Poor Yoweri Museveni. Like a bear in a cage, goaded and provoked by jeering onlookers, he cuts a sorry figure. One of Africa’s aging autocrats, he is stranded by a moral tide that leaves him high and dry alongside fellow homophobe Robert Mugabe, 90, in power for 34 years.
Once the favourite of Western aid donors, Uganda’s leader is the target of western outrage following his decision last week to approve the anti-homosexuality law. Furious bear baiters surround their quarry, jabbing, prodding and poking. The United States leads the onslaught with an opening prod. The new law, President Barack Obama declares, “will complicate our valued relationship with Uganda”.
Prod! Britain condemns the new law: “Deeply disappointing”, says William Hague. Poke! Norway joins the chorus of condemnation. Another prod, as Holland and Denmark follow suit.
Jab! The World Bank announces it will review a $90m health-sector loan to Uganda. And just in case there is any doubt about Washington’s position, the message is hammered home by the US secretary of state, John Kerry: “What is happening in Uganda is atrocious.”
But the closer one looks at the options of donor governments, the fewer they are. Not for the first time, they have been outsmarted by a wily politician whose grasp of the geopolitics of the East African region is far more acute than theirs.
Aside from condemnatory statements, they have few weapons at their disposal. Talk of stopping or cutting aid is little more than rhetoric. The reality is revealed by closer reading of press statements. We learn that donor support will be “suspended” or “redirected” or put “under review”– a long way short of being cut or stopped altogether. The western record on Uganda and human rights is far from impressive. The country has been sliding down the path to autocracy and a de facto one-party state for years, without exciting anything like the same volume or intensity of Western government condemnation as the anti-gay law has provoked. Dissenters have been harassed, radio stations have been closed, and a leading newspaper suspended. In the past four years, at least 20 protestors have been killed when police opened fire on demonstrators. Where was the West then? Uganda’s human rights activists are asking.
Instead, the reaction from London and Washington amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist. Realpolitik, it turns out, came before any other concern about good governance. It is not hard to see why. Uganda is an important staging post for international military operations in the troubled horn of Africa, where Muslim extremism is on the rise, and security considerations dominate.
No official figure is available, but it is claimed that Uganda has more troops in combat roles in the region today than US - most of them serving in countries where the West interests are under threat.
As for the threat to cut aid, it has a hollow ring. Were donor funds to dry up as a sanction against Museveni, the non-government organisatio
In Eastern Uganda, for example, a village is today free of crippling jiggers thanks to a Western aid project. The benefits are dramatic. School examination successes have soared. But in a neighbouring village, still plagued by the painful, debilitating worm, the school failure rate continues.
As for the half million Ugandans with HIV/Aids - 200,000 of whom are reliant on US funded anti retroviral treatment - they would become innocent victims of a retaliation that will hurt only the poor. It would be a brave person who would advocate cutting funds to such projects.
Add the discovery of oil in commercial quantities in Uganda, and it is easier to see where Western interests lie. Throw in China as an uncritical development partner, and it turns out that the bear has more cards to play than his tormentors can have realised.
So what should the West have done? For a start, they should have displayed a better grasp of Ugandan politics. Museveni is running for re-election in 2016, and the outcome is far from certain. He needs all the tricks of his trade, which includes using populist language, a proposal that many voters support. And as the row blew up, this support became more solid, with the West seen as a cultural bully, trying to impose its values on a far-off country.
But by intervening in the heavy-handed way they have done, Western governments have helped turn the issue into a vote winner for Museveni. Meanwhile, London and Washington have laid themselves open to the charge of hypocritical bullying, reluctant to take on offenders their own size.
Having failed as the world’s policeman, the West needs to think twice before becoming a self-appointed monitor of Africa’s morality.
Mr Holman is a former Africa editor of the Financial Times. He coauthored this article with Erick Kabendera.