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How Obama played Museveni’s hand

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The US President’s letter to his Ugandan counterpart was the trigger that could have forced Museveni into singing the anti gay bill

On February 24, 2014, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed into law a bill mandating gays to be sentenced to life in prison for being who they are. It was a tragic but equally illuminating moment for Uganda and its relations with its Western “allies”. Museveni had been reluctant to sign the bill until US President Barak Obama sent him a toughly worded letter literally ordering him not to and even threatening consequences if he did. Watching Museveni speak to the press before a publically televised signing of the Anti Homosexuality Bill (AHB), I felt sympathetic to him even though I disagreed with his action. I have since joined other Ugandans in petitioning against this law in the Constitutional Court. However, I also felt that if I was in his shoes, I would also have probably acted as he did.


Although by Western standards Museveni’s view on homosexuals is retrogressive, he is actually quite progressive compared to many of his contemporaries in Uganda and Africa. For example, while virtually every anti gay politician or activist in Uganda (and Africa generally) argues that homosexuality is a Western imposition on African culture, Museveni has consistently argued that gays existed in pre-colonial Africa. He has also argued consistently that pre-colonial African societies were aware of the existence of gays but did not persecute them. At the press conference he held before signing the AHB, Museveni said the criminalization and persecution of gays was introduced in Uganda by European Christian missionaries and the British colonial state.

So what made him change and sign a bill he had opposed in an open letter to the speaker of parliament in December 2013? Museveni is a president with a reputation as a strong and powerful leader. He is seen by the Ugandan public as the man who issues commands and others obey. This brand identity has given him the myth of invincibility that has been essential to his politics. When Obama asked him not to sign the bill in a public letter that even threatened consequences, he boxed Museveni into a corner.

If Museveni declined to sign the bill, people would interpret it as a result of Obama’s threats, a factor that would have made the Ugandan president look weak and cowardly. This is an impression Museveni cannot afford to have Ugandans hold of him. This is especially so given that Museveni is a president of a country over 90 percent of whose citizens are homophobic according to the World Values Survey. And if he was perceived of bending to Obama’s threats, Museveni knows that he would have lost face, his honor and his reputation as a powerful leader. This would have been politically devastating for a politician with a warrior brand like Museveni.

I have consistently argued that Western interference in the internal affairs of poor countries – even when well intentioned – often works to the detriment of the ends sought. Whether it is foreign financial or technical aid, human rights advocacy or humanitarian intervention, it tends to distort incentives of actors. Western nations carry unbearable cultural hubris thinking that their ways are universal human standards that should be accepted by diktat by other nations and societies. Even if this was correct, Western zealots ignore the protracted political and civic struggles in their own countries that brought about the current legal and human rights standards.

For example, the vast majority of Ugandans think homosexuals are perverts threatening the moral and natural order of our societies. This bigotry is born of religious conservatism, ignorance resulting from limited exposure. These weird views against gays are not any different from those of most Americans or Europeans two generations ago. The tolerance of homosexuality in the West is a development of the 1960s and 70s. It evolved out of internal civic struggle by gay groups supported by progressive intellectuals backed by expanding scientific knowledge and growing liberalism.

Therefore, to expect that African societies can change their deeply held dogmas and prejudices overnight is to demand the impossible. Any foreign intervention that seeks to advance gay rights has to approach the problem with caution and subtlety and avoid being seen as forcing the issue. In any case, the biggest threat to homosexuals in Uganda is not state law, however draconian, but rather social stigma. Homosexuals in Uganda are alienated from their parents, siblings and other relatives and have to live in fear of exposure to public ridicule and cultural alienation.

The law may be an added a burden but is highly improbable, that the Uganda Police, whose traffic officers watch idly as motorists violate traffic rules and public officials loot the state, will not be visiting people’s bedrooms to find out which man is sleeping with another man. It seems to me that the law was passed to whet public animosity and help our politicians score political points. It will most likely be used against political rivals (many of whom may not even be gay) than to punish homosexuality.

I am aware that in issuing his threat, Obama was addressing himself to his constituency at home. May be he needed to show them that he has done something tough to threaten the Ugandan leader into not signing the bill. However, this action was not helpful to the LGBT cause in Uganda. It has stimulated heated passions in this homophobic society with many activists claiming America wants to impose homosexuality on our society. Obama and other Western leaders need to use quiet diplomacy to try to change the actions of African leaders. Public threats achieve the exact opposite.

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