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Beyond the Anti-Gay Bill: The Difficult Truth About Museveni’s Government in Uganda

Kampala, Uganda—Pink is political in Uganda. But not in the way most outsiders think. This past May, opposition leaders in the capital of Kampala were targeted with firehoses that drenched them in bubblegum-colored liquid, dying their clothes and skin. Their crime? Attempting to hold an “unauthorized” rally in the city’s Constitutional Square. Since April, opposition groups have been leading an intermittent campaign called “Walk to Work” to highlight the country’s soaring commodity prices (food inflation recently topped 44 percent). But what began as a bread-and-butter protest quickly swelled into a political protest against the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni. The hyper-aggressive response of Museveni’s security forces led to bouts of rioting among the country’s urban poor, with scores being arrested, hospitalized, and shot. The protests died down only when Museveni put the country’s main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, under virtual house arrest. (He’s currently facing charges of inciting violence and holding illegal assemblies.)

Chances are you didn’t hear much about these protests, though. Lately, when Uganda has made news in the United States, it’s generally been for one reason: a radical anti-gay bill that surfaced in the country’s legislature almost two years ago. The measure—which, among other things, would have mandated the death penalty for people convicted of having gay sex multiple times—came to be known abroad as the “kill the gays” bill. It had languished in committee since late 2009, but was suddenly brought up for discussion this past May, during the final days of Uganda’s last parliamentary session—the same week, oddly enough, that opposition politicians were being sprayed pink. The bill had no real chance of being passed—not only was it too far behind in the legislative process, but Museveni was against it, which, in this electoral autocracy, made the proposal as good as dead. Back in early 2010, Museveni personally told a U.S. delegation that he’d “handle” the bill, reassuring diplomats that “nobody in Uganda would be executed for homosexual behavior.” And Museveni was as good as his word: The bill officially died on Friday, May 13. (There is a possibility that the new parliament might revive the bill, perhaps stripped of its most odious provisions.)

The demise of the bill was good news, of course. Yet, coupled with the suppression of anti-Museveni protests and the virtual house arrest of leading politicians, it illustrates one of the sad ironies about Ugandan politics: Museveni’s anti-democratic impulses can champion the lives and liberties of some, even as they strip the larger populace of its human and civil rights.

THE ANTI-GAY BILL was never something that Museveni, personally, cared much about—and certainly, as he faced pressure to kill the bill from the United States and others, it wasn’t something he was willing to risk the country’s international reputation over. This is why he acquiesced so easily to external pressure from his allies in the West. As one of Uganda’s gay bloggers put it, “Museveni’s problem with the homosexual question is not that there are homosexuals in Uganda; his problem is that the issue is being forced onto his political plate by loose-canon MPs, vociferous opportunistic pastors and, consequently, the donor community. To Museveni, this subject is thus more of an irritant than something he feels should require his attention.”

By contrast, the large-scale urban protests on display recently were in a different league. Unlike the anti-gay bill, they posed an existential threat to Museveni’s power, which explains why he acted like other besieged autocrats: sending his security forces into the streets of the capital with guns blazing (even as he and other African presidents, under the banner of the African Union, tried to mediate an unsuccessful ceasefire between Muammar Qaddafi and the rebels in Benghazi).

Government figures and activists in the United States would do well to reflect on these events—the protests on the one hand, and the anti-gay bill on the other—and their response to them. It’s safe to say that American advocacy, both independent and official, against the anti-gay bill was successful precisely because the United States has a fairly good relationship with the Museveni regime. This isn’t to suggest that U.S. activists were wrong to take advantage of that relationship and speak out against such a loathsome bill. On the contrary, one can argue that American liberals had a special obligation to do so, especially given the evidence that American politicians and clergymen had served as patrons to several of the bill’s most ardent supporters—from the author of the bill himself, to a few prominent anti-gay pastors.

But there are costs to these kinds of relationships. The U.S. government’s public response to the violence unleashed during Uganda’s urban protests was embarrassingly tepid, with the assistant secretary of state for African affairs urging Museveni’s government to be “civil.” Museveni has long since pushed civility aside, however, which was clear recently when he announced his intent to have parliament amend Uganda’s constitution to deny bail to suspected rioters and “economic saboteurs.” This is essentially a recipe for extended detentions without trial. For Museveni, economic sabotage means those activities—think demonstrations—that force the state’s security personnel to do things that make investors nervous.

And yet, despite all this, it’s unlikely that the substance of America’s relationship with Museveni will change in any meaningful way, at least for the time being. The United States gives Museveni’s government a large amount of foreign aid and, in return, gets a strong ally in Central Africa—one whose ideological commitments in the region also make it a useful proxy for U.S. interests in places like Sudan and Somalia. (The very same week the anti-gay bill was resurrected and opposition leaders were being sprayed pink, the corpse of a Ugandan soldier, one who had served in the U.S.-funded African Union peacekeeping mission, was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, though the incident got scant attention in the U.S. press.)

All this leaves Americans in a morally and politically difficult situation: Those of us who expressed outrage over the anti-gay bill were right to do so. But the price of opposing hateful measures against gays can’t be to avert our eyes from the behavior of an ally who tramples on his countrymen’s freedoms. The solution, of course, is not for Americans to stop opposing anti-gay measures. It’s to give as much attention to the overall political situation in Uganda as we did to the “kill the gays” bill. 

Elizabeth Palchik Allen is a freelance writer and research associate at the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment in Kampala, Uganda.