U.S. Bolsters Regimes in Uganda and Nigeria That Persecute Gays and Abuse Human Rights

There was an explosion of international outrage in late February when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a harsh anti-gay law. The legislation mandates life sentences for people who have gay sex or are in same-sex marriages and criminalizes “promoting” homosexuality, though the harshest provision—the death penalty for gays—was ultimately stripped out.

The United States immediately condemned the bill, with Secretary of State John Kerry calling it “atrocious” and likening the bill to Nazi or apartheid-era laws.  

But the Obama administration’s rhetoric masks its strong support for the Ugandan government, support that will likely continue in the months ahead. Like Nigeria, which has also passed anti-gay laws, Uganda, run by an authoritarian president in power for 26 years, is a key U.S. partner in the global war on terror. The East African country also plays host to Western oil and mining companies, like Canada-based Barrick, that profit from the country’s natural resources.  

The U.S. may not like Uganda’s virulent anti-gay climate, but the Obama administration seems all too willing to turn a blind eye in pursuit of its own interests. Uganda and Nigeria's other important source of Western support is from a non-governmental source: the American Christian right, which has advocated and applauded the passage of anti-gay laws in Africa. But the outrage over the Christian right’s role in the deteriorating situation for gays in Africa has blurred the focus on the destructive “war on terror” in the region as well as the Western economic interests operating in Uganda and Nigeria.

The U.S. government took a number of steps in direct response to Uganda’s anti-gay law. Over $6 million will be redirected away from the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which receives funding to fight HIV but supports the anti-gay law. An American-funded study on HIV/AIDS has been put on hold because of fear that participants will be put in danger. Another $3 million will be redirected away from tourism programs in Uganda. And the Pentagon said a few events set to be held in Uganda will no longer take place in the country.

Still, the response to Uganda’s anti-gay bill is a drop in the bucket. In total, $500 million in aid goes to the country, and extra-funding to the tune of $19 million goes toward Uganda’s fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia. In response to Uganda’s anti-gay law, Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. to “review funding assistance to Uganda to ensure that US funding is not used to further prosecution of anyone under the law. In particular funding for the police should be subject to close scrutiny as they would be legally mandated to enforce this law.” But as an Africa Command U.S. military spokesman told Stars and Stripes, “currently, there are no plans to cancel ongoing or planned engagement with Uganda.”

Even those relatively small steps amount to a more robust American response than the Obama administration’s reaction to Nigeria’s anti-gay law, which punishes gay groups and mandates prison term for those in same-sex relationship. The U.S. has done nothing in response to the law in a country that receives training and equipment to help battle Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group. Over $600 million in U.S. aid goes to Nigeria. That number includes $1.9 million in aid to an armed force criticized for rampant human rights abuses, including the burning of homes and summary execution of people with no links to Boko Haram, a group that has risen to power in the north and found fertile ground because of poverty, corruption and police abuse. Nigeria is a major source of oil to the U.S., and taxpayer funds to the country help to prop up a government that welcomes U.S. corporations to profit from that oil. And since the anti-gay law passed, violence against gays in Nigeria has intensified.

The aid to Uganda and Nigeria is a key part of the U.S. military expansion in Africa, much of it part of the war on terror. While there’s not a heavy troop presence on the ground in Africa, secret U.S. operations have expanded exponentially in recent years. As TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reported in March, the U.S. military has been active in 49 of 54 countries in Africa.

In Nigeria’s case, the focus is Mali and Boko Haram. The violent group has captured global attention in recent days over its kidnapping of Nigerian girls. The U.S. has rushed in to pledge support and sent in military advisers to help find the girls.  

When radical Islamists, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, captured swathes of northern Mali in January 2013, a military campaign led by France was launched to clear the Islamists out. The strength of the Islamists and their initial Tuareg allies was fueled by the NATO intervention in Libya, which overthrew the Gaddafi regime and led to arms and fighters streaming into Mali.  

Nigeria deployed 1,200 troops toward a larger West African military force that assisted France’s military intervention in Mali. Part of the justification for Nigeria’s involvement is the claim that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram work in coordination.

While the military intervention successfully beat back the Islamists in Mali, violence in reaction to the invasion hit Western interests in Algeria, Libya and Niger.

In Uganda, U.S. security ties have helped the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and al-Shabaab in Somalia, a radical Somali miltant group bent on establishing sharia law. The LRA is led by the infamous Joseph Kony, a brutal Christian fundamentalist bent on overthrowing the Ugandan government who has reportedly killed thousands of people. U.S. Special Operations forces have been deployed to help find Kony and members of his group since October 2011. In March of this year, the Obama administration announced it would be ramping up its support by sending more commandos, and for the first time, military aircraft.

The timing of the boost in aid was questioned by human rights advocates, who said it would bolster the rule of a man who has destabilized neighboring countries and signed a harsh anti-gay law. “Who wouldn’t want to get rid of this brutal rebel group?” asked Sarah Margon, the acting director of Human Rights Watch, in an interview with the New York Times. “But they’re not a direct threat to Museveni right now, and what he gains by this is continued American support to his military, and legitimacy, just when he signed this law.”

The partnership to target al-Shabaab intensified in 2007 after the United Nations voted to deploy troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia. The U.S. has assisted the African Union effort by sending military advisers and millions of dollars in funding.   

Uganda has contributed about 6,000 troops to the mission, which eventually flushed militants out of Mogadishu, the capital, but has not destroyed the group. That reality came home to Uganda in a big way in July 2010, when al-Shabaab took responsibility for a bombing in Kampala, Uganda that killed over 70 people. In the aftermath of that bombing, an Open Society Foundation report documented how Ugandan security forces “engaged in physical abuse, unlawful detention, and denied” bombing suspects due process rights. Kenya, another U.S. ally, rendered suspects to Uganda, and some of those detained in connection with the Kampala attack say that Federal Bureau of Investigation officials participated in abusive interrogations, and in some cases, allegedly threatened people with death and beat them.

The FBI’s participation in those interrogation points to the close cooperation the U.S. has forged with countries in Africa. Through money, training and troops, the U.S. has bolstered the governments of Nigeria and Uganda as part of the boundless war on terror. That fact casts a harsh light on American condemnations of anti-gay laws passed by the very same governments the U.S. is helping to prop up.

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