US mulls response to Uganda’s anti-gay law but no easy answers

Wednesday February 26 2014

Daniel Kalinaki

Daniel Kalinaki 

By Daniel Kalinaki

The United States government is this week expected to announce its response to the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, which carries life imprisonment for people convicted of gay behaviour.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that Washington would conduct an internal review of its relations with Uganda after President Museveni signed the controversial bill into law.

The US has long been opposed to the law. President Barack Obama publicly warned that signing the Bill into law would affect relations with Uganda. Not only did President Museveni sign the bill, he did so at a public ceremony and in full glare of local and international journalists.

Never before has a piece of legislation so provocative been signed so publicly, certainly in Uganda.

US diplomats say a response from Washington DC can be expected as early as this week.

The United States is not without options but it finds itself in a rather awkward position: the easiest responses are unlikely to change the legislation or the political situation in Uganda. The more effective responses could harm US interests in the country and in east and central Africa.

A handful of donor countries have already announced plans to cut or divert aid. The Netherlands has frozen $9.6 million in aid earlier promised to Uganda’s legal system. Denmark and Norway say they will divert $17 million away from the government to non-governmental organisations in the country.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird described the law as “a serious setback for human rights, dignity and fundamental freedoms” which would “serve as an impediment in our relationship with the Ugandan government”.

Other countries are expected to respond in coming days.

The United States government is Uganda’s largest bilateral donor, contributing about 18 per cent of the $1.5 billion dollars the country receives in aid every year.

US aid pays for a plethora of programmes, from promoting good governance, human rights, democracy, and free and fair elections, to combating malaria and HIV/AIDS, to supporting the Ugandan military, et cetera. Think of a donor-funded project in Uganda and, if it is not a road or a bridge the US probably funds it.

This aid, however, bypasses the notoriously leaky pipes of Uganda government budget support, and flows through US-based contractors and local implementing partners in Uganda.

Washington cannot divert this aid because it is already out of government control; it cannot cut it without condemning people living with HIV to miss their next dose of anti-retroviral treatment, or pregnant women not getting an insecticide-treated mosquito net.

The US also offers vital support to the Ugandan army. This ranges from training combat troops and officer corps, to shared intelligence, to deployment of US Special Forces to help hunt down Joseph Kony’s LRA rebels in central Africa.

However, the US is a direct beneficiary of much of this intelligence; the UPDF forms the core of the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) force keeping the Al Shabaab from turning that country into a sanctuary for terrorists, including Al Qaeda and its off-shoots.

Although Kenyan and Ethiopian troops are now part of Amisom, the Somalia government would collapse if Uganda were to suddenly withdraw its over 6,000 troops from the country.

Although widely criticised, Uganda’s deployment of troops to South Sudan has propped up President Salva Kiir’s weakened government and perhaps prevented a vacuum and all-out civil war in that country, too.

US foreign policy wonks are keen to reduce the over-reliance on Uganda in policing the region and will be keen to act with more urgency after this standoff but it will take time, money, and allies willing to put boots on the ground. Few leaders in the region appear to share Museveni’s appetite for intervention or wherewithal within the military to deploy them at short notice.

That leaves Washington with the diplomatic route but even here it will be difficult to practice “our way or the highway” diplomacy. The bill, nasty as it may be to many liberals, is widely popular in Uganda where many people, especially in the populous rural areas, remain conservative and homophobic.

How far can Washington press back without sparking anti-western rhetoric and ideology? Peter Mwesige, a former newspaper editor in Kampala, says America’s public criticism “accelerated the drama of the Bill being passed”. It has also papered over the cracks and, at least temporarily, renewed Museveni’s political popularity.

President Museveni has slowly been courting alternative support in what one regime insider describes as “political insurance”. The Uganda leader insisted on London-listed Tullow Oil bringing in French and Chinese firms into the country’s oil sector, and Mr Museveni has been speaking to Iran and Russia about building an oil refinery in the country.

On the eve of signing the bill, Museveni launched a flight simulator to train Uganda’s air force pilots to fly Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets and vowed to cooperate more with Moscow, which, he said, does not interfere with its allies’ local politics.

Russia, of course, earlier passed its own version of Uganda’s anti-gay bill, as did Nigeria. As President Vladimir Putin remakes himself as the global guarantor of conservative values, the anti-homosexuality debate is taking on a global perspective fed by national-interest considerations.

“We are waiting to see what Obama plans to do to us and what he also plans to do to the Russians and the Nigerians,” a senior Ugandan minister, speaking on condition of anonymity in order not to aggravate state relations, said soon after the bill had been signed. “We shouldn’t deal with these issues in isolation; let’s look at what the rest of the world is doing.”

The rest of the world offers a complicated picture. Uganda is one of 38 African countries, out of 54, that criminalise same-sex relations. Throw in the Middle East and the Arab world and that number goes up.

The United States is, itself, not entirely free of homophobia. Eight states, several cities and counties impose restrictions on gay rights and promotion of homosexuality.

“Why do you single [Uganda] out for punishment when you also have laws against homosexuality in America,” the Ugandan minister said. “How is that democracy?”

President Museveni left the door open to dialogue, saying the law could be revised on the basis of scientific advice, including from the United States. A legal challenge by Ugandans that ties up the Ugandan law in Ugandan courts could provide a graceful exit for both critics and proponents.