So Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill has finally been passed, after years of ‘will it, won’t it’ to-ing and fro-ing, signed by President Museveni at the end of February. The law has been modified from its original iteration – the death penalty for so-called ‘aggravated homosexuality’ was dropped a while back, and the clause which criminalised those who failed to report LGBTs has similarly been taken out – but it is still a virulent and horrific attack on the rights of LGBTs in a country in which homosexuality was already illegal, and those believed to be gay subject to intimidation and attack.
I’ve spent the past six or seven years following the unfolding story of the rise in homophobia (a word that doesn’t really do justice to the absolute hatred towards LGBTS held by many) in Uganda. Much has been written about the role of foreign and local Christian organisations, the incitement to intimidation that has been the very public ‘outings’ undertaken by certain Ugandan newspapers, and the potential impact of the various clauses of the new law.
What I am more interested in here is why Museveni has so publicly signed the bill now, risking his reputation with donors and setting up an inevitable confrontation with the US and the EU.
Since the 1990s, Museveni has been one of the most successful of African leaders in promoting himself as a vital and strategic ally to western powers, and a staunch supporter (and promoter) of economic reforms pushed by various donors and international finance organisations. He has done this by manipulating conflict in northern Uganda, the existence of various rebel groups (some of which appear to rest more in Ugandan government rhetoric than in reality) in neighbouring countries, and the attacks by Islamic militants in the country linked to Uganda’s involvement in Somalia. Through these, it has been able to define itself to western government audiences as both a victim of terror, and a vital ally in the Global War on Terror that begun in the early 2000s. Allying this with just enough verbal (if not necessarily actual) commitment to economic reform, it has done a very clever job in muting criticism of its governance record, of the rampant Third Termism, of which Museveni was a prime example, or of escalating military expenditure (defended as needed to counter domestic and international security threats which would also affect western strategic interests).
At the same time, Museveni has been manoeuvring within Ugandan politics to ensure he is seen as the indispensable leader – the only one who can protect Uganda against security threats from terrorists, and challenges to Ugandan independence from donors. Over the past decade he has done all he can to undermine political opponents (whether branding them as traitors or terrorists, or banning marches and media criticism). He secured his third term as president, following the now traditional route of constitutional change. And he has presented himself to Ugandans as a nationalist leader at his prime.
On the broader East African stage, Museveni’s regional ambitions have seen him described as ‘the Napoleon of Africa’ (I can’t remember who by, I’m afraid, but interestingly it echoes a longer-standing nickname of his, albeit for different reasons). So alongside Uganda’s presence in Somalia, and involvement in South Sudan, we also see Kikwete rapidly written out of the story of efforts to reconcile Odinga and Kibaki during the post-election violence in 2007-08. Museveni is determined that he personally is seen as the regional leader to whom others turn for advice, support and mediation.
I think it is within this context that we need to see the vacillations of Museveni over the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Since the bill was first introduced as a private members bill back in October 2009, it has been delayed, promised rapid action, delayed again, as Museveni has alternatively assured he would, then would not sign any bill passed by parliament. He has been seeking to address two different constituencies: donors, with his promises to water down, or even reject the bill, designed to show them that in Ugandan politics they cannot do without him to defend their interests as well as those of political and economic reform; and Ugandan citizens, to whom he casts himself as the protector of Ugandan values and independence against donors who would seek to enforce alien values (an image of the strong nationalist which also plays neatly into his regional ambitions). His actions also undermine the opposition: should they support the bill (which clearly resonates with much, but by no means all, opinion), risking making themselves look irrelevant and giving tacit support to Museveni’s claims to be defender of Ugandan autonomy; or should they garner the support of donors by rejecting it, but potentially undermining their credibility within Uganda?
This strategy has been highly successful over the past four or so years. Museveni has faced criticism from donors, but little that has seriously challenged his political hegemony. So why has he signed the bill now? Presumably the balance between donors and internal politics has shifted to the latter, and Museveni sees more political capital to be made from being seen as supporter of the bill and defiant against the donors. Perhaps the calculation has taken on board that donors have been reluctant to challenge seriously the regime over long-standing accusations of illegal detention, torture and even extra-judicial killings of opposition leaders and supporters, so why would it start taking notice now over a bill that targets LGBTs (a reading that may prove wrong, but probably not – donor indignation tends to be short-lived and short-sighted). Aid levels (and hence dependency) has been falling since 2009, which may have further tipped the scales in the calculation, and in any case some donors are already up in arms about corruption allegations. So how much is there to lose from angering this particular audience?
But underpinning the strategy must be thoughts as to his own political future and succession, especially with reports and rumours of internal divisions and disarray amongst the inner circle. Right now, to secure that future, Museveni needs to burnish his nationalist (rather than donor darling) credentials. And if, as previously in Uganda, in Kenya, and countless other examples, donor outrage soon peaks, Museveni’s gamble will look as if it has paid off.
Whatever the reasons, the result is that life for LGBTs and organisations set up to defend their rights, will become harder. LGBTs have long faced serious intimidation, violence and the threat of death in Uganda, especially since the late 2000s when attitudes and hatreds significantly worsened. But for the political elite, the law, homosexuality, and LGBTs have become pawns to be used to further personal and party ambitions. Will donors make a difference, when they have so spectacularly failed to do so in other instances of gross violations of rights? Let’s see.