When newcomers ask Africaphiles where to travel on the continent, Uganda is a ready response. With its relative stability, accessibility and the goodwill ease of its residents, the country is an increasingly attractive destination for visitors. That's not to say that locals don't have their own concerns. Keeping it safe and running smoothly for all is an everyday endeavour.
Keep Calm & Carry On
Surprising almost nobody, President Museveni won a thumping victory in the 2016 presidential elections, earning an impressive 61% of the vote. As he began his fifth term as president, Museveni looked more and more like one of the African big men he himself used to rage against, and though his popularity wanes, no credible opposition has arisen that can make an impact at the polls.
With violence and instability rocking both neighbouring South Sudan and DRC, Uganda's relative normalcy keeps domestic criticism at bay. Over 1.2 million refugees have poured over the border from South Sudan, fleeing war and famine. While Uganda is doing its best to absorb the newcomers, there is no resolution to the crisis in sight.
Though there's been no further incident since the horrific bombings in Kampala in 2010 that left 74 dead, threats of terrorism remain a concern. The ongoing involvement of Ugandan troops in peacekeeping missions in Somalia have put the nation firmly in the targets of the Al-Shadab militia group. In light of the Nairobi attacks in 2013, Kampala remains on high alert with thorough security checks at malls, bars and restaurants now an everyday part of life.
Tensions have also bubbled to the surface with ethnic clashes involving kingdom disputes. In 2016 a crackdown by government forces on King Mumbere's royal guards – accused of militia involvement – ended with 46 guards killed and the royal palace in flames. It's sadly not an isolated incident, and tribal disputes have become commonplace in Western Uganda in recent years.
Uganda's controversial anti-gay legislators – egged on by US evangelical churches with a presence in Uganda – also keep the country in the international media spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The 'miniskirt law' is another worrying sign of Draconian measures, in which under the vague 'antipornography' bill, women would effectively be banned from wearing skirts above the knees. The bill was misinterpreted by many, which led to ugly scenes with vigilantes taking to the streets to harass and abuse women wearing short skirts. Fortunately it's an aspect of the bill that since seems to have been relaxed, with no further incident.
The Anti-Gay Bill
Since the controversial anti-gay bill that proposed the death penalty for homosexual behaviour was first drafted in 2009, Uganda has predictably come under fire from the international community. Barack Obama described it as 'odious', as the USA and several European governments cut foreign aid in protest, while the World Bank postponed its US$90 million loan. Though all references to the death penalty have since been removed, it's a piece of legislation that continues to rear its ugly head.
In February 2014 the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act was officially passed by parliament and signed off by President Museveni. The law made provisions for a life prison sentence to be applied to those convicted of 'aggravated homosexuality', a term that incorporated homosexuals convicted of rape, sex with a minor or knowingly spreading HIV, as well as 'serial offenders' – a clause that remains vague. Furthermore, under the legislation, anyone who failed to report homosexual behaviour could be imprisoned for up to three years.
In August 2014 Uganda's constitutional court found the Anti-Homosexuality Act to be illegal and it was overturned. Not to be deterred, the government is planning to introduce new, further-reaching legislation, incorporating prison sentences for those seen to be 'promoting' homosexuality.
Though homosexuality has officially been illegal in Uganda since the British introduced these laws in the 19th century, it is rarely, if ever, policed. The influence of visiting US evangelists has been widely reported, with many suggesting their preaching played a hand in whipping up anti-gay sentiment and influencing the anti-homosexuality bill. The documentary God Loves Uganda (2013) provides an interesting analysis on the subject.
So what does all this mean for LGBTQI travellers to Uganda, and is it safe to travel there? There's no doubt Ugandan culture is generally homophobic, so (as in other East African nations) discretion is vital. If travellers follow the lead of the local and expat gay community, who remain very much underground, there shouldn't be any threat. Keep in mind that displays of public affection – whether couples are heterosexual, gay or lesbian – are largely considered socially taboo.