President Museveni’s decision to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, only weeks after he vowed not to, smirks of opportunistic politicking but also reflects high-wire political gymnastics with particularly the United States.
The Bill is wildly popular, including in Parliament where populist MPs have found a popular cause on which to plunge their plugs and recharge their dwindling public appeal.
It is telling that President Museveni announced his intentions at a meeting of NRM MPs amidst a plot to endorse him as the sole party candidate for the 2016 elections.
In signing, he gives the MPs a blank cheque. Having forced Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi on the defensive, he also cuts from underneath Speaker Rebecca Kadaga one of her populist planks within Parliament.
What should interest us more, however, is Museveni’s decision to sign a Bill that he always knew would draw condemnation from the West.
Here, again, the President is playing politics. First, he is exercising power without responsibility for his actions; he is signing a Bill he never wanted, passed by Parliament against his advice, and on the recommendation of scientists. It wasn’t me, he could easily say.
Secondly, Museveni must surely know that several lawyers have lined up to challenge the constitutionality of the law; one of them, your columnist hears, is Mr Fox Odoi, who spent many years doing legal work for the President and remains close to the inner circle.
Such a challenge would hold up the law in the courts for at least a couple of years. If the courts uphold it, it wasn’t me, the President would say. If they strike it down, it still wasn’t him. Throw in a few more years on appeal in the Supreme Court and you have a Bill all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Thirdly, signing the Bill allows Museveni the political room to withdraw Ugandan troops from South Sudan without appearing to lose face. Indeed it is telling that soon after he promised to sign the Bill, Foreign minister Sam Kuteesa was announcing a timetable for the withdraw of the UPDF as the Americans, Ethiopians and Sudanese have demanded.
Museveni, who is dealing with his fifth US president in Barack Obama, also understands the way America exercises power and its limitations. The United States is one of the leading donors to Uganda but none of that money goes into direct budget support; the Americans cannot easily cut aid without condemning many innocent people, especially those living with HIV/Aids, to early deaths.
Museveni also understands the centres of power in America. The White House and the State Department might be critical of him and his decisions but he has been around long enough to understand that the CIA and the Defence Department often deal in the cold rational reality of real-politick.
Thus while cuts in military support to the UPDF would hurt, there would be grave concerns for the Pentagon if Uganda were to withdraw its troops from Somalia, for instance.
Museveni understands that US national security comes first, ahead of everything else. As long as he is willing to put boots on the ground to keep the regional peace and support the war against terror, he will always have friends at the Pentagon willing to help him manage his relations with the State Department.
If you borrow $1 million, you are at the mercy of your bank. If you borrow $100 million, your bank is at your mercy. Museveni has spent decades borrowing against his political overdraft with Washington. His latest bluff suggests he believes he might have crossed that risk threshold. Your move, Barack!
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