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America’s doublespeak in East Africa

President William Ruto, First Lady Rachel Ruto with President Biden and Mrs Jill Biden

Why is Uganda punished and Kenya rewarded?

NEWS ANALYSIS | IAN KATUSIIME |  “I am a God fearing man. Even though we respect the court, our religion, traditions, law and customs do not allow for women to marry fellow women, nor for men to marry fellow men.” There was more.

“We shall not allow women to marry women, and men to marry men. That is not possible in our country.”

The person uttering those words was not Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni whose government officials are being slapped left, right, and centre with sanctions from western capitals. The person uttering those words was Kenyan President William Ruto who was recently feted on a state visit by U.S. President Joe Biden.

President Ruto made the utterances to wild cheers during International Women’s Day celebrations in Nairobi in 2023. It was soon after the Kenya Supreme Court last year upheld the right of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to register.

The Daily Nation newspaper reported that Kenya’s NGO Coordinating Board had refused to register the NGLHRC on the grounds that it promotes same sex behavior.

The ruling was controversial enough for Ruto to announce that the Attorney General would review the matter. The Kenyan Supreme Court ruling was a victory for activists and human rights defenders who had spent years battling the discrimination, but the decision also sparked a lot of debate in the country.

To date it has proved hard for outsiders to tell apart the anti-LGTB environment in Kenya from that of Uganda that was just about to pass harsh anti-homosexuality legislation at the time.

With mere rainbow-like colours at schools generating hysteria, Uganda has been engulfed in such a frenzy that in April 2023, when the Ugandan parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the vote was almost unanimous. The law had harsh penalties for landlords, hotel owners who abetted gay sex and lengthy sentences for those engaging in homosexuality.

But President Museveni, acting in stark contrast to Ruto, advised Parliament to strike out harsh sections. In fact, Museveni has adopted a measured tone unlike Ruto who went out of his way to offer his unfiltered thoughts on the matter.

MPs made amendments to the law and Museveni eventually signed it marking the second time an anti-gay law is passed in Uganda. It was first passed in 2013 but struck out by the Constitutional Court in 2014 on a technicality.

Whereas both Kenya and Uganda have displayed strong homophobic elements where same sex relationships are scorned, the U.S. is appearing to treat the two countries differently, offering carrot to Kenya while sticking it to Uganda.

Commentators now say, America’s behavior is based more on its interests in the two East African countries than on governance concerns there. Kenya, they say, has always been a bastion of U.S. strategic business and defence interests. And whereas Uganda has also been a longtime ally, the relationship has been different and appears to have recently soured.

Two recent events happening less than a week apart illustrated that; President Ruto’s state visit to the U.S., and the sanctioning of Speaker Among who was already under a U.S. travel ban anyway.

Speaker of Parliament Anita Among and husband Moses Magogo

The latest U.S. sanctions targeting Speaker of Parliament Anita Among did not mention her role in the passing of the Anti-homosexuality Act last year that drew condemnation from Western nations. The sanctions though talked about “repressing members of marginalised or vulnerable populations in Uganda” which can be interpreted as the LGTB Community. The latter have lived under hostility since the law passed.

A number of Ugandan MPs are equally believed to be under travel bans for their role in the enactment of the law. However there have been similar anti-LGTB sentiments in Kenya for some time.

As Kenya basks in the global spotlight on the back of the visit by Ruto where he dined with U.S. Congressional leaders, its brotherly nation Uganda is taking in more reputational damage in the wake of its latest round of U.S. sanctions meted out on top government officials including cabinet ministers, parliamentarians and Army Generals.

As President Ruto and his cabinet strategize on how to make the most out of partnerships and trade agreements clinched in Washington, President Museveni and his ageing, scandal-hit government were once again the subject of ridicule and the butt of social media banter.

The historic state visit–the first by an African leader in sixteen years saw Kenya scoop a catalogue of deals in the sectors of health, governance, digital economy, climate that will run for years. In the health sector alone, collaboration with the US Centres for Disease Control will see the launch of a Kenya National Public Health Institute for boosting response to infectious diseases like Covid19; commitment to advance the Kenyan Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) Act, to boost local manufacturing of medical products with USAID support; and investment by the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) through a $10 million direct loan to Kenyan company Hewa Tele, which provides an affordable and regular supply of medical oxygen to healthcare facilities in Africa.

For education, the two countries announced a Kennedy-Mboya partnership which will support a new scholarship program that promotes intellectual, academic, and innovative exchange under a $3m program. The students will focus on STEM. Tom Mboya was a Kenyan statesman and activist in the early post-independence government who championed similar interests.

In the high profile visit, President Ruto was treated to a grand state dinner graced by former US Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. As social media commentary in Uganda was engrossed in the pomp and ceremony of the visit, Washington was preparing something else for Uganda: sanctions for its leaders for engaging in corruption in what has become a tension and release pattern.

Speaker Among was sanctioned alongside her husband Moses Magogo, MP for Budiope County and president of football governing body, FUFA. The sanctions also fingered former Minister of Karamoja Affairs Mary Goretti Kitutu, former Minister of State for Karamoja Affairs Agnes Nandutu, and Minister of State for Finance Amos Lugolobi “due to their involvement in significant corruption related to conduct that misused public resources and diverted materials from Uganda’s neediest communities. All four officials abused their public positions for their personal benefit at the expense of Ugandans.”

Gen. Peter Elwelu, known for his bravado in firebombing the Rwenzururu palace that claimed the lives of hundreds, was also named. The former Deputy Chief of Defence Forces was designated for “his involvement in gross violations of human rights. Specifically, Peter Elwelu was involved, while commanding UPDF forces, in extrajudicial killings that were committed by members of the UPDF.”

The sanctions are made under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2024. As a result of these actions, the designated Ugandan officials are generally ineligible for entry into the U.S.

The US State Department said is also taking steps to impose visa restrictions on other Ugandan officials for undermining the democratic process and repressing members of marginalized or vulnerable populations in Uganda. The latter statement was a reference to the anti-gay law Uganda passed last year.

These statements have been the staple of U.S.-Uganda relations for the last five years. Generals, Ministers, MPs have all faced punitive travel bans leaving Ugandan diplomats fumbling in the international relations arena.

Uganda and Kenya now sit at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to U.S. relations. Ruto has worked to cultivate an iron clad relationship with the U.S.

The visit, months long in the making, had the Kenyan government lobbying for Ruto to address the U.S. Congress a rare honour that has only been granted to foreign leaders like Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but it was a sign of how extensive the new government wanted to recalibrate its relations with the world’s most powerful country.

As the intense lobbying by Kenya was going on, Uganda was consumed by a different saga: the unending troubles of its Speaker, the third person in the National Order of Precedence. In April, Among was sanctioned by the U.K. for being a beneficiary of the theft of iron sheets. It is the first time the UK government has used the Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions regime on individuals involved in corruption in Uganda. Ex-ministers Kitutu and Nandutu were named as well.

Then UK Deputy Foreign Secretary, Andrew Mitchell said of the bans. “The actions of these individuals, in taking aid from those who need it most, and keeping the proceeds, is corruption at its worst and has no place in society. The Ugandan courts are rightly taking action to crack down on those politicians who seek to line their own pockets at their constituents’ expense.”

Among in her defence says she is being punished for passing the Anti-homosexuality law which elicits strong reaction from Western states. As of now, members across the three arms of Uganda’s government, the executive, legislature and judiciary have all been hit by sanctions. In 2020, the U.S. sanctioned two Ugandan judges, one retired and one active on cases of corruption and an adoption scam.

Influence of US Ambassador

Behind Kenya’s robust lobbying machine that culminated in the U.S. state visit is Meg Whitman, the US Ambassador who took up the post in 2022, just about the time President Ruto was also taking office as Kenya’s fifth president. Whitman has struck a close relationship with Ruto and now she’s jokingly referred to as Kenya’s Ambassador to the US.

In an interview with Kenya’s Citizen TV in May, she said the US Mission in Nairobi was coordinating the governments of Kenya and U.S. to make the visit a successful one. “I have had a hand in setting the agenda and making sure all the logistics work,” she said.

She added that under the Biden administration, Africa has become important given the US Africa Leaders Summit, and the Kenyan state visit.

Responding to a question on whether the US is countering Kenya’s close ties with China under the last government, she said, “Our intention is to make competitive offers, not forcing people to choose between one superpower over one another but how to make good offers on health, people to people ties, the digital economy and how to be more competitive.”

Whitman revealed that her business background as a former CEO of tech firms like e-bay and HP is what led President Biden to send her to Kenya which is a business centre in Africa. In an article during the state visit, Politico reported that “she operates more like the famed, action-oriented tech CEO she once was – forgoing conventions, emphasizing commercial issues and seemingly delighting Ruto.”

In 2023, she went with President Ruto to Silicon Valley in California, U.S. where she made a memorable business pitch to a host of American billionaires to invest in Kenya at an event dubbed US-Africa Business Roundtable.

Among some Ugandans, the attention turned to their home country. Several voices laid the issue squarely at the hands of government for not being proactive. “This is what government led “demand stimulation” looks like. The President of Kenya is here, the US ambassador to Kenya is here, and everybody who gets on stage is pitching the country. I love it.” commented Hilda Kabushenga, CEO of the Africa Talent Company, who attended the event in San Francisco.

“Guys, who is leading the charge to market Uganda as a tech destination? How do we get involved? Because mehn, we are sleeping. President Ruto is here selling his country to all of SV, and I’m both inspired and a little depressed. We need to do more.” said Kabushenga who has also worked with KPMG and McKinsey, global consulting firms.

Behind the lobbying and negotiations of both Kenya and Uganda in their dealings with the U.S., the issue of the LGTB has offered insights into how America structures its relationships.

 

4 comments

  1. Saddened Ugandan

    Uganda: You are hurting my sovereignty’s feelings by putting your sanctions on my corrupt officials.

    UK: Why are you gae?

    Uganda: Who says I’m gae? What shows that I’m gae?

    America: You are gae.

    • Saddened Ugandan

      Jokes aside, there’s actually nothing shocking, special or unique about Ruto’s remarks… same sex marriage is not recognized in most countries around the world, very many countries in the west do not recognize same sex marriage.

      Our anti homosexuality law goes far beyond not recognizing same sex marriage and cannot be compared to Ruto’s remarks… it is an extreme law by any measure, and it sets us apart… difficult to justify in a country where homosexuality was already illegal and laws against the abuse of children had already been amended to cover all children regardless of their gender and regardless of the abuser’s gender.

      Since 2009 when the bill was first tabled and it put Uganda into international headlines, we were repeatedly warned that passing that bill would firmly set us on a path to becoming a pariah state, and each time they warned us we proudly responded that it’s okay, we don’t mind becoming a pariah state, they can go to hell, for us we are a sovereign nation with so much wealth, nobody can warn us about anything and we fear.

      Now we are loudly eating our words in public by wailing about the sanctions we said we were prepared to face, and we are now writhing in agony at the first signs of being treated as a pariah state, which we were repeatedly warned about for more than a decade.

      We made our bed. We must sleep in it.

      Kasita the homosexuals have been managed.

      • Saddened Ugandan

        We are the ones who over insisted until we got our pound of flesh.

        Even if we try to reverse slowly slowly such that we keep some dignity, the damage has been done.

        We have no choice but to become very serious about managing corruption in order to become self sufficient and truly independent because this is just the beginning. In that light, perhaps all of this drama is a blessing in disguise… depending on how we decide to move forward… perpetual victimhood or hakuna michezo… it’s up to us now. So far it seems we are opting for perpetual victimhood.

        • Saddened Ugandan

          There’s at least one obvious reason why we seem to be opting for perpetual victimhood instead of hakuna michezo.

          When our corrupt officials eventually destroy our economy and our children’s future and there’s almost nothing left to salvage, the whole country will have already bought into the constantly repeated convenient narratives of perpetual victimhood:

          “By now we would have reached very far as a country but our country is in ruins because of sanctions, just because we exercised our sovereignty and passed the anti homosexuality bill… now we are all suffering as perpetual victims of the homosexuals, that’s why our country is in bad shape and it cannot be fixed… it’s those homosexuals and the people working with them, those ones who have been exposing corruption and demanding accountability.”

          At this rate it seems we may never become serious about corruption, especially when we have permanently valid and convenient narratives of perpetual victimhood, that all our issues are caused by homosexuals because we refused homosexuality as a sovereign nation.

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