By Cd Kirven, March 09, 2014.
On Monday, Feb. 24, President Yoweri Museveni signed Uganda’s notorious anti-gay bill into law. Museveni has once again found himself in the middle of an international controversy by enacting legislation that imposes harsh prison sentences, including a life sentence for so called “aggravated homosexuality.” The bill was originally introduced back in 2009 but was met with a firestorm of opposition from LGBT activists and human rights groups. Now, with the law on the books and the United States losing influence in Uganda, advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights in that country will be difficult.
President Museveni has strategically positioned Uganda on the world stage, making his country imperative to those seeking a foothold in a region accustomed to violent conflict. In 2011, several U.S. soldiers attached to the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) completed military-to-military training of more than 170 Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) soldiers. The 16-week training program, led by U.S. soldiers, covered first aid, land navigation, search techniques, military operations in urban terrain, identifying improvised explosive devices, vehicle searches, and entry control point procedures. Ugandan soldiers were also provided basic military equipment. The $45 million in military equipment provided by the Pentagon to Uganda included four small drones, body armor, night-vision and communications gear.
The U.S. provides over $485 million in assistance to Uganda each year in health services and military training. The aid that Uganda receives from foreign countries accounts for fully 20 percent of its national budget. But a cut in aid to Uganda by the U.S. is unlikely because Uganda safeguards U.S. interests in Africa, that has been overtaken by security concerns over growing terrorist threats. The UPDF supplied soldiers for “peacekeeping,” missions in Somalia battling al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate. The same soldiers trained by our government are used by President Museveni as weapons against the LGBT community. So why is America giving Uganda the tools to dismantle the work of the global LGBT movement?
I believe money is the motive. Phillip Apuuli Kasaija, a program manager at the Institute for Security Studies, told Bloomberg, “The discovery of oil in parts of northern Uganda makes it presumably the next frontier of exploration.” Uganda’s leadership is aware of its enormous bargining position and responded to growing public outrage over its anti-gay legislation by turning the legislation into a symbol of its independence from its socially liberal Western partners. Before the law was enacted, police were already rounding up 30 to 40 “suspected homosexuals” each week, according to published accounts by Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. Mugisha says that the mere passage of the law back in December caused an increase in anti-gay vigilantism, and that some religious leaders were calling for gays to be killed or burned in some local communities.
Last week the World Bank announced that due to the passage of the harsh anti-gay bill, it would freeze a $90-million loan meant to upgrade Uganda’s health services. Meanwhile, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway announced cuts in aid to Uganda (over $8 million from each country), deciding to divert funds to private agencies and civic groups. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Museveni’s signing of the law “is a tragic day for Uganda” and added that the U.S. is “beginning an internal review of our relationship with the government of Uganda,” hinting that Uganda may lose U.S. aid too.
The Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper published a list of the country’s “200 Top Homos” last week. A similar list was published in 2010 and was likely a contributing factor in the brutal killing of LGBT rights activist David Kato. This fact hasn’t prompted action by the Obama administration, which seems to be dragging its feet on taking any real action against Uganda’s human rights violations against its LGBT citizens. But Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a senior member of the chamber and the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement:
I am deeply concerned by the decision of President Museveni of Uganda to sign into law the anti-homosexuality bill. Much of U.S. assistance to Uganda is for the people of Uganda, including those in the Ugandan LGBT community whose human rights are being so tragically violated.
Uganda’s government does not appear to be too concerned over the threats by the United States and other countries to cut aid for outlawing homosexuality. “The West can keep their ‘aid’ to Uganda over homos, we shall still develop without it,” government spokesman Ofwono Opondo tweeted.
African online news sources accuse Uganda of being a political procurement company for soldiers, savagery and peace missions. President Museveni is the CEO willing to sell to the highest bidder while Uganda’s military footprint overseas is only surpassed by the U.S. Meanwhile, China is waiting earnestly for an opening to tap into Uganda’s newly discovered energy reserves. The possibility of newly discovered resources has created worldwide interest in Uganda’s prospective commodities and given Uganda a license to discriminate, because it knows it can get away with it. Now the U.S. finds itself caught between its interests and LGBT equality. This also explains why American leadership selectively addressed human rights violations committed by Uganda while remaining publicly apathetic regarding issues with abeyantly life-or-death consequences. While the U.S. weighs its options, it must also take into account that China’s investments in Uganda’s energy reserves have replaced aid as the main source of revenue for Uganda’s government.
Fervid media reports across Africa continue to drive Uganda’s increasing influence, and the leadership has enacted a plan of giving into the West’s demands for a dependable partner in provincial security. Uganda’s defense spending skyrocketed in 2011 as Uganda spent over $1 billion. Recently, Museveni finds himself under a cloud of suspicion, as donors begin to question why most of the currency removed from, Consolidated Fund of Uganda, does not requirement of pre-authorization from parliament for withdrawal. Benefactors, including the U.S., remained quiet as it is alleged that aid has basically become a cash machine for President Museveni.
Where does this leave the LGBT community? There are legitimate reasons for international LGBT rights advocates to be alarmed by what has emerged from Uganda, from the substance of the bill to the ways in which U.S. political representatives, and tax dollars may have been directly or indirectly utilized in facilitating anti-LGBT sentiment across Africa.
We should support asylum for those who want to escape the brutality of Uganda’s legalized bigotry, and the LGBT community should financially support efforts by activists like Melanie Nathan, whose crowdfunding campaign assists those from Uganda in hiding, with some seeking asylum.
We should also hold our country accountable for creating this vicious homophobic monster, and for giving it the tools to dismantle human right achievements made by the global LGBT population in search of universal acceptance. I believe the U.S. should cut aid to Uganda and refuse to fund hate. I also believe U.S. can divert those funds to private agencies and civic groups so that it will reach those who are truly in need of assistance. The LGBT community should boycott Starbucks and other companies that carry “blood beans” from Uganda. Products from Uganda and its African partners are stained with the blood of its LGBT inhabitants. We should pressure U.S. companies to maintain transparent, ethical guidelines with economic partners to ensure humane treatment of indigenous LGBT populations.
We must continue an international push for rights and freedom promised by democracy and grounded in liberty and justice for all.
By CD Kirven