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Presidents face growing pressure on draconian anti-gay laws

Populist politics clash with diplomatic imperatives in debate over planned legislation on sexual behaviour and information services

Weeks after Ghana's President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo played down the prospects of his approving a draconian anti-homosexuality bill, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni had appeared to be following similar tactics by calling for parliament's original draft of the bill to be revised.

This now looks less likely following Uganda's parliament passing a new version of its earlier anti-homosexuality bill on 2 May. Museveni reviewed the first draft of the bill and proposed some amendments but the latest version of the bill still includes most of the toughest measures backed by parliament in March (AC Vol 64 No 6, Doubling down on anti-gay bill).

These include the death penalty for some same-sex acts and a 20-year sentence for 'promoting' homosexuality. Activists say this would render civil society groups advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) citizens liable to prosecution.

Museveni had said he wanted new clauses including amnesty to be added to the Bill for those wishing to denounce acts of homosexuality and seek rehabilitation. This follows Attorney-General Kiryowa Kiwanuka's advice that amnesty be provided to individuals voluntarily coming out, as has been provided for criminal acts of treachery.

Kiwanuka has previously said that the Bill is unnecessary because it duplicates offences in existing laws like the Penal Code Act. Museveni has long opposed LGBTQ rights but has taken the stance that the issue is not a priority, perhaps to avoid inflaming relations with the west.

He signed an anti-LGBTQ law in 2013 that western countries condemned and that a domestic court revoked on procedural grounds. The bill had the death penalty removed after pressure, but life imprisonment was set as the maximum term for 'aggravated homosexuality'.

What happens with the anti-LGBTQ laws in Uganda could shape the attitude of governments elsewhere in the continent, especially where some evangelical Christian movements, with fast-growing congregations, are pushing for tougher laws.

President Akufo-Addo's comments at a joint press conference in Accra with United States Vice-President Kamala Harris, during her visit in April on her West African tour, hinted at amendments to water the bill down. Parliament would consider the sensitivity of the bill to human rights issues and the public's feeling 'and come out with a responsible response,' he said.

Ghanaian officials maintain that the government is not under pressure to change existing legislation, though Samuel Nartey George, the parliamentarian who sponsored the bill, insists the proposed bill will emerge 'rigid and tough'.

Ghana's proposed law is similar to the Ugandan bill and could see LGBTQ Ghanaians face jail sentences or be forced into 'conversion therapy' – a widely discredited practice debunked by many doctors and psychiatrists around the world (AC Vol 62 No 23, Populist anti-gay bill divides churches and activists).

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