). There has also been discussions around generous donations to conservative Ugandan groups from these organisations to support the promotion of anti-gender and anti-LGBT policies.

Ugandan Christian Nationalism

Although those connections and influences are relevant, it would be overly reductive to assume that such a complex, contested and symbolic legislation was primarily the result of US Christian conservative interference or the (still weak) influence of Russian foreign policy. Homosexuality was, after all, already punishable through the Ugandan Penal Code 1950. In a globalised world and through world religions such as Christianity, actions, ideas, people, and resources interact, coexist, and influence simultaneously at any given time. In recent analyses, for example, few blame Catholic organisations for promoting conservative interpretations of family values in the build up of the AHA 2023, although organisations such as CitizenGo, a movement of Catholic activists, undertake advocacy work for the promotion of family values in Uganda and across the continent. Similarly, little attention is paid to Ugandan conservative churches actively involved in so-called ‘crusades’ to implant Ugandan Pentecostal churches in other African (and beyond) countries (for example in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and South Africa), promoting their own values and morally inspired agendas in new places and contexts.

Drawing from more than a decade of analysis of the politicisation of sexuality in Uganda and beyond, I argue that posing the question ‘were US conservative Christian groups behind the Ugandan AHA 2023 ?’ is problematic, as it over emphasises the role of external actors in shaping Ugandan religion and politics. The AHA did not pass because a handful of US conservative groups funded or organised a series of events in the country, or because of intercontinental religious networks, or as a result of the existence of WhatsApp groups. It passed with wide support because of complex social changes taking place in the country that require careful unpacking and insight into social imaginaries, particularly in relation to dynamics of inequality and possibilities for the future.

Ugandan society is not at ease with the unmet promises of development brought in with the postcolonial (1962) and post-war(s) (1986) projects of progress. A heavily overseas development assistance-dependent country that struggles to flourish economically and meet the promises of development coupled with a gerontocratic political leadership aggressively controlling decision areas of power, leaves little space for imagining transformation or change. Preoccupations of a different and better future are real and material, especially among the very large Ugandan youth population, as data from a recent Afrobarometer survey attest.

In this context, since the beginning of the 21st century, Conservative Ugandan Christian forces have influenced society, offering answers to social anxieties and proposing a vision of a better future through moral regeneration – something that political forces have not been able to deliver, especially to a very young, globally connected, dissatisfied population. Pentecostalism is an active religious expression that fights to establish itself in society and ensure that its own theological markers (among them the fight against homosexuality) are accepted and supported in society and protected by politics. This is true also in other contexts beyond Africa (see the US and Eastern Europe).

Ugandan Pentecostalism has been successful in ‘Pentecostalizing’ the socio-political sphere through its own active public action and connections with circles of power (Bompani, 2022) ; so much so that Pentecostal priorities became national priorities. In fact, if the AHA 2014 can be read as a legislation desired by Pentecostal forces, the AHA 2023 has been supported by Pentecostals but also by many other religious and non-religious groups that have embraced the Pentecostal idea that the Ugandan nation needs to regenerate from a moral point of view in order to build a better future. This change was possible because of Ugandan Pentecostal work in the everyday, in the community and in the public sphere where the formulation of a collective transformation of society through a moral regeneration of the nation are consistently reiterated and absorbed.

This moral Christian nationalism is the milieu that must be understood if we want to understand the emergence of broad-based support for anti-LGBT legislation. Understanding the emergence of this new moral Christian nationalism is necessary to understand growing anti-LGBT attitudes. The wide support that Ugandan society gives to the AHA can be understood as the slow convergence of Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal spheres of the imagination of a different future for the Ugandan nation.

Sexual anxieties that are close to Pentecostal conservative theological interpretations and readings of the Bible are in line with and encapsulate other sets of social anxieties and worries for the future are readily absorbed by non-Pentecostals. In moments of social pressure and change, with a lack of secure points of reference at a national as well as at an international level, sexuality and the body become intertwined with the idea of future through reproduction.

In many public narratives the imagining of the future increasingly belongs to ‘moral citizens’, with conservative Christian morality becoming capital for social differentiation between a regenerating nation versus corrupted (secular) Western countries depicted in those narratives as dangerously immoral. This increasingly feeds into a culture war with the West, a tension expressed by religious and non-religious politicians alike. We can see Christian nationalism operating as an influential political force in Uganda, and elsewhere in Africa.

Conditions for rising public homophobia

Through Pentecostal readings, the spiritual condition of the family determines the spiritual condition of everything else in society as the family represents the building block for the nation in its covenant with God. If families are healthy, then the nation will be. In Pentecostal narratives families (conceptualised as heterosexual families adopting traditional roles) are under attack by many forces, including LGBT rights, individualistic aspirations and pro-choice policies. The intense work of Ugandan Pentecostals brought these anxieties to the fore in national policies, resonating with important changes already happening to gender roles and family compositions in Uganda (Boyd, 2014). The family is constantly discussed in public and political spaces, including in the legal space in the build-up to the signing of the AHA. In 2013 a prominent Ugandan anti-LGBT pastor asked the Government to create a special body to protect the family and all issues concerning this institution (although this request remained formulated in very general and vague terms). According to Pastor Ssempa, ‘Issues of the family are more crucial than oil…[so] I propose that the Government also constitutes a department for the family called Uganda Family Authority’ (New Vision, 08 April 2013), a proposal that fell through as forces instead focused on the passing of the Anti-homosexuality Bill that year.

In neighbouring Kenya in 2023 anti-LGBT sentiments began to rise with lawmakers pushing for tougher anti-LGBT legislation (an anti sodomy law is already present in the Kenyan Penal Code), with the focus of many debates revolving around the need to protect the ‘traditional’ heterosexual family from the dangers constituted by pro-choice, pro-gay and pro-liberal forces. New anti-LGBT legislation proposed in April 2023 is entitled the ‘Family Protection Act’, de facto a set of very tight measurements against LGBT communities with penalties ranging from a minimum of ten years in prison to the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” (defined as “engaging in homosexual acts with a minor or disabled person and transmitting a terminal disease through sexual means”), and a total ban on any activities “that promote homosexuality”, such as wearing flags or emblems of the LGBTQ community with repercussion for the growing LGBT communities of refugees and displaced people seeking UN High Commissioner for Refugees protection in Nairobi. The parallels with Uganda are striking.

Meanwhile in Ghana, where homosexuality is already punishable with up to three years in jail, lawmakers have been debating an anti-LGBT Bill since August 2021 and in July 2023 the Supreme Court rejected an appeal moved by civil society organisations seeking to block the parliament to pass the Bill. This new Bill is framed around the idea of protecting the Ghanaian family from possible negative forces of change, reflected in the title ‘Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values’. If passed, this Bill would criminalise being transgender, same-sex relations and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, as well as further reducing freedoms.

More recently in Ethiopia (where homosexuality is punishable by up to 15 years in prison or up to 25 years if an offender uses violence, intimidation, coercion or fraud), the Addis Ababa City Peace and Security Administration Bureau announced that it is “taking action” against venues where LGBT people were gathering, calling Ethiopians to report homosexual activists to the nearest police station, adding that “the office has announced that it will continue to take consistent measures”. Police raided several locations and across social media there is a growing campaign to humiliate and persecute Ethiopian LGBT individuals, highlighted as a threat to the Christian, moral fibre of the nation. There are indications that other African countries may follow this path.

Given developments within several Africa states, it is important to try to unpick the emerging perception of homosexuality as a threat to the national agenda of a country. While some studies have been conducted in the US, there are specificities related to the African state that require further investigation. In all of those cases mentioned above, there has been a growing domestic Pentecostal community that on the basis of their demographic prominence and/or links to political power, began to promote their own agenda, primarily focused on moral and family concerns. There is a political elite keen to support Pentecostal causes. In some instances, such as in Kenya, the political elite may already belong to Pentecostal cadres, as for example the Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife Rachel Ruto, as well as the Vice-president and his wife, who made Pentecostal agendas clearly central to their political call in making Kenya a ‘God-fearing country’.

In Uganda those personal connections may be less clear and more pragmatic. For example, president Museveni never professed to be a Pentecostal, but maintains strong interests and connections with the Pentecostal community as a hub of potential voters during increasingly more contested elections and diminishing popularity in addition to his personal links through the first lady Janet Museveni, a leading Pentecostal figure. In Ethiopia, where Pentecostalism is still a minority denomination, Abiy Ahmed, a Pentecostal, was appointed as Prime Minister in March 2018, ecstatically proclaimed by many Ethiopians as a new prophet who would save the country from disintegration.

It is also worth noting that Pentecostal support in any country would revert to any political ally embracing their cause for moralising the nation. Pentecostal support comes no matter their track records, political reputation or personal integrity, or their own religious beliefs. In short, the cause of promoting morality is stronger than any assessment of the moral status of the political candidate. There are social and economic conditions (high unemployment rates, dissatisfaction with the current status quo, a lack of trust in the capacity – moral and tangible – of the political elite to promote positive transformation) and large young populations that see their future jeopardized and seek ways to bring change in economically stagnant countries. Finally, this sense of dissatisfaction not only links to distrust in the political elite, but also to distrust of the West and its (failed ?) promises of development and a better future.

In conclusion, it is important to recognise that the emergence of this identarian dichotomy (Us vs Them) is not simply the result of external influence, rather it is shaped by the complex role religion, for now conservative Christianity, has played in shaping new forms of nationalisms by pulling together religious, political, cultural and social realms in new ways in response to inter-generational unhappiness, development delayed, unmet expectations of change, and broken political promises. What we are observing in several African countries is the emergence of a complex, new politics that threatens untold and profound harm to LGBT communities (and possibly other communities as time passes) as agendas shift, and power waxes and wanes.


Bompani B. 2016 ‘For God and For My Country’ : Pentecostal-charismatic Churches and the Framing of a New Political Discourse in Uganda’ in van Klinken A & Chitando E (eds) Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa, Surrey : Routledge [chapter 1].

Bompani B. 2022. ‘The memory of persecution is in our blood’ : documenting loyalties, identities and motivations to political action in the Ugandan Pentecostal Movement’ in Journal of Modern African Studies vol 60, issue 4 (December), pp. 479-501.

Boyd L. 2014. ‘Ugandans born-again Christians and the moral politics of gender equality’ in Journal of Religion in Africa vol 44, issue 3-4, pp. 333-354.

New Vision, 08 April 2013 [print newspaper].

Wepukhulu K. S. (5 May 2023) ‘Calls for US anti-rights groups to face action over Uganda anti-gay law’ in OpenDemocracy : https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/uganda-anti-gay-law-sharon-slater-tim-kreutter/ [accessed on Friday 18 August]

Barbara Bompani is a Reader in Africa and International Development at the Centre of African Studies (CAS), School of Social and Political Science, the University of Edinburgh, UK and Research Associate to the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Featured Photograph : Marching in solidarity with Uganda’s LGBTI community (19 April 2018)

Voir en ligne : ROAPE