Sunday March 2 2014

Why Museveni stood up to Obama on homosexuality

US president Barack Obama. He says the anti-homosexuality

US president Barack Obama. He says the anti-homosexuality law is a step backwards for Uganda and is going to complicate the US-Uganda relations. PHOTO BY AFP 

By Tabu Butagira

In the run up to the 2013 Kenyan elections, former US assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, warned that “choices have consequences”.
His caution was perceived as an instruction to Kenyans not to choose Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto because, as International Criminal Court suspects, America would not work with them smoothly. It was a wild gamble.

Instead of alienating voters, the belligerent Washington tone instead galvanised support for the indictees, casting promising Raila Odinga as a sell-out to foreigners even when he may not have been. He lost the vote he and loyalists considered his ‘turn to be president”.

And so the narrative of unintended consequences of official proclamations on foreign policy matters continues to baffle, more intriguingly in Uganda.
Days after president Barack Obama warned that US-Uganda “valued relationship” would be “complicated” if the Anti-Homosexuality Bill became law, President Museveni appended his signature, converting the Act of Parliament to an enforceable legislation.

Fearless man
If Museveni’s defiance was odd, his unprecedented decision to have the signing ceremony televised was dramatic and more telling. First, the posture coupled with his curt comments cast him as a man who does not fear the mighty US or West unlike other subservient characters.

“We reject the notion that somebody can be homosexual by choice; that a man can choose to love a fellow man; that sexual orientation is a matter of choice,” said Mr Museveni, invoking “we” instead of “I” to show it was Uganda, not his personal, future at stake.

The tough rhetoric and actual signing at 1:52pm drew wild cheers among lunch-time worshippers at Pentecostal churches, schools, bars and other such crowds arranged for the occasion by anti-gay activists.

What then are the options for Uganda’s erstwhile Western allies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, in the wake of this enactment?
They could cut aid, as the Norwegian, Danish and Dutch governments have done, and in effect punish ordinary Ugandans and not President Museveni with whom they are angry.

That move has costs, even when convenient for donors’ domestic politicking. It reflects their intolerance to dissenting views or actions which they preach outside as basis for others to be accommodating of gays. Also by withdrawing assistance, development partners deprive themselves of a means to leverage on recipient countries.

Since Monday, the day of assent to the impugned law, Ugandan voices praising Museveni drown those contesting his decision. That in itself is not surprising considering the local popularity of the legislation first introduced in 2009 by Ndorwa West MP David Bahati.

His spat with the West has coalesced citizens around him, with compliments for him flooding the social media and other local publics, including the religious and conformist.

Thus a tactical Museveni has reinvented himself, even in the eyes of traditional opponents, and can now choose to ignore the West and their value systems of good governance, democracy and respect of human rights so as to rule as an absolute dictator. The one man former US president Bill Clinton called a “new breed” African leader would have morphed into an irony of early admirers.

And it seems president Obama saw the hazard of a verbal contest with the Ugandan leader, in power for 28 years. Museveni in 2011 said longevity in office had helped him know how to deal with the West. By letting White House spokesperson Jay Carney and Secretary of State John Kerry, and not himself, speak after Museveni’s defiant signature on the controversial legislation, Obama who is not used to such open public challenge, worse from an African leader, saw the possibility of an embarrassing end to such tiff.

“Now that this law has been enacted, we are beginning an internal review of our relationship with the government of Uganda to ensure that all dimensions of our engagement, including assistance programmes, uphold our anti-discrimination policies and principles and reflect our values,” said Mr Kerry.

The US cannot act swiftly like the Norwegians; say to cut aid, because the “valued relationship” between Washington and Kampala has been cemented by security dealings. Thousands of UPDF soldiers are in Somalia, hunting the al Shabaab fighters in the countryside, after flushing them out of the capital, Mogadishu, where the militants had a stranglehold.
The US government, which has boots of about 100 of its Special Forces on the ground alongside regional militaries on counter-LRA offensive, picks most bills of the Somalia operation, which is where American troops failed 22 years ago. UPDF deployment in a flash to save South Sudan president Salva Kiir’s government from collapse, with troop commanders priding themselves in stemming genocide there. Yes, the US wants them out but cannot find an immediate replacement.

By playing the West’s stooge, Mr Museveni made friends abroad including powerful Washington and London lobbyists, and earned a free ticket to almost misbehave at home as he wanted. Donors looked at Uganda’s rosy economic figures to justify arguments to their taxpayers that aid was working.

Credible alternative
With a powerful military ready to deploy within snap approval by their commander-in-chief, Uganda’s relations with the US morphed into “valuable”. And Museveni became an invaluable asset with it.

Western diplomats in Kampala have every election season quietly spoken of there being no credible alternative to President Museveni, especially among the current crop of opposition politicians. And Museveni seems to have heard their conversations.

He can afford to deploy soldiers and police to kill and brutalise civilians on the streets, secure that western governments will do nothing to shake his grip on power other than casual condemnations. Now with the anti-gay law, he has majority citizens on his side, and donors on the other.

If donors choose to tackle Museveni as long wished by his opponents, he will argue that an unforgiving West has gone after him over their gay agenda, scoring domestic points and rallying the population or region on his side. That would be a sweetener for a dictator.

Neither will donors look good whether they imposed targeted sanctions or withdrew aid as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe situation has shown. Why? Because defiance is attractive to humankind.

Unlike other regional militaries, Museveni founded the UPDF and leverages on it as if it was, in the words of his critics, his “personal army”. Kenya Defence Forces deployed in Somalia because of direct terrorist attacks on the country, and are unlikely, for instance, to deploy in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tanzanians are indifferent to random foreign military adventures. Central African Republic is burning and DRC’s Joseph Kabila has lurched from one conflict to another, particularly in the east of the country, the last powerful M23 rebel group being talked out and later defeated under Museveni mediation.

Already, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is in bad books with some western powers, including the US which recently froze its military assistance. And America cannot risk a security vacuum in the restive central Africa by getting rid of Museveni unless they get a credible alternative to take care of their security and other interests in the Great Lakes. That gives the Ugandan leader another lease of political life.

There is limited evidence, contrary to what many commentators embrace, that Museveni pandered to the domestic constituency and signed the law to appease a conservative voting bloc ahead of 2016 vote. Previous ballots, two of which he won but which the Supreme Court ruled were marred with irregularities, showed that the army can be drafted or voters bribed or votes stuffed to secure electoral victory.

“Since my original thesis that there may be people who are born homosexual has been disproved by science, then the homosexuals have lost the argument in Uganda,” the President declared.

He can be condemned, as he has been variously criticised, but fate could not have played in his favour more than when CNN reported that Arizona’s legislature passed a bill allowing “business owners, as long as they assert their religious beliefs, to deny service to gay and lesbian customers”.

Without any planned penalty or harsh words for Arizona, bombarding an African country would cast the White House as hypocritical and imperial, which is what Museveni meant with his remark against the West imposing its values on “us”.

To be derided or punished for doing one of rare things in the interest of majority Ugandans enables Museveni to trap both unsuspecting citizens and donors.

The President said he had calculated costs of aid withdrawal, and worked out a means to pad the gap by re-assigning allocations in the 2013/14 budget. Russia and China, his new friends, were unmistakably on his mind for fortifying his power as he the week before praised them as partners that do not interfere in internal affairs of other countries.

Reports that Museveni’s former legal aide, Fox Odoi, now an MP, is heading to challenge the new law in the Constitutional Court, when read together with the president’s view that the anti-gay law can be changed if scientific evidence emerges to prove genetic predisposition to homosexuality, leave the net wide open. It is one law where the drama and tempo of conversation will remain in the higher clouds.