Uganda president warns of economic impact of anti-gay bill

Kampala (AFP) - Uganda's president on Friday signalled he is having second thoughts over tough anti-homosexuality legislation, arguing the east African nation needed to consider the impact on trade and economic growth.

In an editorial carried by a leading national daily, veteran President Yoweri Museveni said he only signed off on a controversial anti-gay law earlier this year because he wanted to protect children and stop people being "recruited" into homosexuality.

But he said that although Uganda could endure aid cuts, it would be badly hit by a trade boycott.

The comments, carried by the New Vision newspaper, came as Ugandan MPs are trying to present anti-gay legislation for a second time. The bill had been voted through and signed off on by Museveni earlier this year, but was struck down by the constitutional court on a technicality.

The legislation would see homosexuals potentially jailed for life, outlaws the promotion of homosexuality and obliges Ugandans to denounce gays to the authorities. Although popular domestically, it was branded draconian and "abominable" by rights groups and condemned by several key allies and donors including the European Union and United States.

"I supported the idea of punishing harshly those who lure minors into homosexuality. We should also punish harshly those who engage in homosexual prostitution," Museveni wrote.

"Our scientists argued that all homosexuality was by nurture not nature. On the basis of that, I agreed to sign the bill, although some people still contest that understanding," he added, saying he "was also provoked into signing the bill by the arrogant approach of some foreign governments."

- 'Kill the snake' -

Museveni, who last month had trouble finding a hotel room in Texas following protests by gay rights activists, said Uganda now needed to take stock of its national interests in deciding what to do next.

"It is about us deciding what is best for our country in the realm of foreign trade, which is such an important stimulus for growth and transformation that it has no equal," he said, raising fears over "the possibility of trade boycott by Western companies under the pressure of the homosexual lobbies in the West."

"It is now an issue of a snake in a clay cooking pot. We want to kill the snake, but we do not want to break the pot. We want to protect our children from homosexuality, but we do not want to kill our trade opportunities. That now forces us to disassemble this whole issue."

The president, aged 70 and one of Africa's longest-serving leaders, said he had been in touch with David Bahati, an MP and key architect of the legislation, and told him to link him up with "delegations of business people" to "discuss and see how to resolve this issue".

Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda under a 1950s Penal Code which lumps sodomy together with bestiality and prescribes a maximum sentence of life in jail -- although according to rights groups there have been no convictions under the old code.

Last month Museveni's top political advisor, Moses Byaruhanga, also published a commentary in the Monitor newspaper insisting that the existing penal code went far enough and there was no need to pass a new law "which is bringing us into collusion with our trade partners."

He also urged socially conservative Ugandans to "borrow from Pope Francis", who declared last year that it was not his place to judge homosexuals.