Can U.S. Stop Museveni From Signing Uganda’s Anti-gay Bill?

President Obama urged Ugandan President Museveni not to sign a bill criminalizing homosexuality, but it’s unclear how far the U.S. is willing to go to protect human rights.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni speaks during the London Summit on Family Planning in central London.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni says he will sign a bill prescribing life imprisonment for so-called "aggravated" homosexual acts.

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President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has joined ranks with other African presidents including Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in endorsing anti-gay legislation, despite pressure from President Barrack Obama not to do so.  The Human Rights Watch, an international aid group, has asked the U.S. government to temporarily recall its ambassador to Uganda.

“Uganda’s international partners need to show unequivocally that if this bill is passed, it will not be business as usual with the Ugandan government,” said Daniel Bekele, HRW’s Africa Director.

But J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, says that strategy might not have the desired effect.

“Withdrawing the ambassador sends a signal. In that respect, I agree with HRW. On the other hand, it removes a high-profile voice that could be speaking out in the country as well,” he says.

The only point of leverage the U.S. has in Uganda is to cut aid to its military, he adds, and parts of the U.S. government will hesitate to make that move. Uganda is a fair-weather friend to the U.S. In 2007, Uganda intervened during the crisis in Somalia  when no other African country would. It suffered massive casualties but earned the respect of the U.S. from both the Bush and Obama administrations.

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“Throwing the troops into Somalia and suffering those 3,000 casualties bought Museveni essentially a get-out-of-jail free card on almost anything else,” says Pham.

Museveni has been in power for nearly 30 years. According to the HRW, he has "increasingly suppressed freedom of assembly, expression and association and threatened civil society groups working on a range of issues." Pham says he has arrested opposition figures and continues to do so. In Dec. 2013, he sent troops into South Sudan without any authorization from the United Nations or his own parliament. Some of his troops killed civilians.

“This piece of legislation arguably may be the most hateful and problematic thing [Museveni’s] done to date but there’s a long history of acting against U.S. interests or U.S. policy and not really having to pay any consequences for it,” says Pham.

On Friday, Museveni announced his intention to sign an anti-gay bill that would prohibit homosexuality, going so far as to make “the promotion or recognition” of same-sex relationships punishable with a life sentence. Two days later, President Barack Obama responded to Museveni in a statement that suggested such an action might strain U.S. relations, reported The New York Times.

President Obama said Museveni's actions would “complicate” relations between the U.S. and Uganda. He called the move “a step backward for all Ugandans” and said it was a poor reflection of the country’s commitment to human rights.

The U.S. currently sends $400 million in aid to the East African nation each year, according to Reuters.

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Uganda’s leaders did not take kindly to pressure from Obama. Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo called it blackmail.

"We don't like to blackmail others. It's very dishonest, very irresponsible and unfriendly of persons to attach behavior of another community to their sharing resources," Lokodo told Reuters TV in Kampala.

Museveni’s stance is a reversal of his position of only a month ago. In January, he criticized a parliamentary speaker for passing an anti-gay bill without a quorum, according to the BBC.  But Pham believes this was purely posturing for the sake of not fighting the U.S. on two different fronts and Museveni was already concerned the U.S. might react to his intrusions in South Sudan.

“Homophobia runs deep in Uganda,” reports Al Jazeera. On social media, religious leaders and other Ugandans have called on the president to sign the bill and “save the country’s moral fibre (sic).”   

Pham says that along with supporting the views of cultural and religious groups, anti-gay laws are effective because they distract Ugandans from less popular issues like the cost of living.

If Museveni were to refuse to sign the bill, parliament would still be able to pass it with a two-thirds vote, the BBC reported.

But Pham says the parliament is “more or less in the hip pocket of the president.” Any bill that passed would pass with his blessing, whether he signs it or "winks" and vetoes it.

Will Stevens, spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, says the department is “deeply disappointed” by Museveni’s intention to pass the anti-gay bill and has been opposed to it since it was first introduced in 2009.  He says the bill has the potential to damage public health efforts and to reduce tourism as well as foreign direct investment.

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If the legislation is enacted, the department would conduct a review but Stevens would not comment on specific actions that it might take.

Museveni is not alone in his anti-gay views.

In January, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill criminalizing same-sex marriage and making it illegal for gay and lesbian people to congregate in public places, reported CBS.  In parts of northern Nigeria, where Sharia law is practiced, gays and lesbians can be stoned to death.

Jonathan’s decision also prompted  public censure. Secretary of State John Kerry said the law was “inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations” and that it contradicted the country’s own constitutional protections, reported CBS.

Gambian President Yahyeh Jammeh called homosexuals “vermins” and said he would fight them like malaria-infected mosquitoes, reported The Independent.  “As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis; all of which are detrimental to human existence,” he added.