US sanctions tread lightly on Uganda's 'odious' anti-gay laws

The White House review of Uganda's law to imprison gays will bring sanctions including aid diverted to NGOs and a cancelled Air Force exercise. But military assistance is untouched.

Rebecca Vassie/AP/File
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni gestures after signing a new anti-gay bill that would put 'repeat offenders' in prison for life, in Entebbe, Uganda, Feb. 24, 2014.

A loud cry rose from the West early this year when Uganda passed an anti-homosexuality law that would put “repeat offenders” in prison for life.

European countries slashed aid to Uganda and gay rights activists loudly condemned the legislation, which came at the same time that Nigeria also cracked down on homosexuals with similarly draconian laws. 

The “odious law,” as US President Barack Obama called Uganda's initiative, would “complicate” the US partnership with Kampala. He ordered a review of the largely military US-Uganda relationship, with the intent of imposing sanctions.

Those sanctions got announced last week. They are the toughest actions taken against anti-gay laws overseas by the Obama administration, and include the redirecting of US aid to Uganda to its NGOs, the cancelling of a planned hospital, the cancelling of a military exercise, and the dropping of some police funding.

In the US, Vice President Joseph Biden and US Secretary of State John Kerry touted the sanctions as significant during June Pride Month.

But the sanctions also represent a conundrum for the US as it tries to affirm some of its own values and viewpoints abroad at a time when its leverage is lower. 

Many human rights activists say the Uganda sanctions are too little, too late – even as some foreign affairs specialists say a US single-issue focus on gay rights actually strengthens a new “anti-West” narrative in parts of Africa and an attendant crackdown on civil society.

For one thing, the sanctions barely touch the extensive military relationship between the US and Uganda. The US military sees the East African nation as a key to security in the region.

“If they wanted to do something robust they could have but they did not,” says David Mpanga, a Ugandan columnist and lawyer who has represented gays who are arrested. “[The US] seems to be in a situation where they care about the relationship with Uganda for strategic reasons….strategic interests seem to be …paramount.”

Too little, too late?

Indeed, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who signed the anti-gay law and has been a shrewd consolidator of power for nearly three decades, is a key security ally for the US. He partners with the US to deal with Al Shabab in Somalia and to hunt Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony. The US supplies hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assistance to Uganda.

The cancelled air exercise, moreover, called the African Partnership Flight, is a fairly routine one that is held in numerous African nations.

“By pulling $2.4 million dollars off the police, by pulling the air exercise, Uganda isn’t going to be hurt,” Mr. Mpanga says.

Nor is it clear whether the US approach to making its values known, at least in the short term, is going to be effective in Uganda itself. Some East African gay activists, while appreciating Western support, said the West’s reaction actually fanned the flames of anti-gay and anti-West sentiment in Uganda.

Indeed, the anti-gay bill proved to be very popular and a point of pride in Uganda, and Mr. Museveni spoke floridly about what he described as a colonial-style imposition of secular values and Western interference.

In the weeks following the passage of the law, dozens of Ugandan gays and lesbians were battered, evicted from their homes, or went into exile as Ugandan lawmakers boasted that the West could not infringe on Ugandan sovereignty or impose upon “African values."

In June there was no similar backlash after the State Department announced sanctions – though Ugandan officials and state media reacted with bravado, asserting they don’t need American aid and comparing gays to cockroaches.

'There are limits'

The West has struggled to walk a consistent line with Uganda over rights and freedoms. Museveni has been accused of many abuses over his long rule, and with little condemnation from foreign partners.

In recent years, Ugandan newspapers have been raided, new laws have severely curtailed free assembly, and opposition leaders have fled the country. At the same time, Museveni has gone to Britain for summits and his son was recently welcomed to Florida in May for a military conference.

Uganda’s foreign minister, who supports anti-gay legislation, was elected president of the United Nations general assembly.

Some Africa specialists in the US say the Obama administration is sending a message to Kampala to curb its excesses and not push the envelope further.

"The cancellation of the [military] exercise should be understood as a shot across the bow that seeks to send the message to the Ugandan political leadership that there are limits to US assistance,” says Lesley Anne Warner, Africa analyst at the CNA Corporation. “This is an attempt to demonstrate that the US takes the erosion of human rights in Uganda seriously.”

But Ms. Warner adds that as long as Uganda is a stable country willing to work with America and fight abroad, it will remain “a key partner for the US military in Africa, both now and in the future.”

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