The Duck of Minerva

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Political Homophobia in Uganda and a (Very) Belated Apology

February 27, 2014

In what I suspect is the least auspicious debut ever made by a Duck guest blogger, six months after being welcomed by the Duck team, I’m finally posting. It turns out that starting a new job, prepping a new course, learning how to shovel snow, and attempting to finish a book manuscript all at once is not particularly conducive to being a good guest blogger. I’d like to thank the Duck team for their patience, and for their completely unwarranted confidence in still welcoming me to blog here. And I promise to do better from here on out. 

As Charli noted, my area of interest is in questions at the intersection of conflict and development in Africa. I’m particularly fascinated these days by African states, how they (and their international relations) contrast with traditional understandings of what states are and what they do, and how people in conflict situations organize themselves to provide for community needs, with or without outside help. So it’s likely that most of my posts at the Duck will focus on these questions one way or another, as well as on general debates in the study of politics in Africa.

The biggest African story right now is the increasing criminalization of homosexuality and homosexual behavior in places like Uganda and Nigeria. Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law has drawn the greatest amount of attention due to its extremely harsh penalties. Though the worst excesses of the bill’s original language (including the death penalty for those caught committing multiple homosexual  acts) were  amended out, the bill still provides for jail time for persons who engage in any form of physical content with “intent” to engage in homosexual acts as well as imprisonment for those who help or counsel GLBTQ Ugandans.

As Melina Platas Izama notes, while the provisions of Uganda’s anti-homoseuxality law are noxious to most Western observers, they are quite popular domestically in Uganda. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who is up for reelection in 2016, calculated that he could score a major domestic political victory by signing the law, and that threats from donors to cut aid over the law were likely toothless. The latter point is especially important in regards to US military support for the Ugandan army, the People’s Defense Force (UPDF), which has grown substantially over the course of the last decade. Uganda’s role as a regional peacekeeper is particularly important to the US, which has no desire to have a visible military presence on the ground in places like Somalia. Instead, by providing extensive logistical, operational, and intelligence support to the UPDF, the US can accomplish its twin goals of promoting stability and fighting Islamic extremists in eastern Africa without deploying American battalions there. Museveni knows that the US isn’t likely to back away from this investment lightly.

Museveni’s calculation may have backfired in other ways, though. Uganda’s government depends on the international community for about 20% of its annual budget, and donors Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway have already withdrawn aid. Late Thursday, the World Bank moved to delay approval of a $90 million loan for health care system improvements, and the Ugandan shilling weakened after news of the bill signing broke amid fears more aid will be cut. Museveni, his allies, and the Ugandans who support the law argue that this is a cultural matter, that homosexuality is un-African and contrary to their religious teachings. Whether those beliefs will hold strong in the face of real financial consequences remains to be seen.

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Seay is an assistant professor of Government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Her research is centered around the study of community responses to conflict and U.S. foreign policy in Africa’s Great Lakes region. I am currently finishing a book, Substituting for the State, about the role non-state actors play in governing the eastern DRC in response to the Congolese state’s weakness in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri. She is also engaged in a project on the effects of U.S. legislation designed to mitigate conflict in central Africa and in 2014, I led an impact evaluation of a large community-based reconstruction (CBD) governance intervention in four Congolese provinces.