Enforcing Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

Kim Yi Dionne and I wrote a piece for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog analyzing US-Uganda relations in the wake of Uganda’s newly passed Anti-Homosexuality Act, and in particular, following the raid of the Makerere University Walter Reed Project. The post is copied below.

Kim is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She tweets at @dadakim.

U.S. foreign policy and Ugandan domestic politics collide

By Melina Platas Izama and Kim Yi Dionne

Just weeks after the United States announced additional American troops and aircraft would be deployed to Uganda to hunt rebel leader Joseph Kony, Ugandan officialsstormed a U.S. military-affiliated research institution, the Makerere University Walter Reed Project, in the country’s capital, Kampala. The Walter Reed Project raid highlights challenges to U.S.-Uganda relations, strained both by the fractured nature of U.S. foreign policy toward security allies like Uganda and the lack of coordination across Uganda’s numerous security agencies.

Why was the Walter Reed Project raided? And by whom?
The Walter Reed Project was raided on Thursday, April 3, by plainclothes state agents without a search warrant, reportedly on account of the Walter Reed Project’s work with the LGBTI community. Uganda’s recently enacted Anti-Homosexuality Actprohibits both the practice of homosexuality as well as “aiding and abetting” and “promoting” homosexuality. The law is vague on what constitutes the promotion of homosexuality, leaving interpretation to Ugandan law enforcement. Walter Reed Project staff members were whisked away in an unmarked car and interrogated at a police station. American embassy officials subsequently contacted the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura, who was unaware of the incident. Kayihura then instructed the police station to release on bail the Walter Reed Project staffer who had been placed under arrest.

Screenshot of New Vision article taken from <a href="http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/654211-panic-at-makerere-as-quack-cop-arrests-staff.html">Google Cache</a> on April 7, 2014 (Melina Platas Izama and Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

The next day, the government-owned daily newspaper New Vision reported that the raid was conducted by a “quack cop,” with one police spokesperson, Patrick Onyango, denying responsibility. The same day, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said in a tweet that the Walter Reed Project was raided for “training youths in homosexuality.” He also accused a top diplomat of being involved. Another police spokesperson confirmed the arrest in a segment by Ugandan media house NTV.


By Monday, April 7, the New Vision story had been pulled from the newspaper’s Web site and both of the tweets above (screenshots) were taken down.

Public opinion toward same-sex practicing people is generally negative, with 97% of Ugandan respondents in the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project agreeing with the statement, “Homosexuality is a way of life that should not be accepted by society.” In the days before the raid, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was the chief guest of a “Thanksgiving service” to celebrate the passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Hundreds of people swarmed Kololo airstrip in the center of the capital, many bearing signs with direct messages to President Obama. All heads of religious institutions, including the Catholic and Anglican churches, and the head mufti of the Muslim community, not to mention the evangelical bodies who played a key role in the bill’s success, were in attendance.

(Data: Pew Global Attitudes Project 2007; Figure: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

U.S. response to anti-gay legislation
Obama released a statement condemning Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill before it was signed into law, and initiated a review of American aid to Uganda immediately following the bill’s passage. At the same time the aid review was taking place, however, the United States announced a significant increase in military aid to Uganda. As activists and observers have noted, the announcement was poorly timed if Washington wanted to send a clear message to the Ugandan government. Instead, the State Department’s actions look like a slap on the wrist quickly followed by the extension of an olive branch by the U.S. military establishment.

If mixed messages are an ineffective means of impacting policy, however, so too may be the economic sanctions and bullish diplomacy the State Department has attempted to employ thus far. American foreign policy must consider the constraints faced by those who publicly and privately oppose the anti-homosexuality law, including politicians. American policy must find ways to assist those who support rights for sexual minorities without creating a stand-off with either the Ugandan government or public. Such a stand-off can alienate Ugandan rights activists and also whip up nationalist sentiments, bolstering the anti-homosexuality movement.

How is Uganda’s domestic security structured and why does that matter?
The Walter Reed Project raid and initial response by the police and government spokespersons suggest an additional complication — the lack of coordination across branches of the Ugandan security establishment. As noted above, the Inspector General of Police was unaware of the raid until after it had taken place and in the day following the raid, government officials were both claiming and refuting that the Ugandan police had been involved.

An investigative report by The Independent in 2009 found no fewer than 30 separate security agencies operate in Uganda, both constitutional and unconstitutional. The proliferation of security agencies, like the proliferation of districtscabinet portfolios, and members of parliament, serves to bolster a patronage system and ensure that no one institution or individual is strong enough to challenge the executive. However, such fractionalization comes with considerable financial costs, and is both inefficient and unpredictable, as the raid on the Walter Reed Project demonstrates.

Another potential by-product of the proliferation of security agencies is the bungling of international relations. It is entirely possible that, rather than an overarching government strategy to target organizations who serve LGBTI clients, a particular branch or branches of the security sector have taken matters into their own hands. The raid comes at a critical point in Washington’s review of programing in Uganda. Amulti-agency team of Americans was in Kampala last week for the explicit purpose of reviewing U.S. commitments in the wake of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Meanwhile, Uganda’s Ministry of Health has been at pains to assure international partners that the law will not affect Ugandans’ access to health services. Thus, last week’s events suggest an internal struggle in government, between those playing to populist sentiments and those trying desperately not to irrevocably sever relations with donors.

The details of the raid suggest that at least some components of the state, much to the chagrin of the United States, have every intention of enforcing the anti-homosexuality law. Some hoped that the law would remain on the books but largely out of everyday activities of law enforcement. The plainclothes officers involved in the raid were in possession of personal information about Walter Reed Project staff, including where they live, suggesting substantial efforts have gone into gathering intelligence not only on members of the LGBTI community but also individuals who work with the community. Sources inside the police say that they have video recordings showing that the Walter Reed Project is a “gay training and recruiting center.” Some of the videos apparently feature American nationals.

The raid of a U.S. military-affiliated facility is a bitter slap in the face to Uganda’s longtime ally, but perhaps serves well to highlight the failure of U.S. policy on human rights in the region, particularly the protection and promotion of gay rights. Uganda’s political landscape and that of the region is complex. The United States has yet to demonstrate that it has a strong grasp on the stakes or dynamics at play. In the case of the anti-homosexuality law, U.S. sanctions, whether verbal or economic, may be ineffective at best and harmful at worst, as journalist Andrew Mwenda has argued. As noted in an earlier Monkey Cage post, the vast majority of Ugandans support anti-homosexuality legislation, some with fanatic zeal. This is true not only in Uganda but across Africa. U.S. policy must consider the public pressure and incentives the president and other politicians face. Attempting to strong-arm a president or others into overwhelmingly unpopular positions domestically, such as the protection of sexual minority rights, may backfire.



Malawi: First Thoughts

To understand any place, you have to leave it. It’s only with a comparative perspective that you recognize the significance of things you take for granted on the one hand, or the things you lament daily on the other. That’s how I’ve felt, anyway, during this past year of working on my dissertation, based in Uganda and working briefly in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and now, Malawi.

I flew into Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe yesterday afternoon. From Kampala it’s a short trip, feeling much like the journey from San Francisco to Chicago, and making intra-continental travel seem easier than it normally does.

There are no immigration forms to fill upon arrival in Lilongwe (at least the day I arrived), but they do check for your Yellow Fever card. How did Yellow Fever, a relatively uncommon disease, become the single most common (only?) vaccination required worldwide? I was thankful I had remembered my aptly colored yellow Yellow Fever card, but others who didn’t have one seemed to get through just fine. While the card is ostensibly a requirement in lots of countries, apart from Malawi I can only ever remember being checked in Nigeria.

At the immigration counter, I was not asked what I would be doing in Malawi, or how long I would be staying. There were no forms to fill out, no visa fees to pay. My fingers were scanned, photo taken, and off I went. I bought a SIM card at the airport, no registration required, and got cash from the ATM. The road from Kamuzu to Lilongwe was practically deserted; a few homes dotted the otherwise empty roadside. The road was smooth, the air hot, the ground dry. I wasn’t sure we had arrived in Lilongwe proper until I started to recognize the names of lodges I had seen in guidebooks. By contrast, coming from Entebbe you may think you’ve reached Kampala, only to find yourself snaking slowly through the city limits an hour later.

The quiet and winding streets of the Lilongwe, lined with trees, remind me of Kigali, as does the relative absence of people. While Kampala, Lagos, Nairobi, and Accra are churning, bustling, and often overwhelming, Lilongwe has a distinctly understated presence.

Uganda’s economy is nearly five times the size of Malawi, Kenya and Ghana about twice that of Uganda, and Nigeria far bigger than all four combined. The largest bill you can get in Malawi $2.50, Uganda, $20, Kenya $11, Nigeria $6, Ghana $23. As you can see, there is no relationship between bill and economy size (or GDP per capita, for that matter), which makes spending and taking out money much easier in Uganda and Ghana than in Malawi or Nigeria. In both Nigeria and Malawi (yes, with my limited experience of one day in the latter),  ATMs appear to be frequently running out of money, and sometimes with very long queues. I’m no economist, but something about tiny bills seems very inefficient. Is there an upside? Any work on the politics of moneymaking, literally?

Finally, although I generally dislike the tradition (requirement?) of adorning the walls of every establishment with presidents’ photos, it is a welcome change to see — for once if not for long — a woman in the frame.

That’s all for today. More comparative musings soon.

Update: Relatedly, though I don’t fully agree: “Africa? Why there’s no such place” h/t to my partner in crime.

News on Uganda’s Ebola outbreak

An outbreak of Ebola that started in Kibaale district, western Uganda, has spread to Kampala, say government officials (including the president). So far 14 people have died from the Ebola virus, and at least a dozen more have been infected. As more information becomes available, I will post it here.

Many of the cases so far are reported to have come from the same family, in addition to a health worker in Kibaale, Clare Muhumuza, who was transferred to Mulago Hospital, where she died.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (and common sense), a critical factor in stopping the epidemic is to recognize an outbreak and respond quickly. It appears as though this is the third week since the outbreak in Kibaale. Let us hope not too many people were infected before news of the outbreak and government response became public.

Some of the recent stories are below:

Museveni warns of Ebola threat, BBC news

Ebola in Uganda alert, World Health Organization

6 more patients admitted with possible Ebola, AP

Ebola kills Kampala doctor, Chimp Reports

Ugandans told to avoid handshaking, Reuters

Bad news sells, are you buying it?

Published online April 3, 2012

In the past several weeks there has been much discussion of Africa’s image, prompted in large part by the Kony 2012 video (which has become too exhausting to discuss at this moment).

There are perpetual debates about Africa’s leadership, political or otherwise, and the prospects for continent’s future. These conversations are played out everywhere from the airwaves to your neighborhood bar.

The arguments are not new. Africa gets a bad name and her image is tarnished by unrelenting negative press.  Western media, it is argued, is particularly problematic, projecting an image of Africa that paints Africans as both hapless and helpless and the western world as their saviors. The stories that sell are those that deal in death and violence, poverty and hopelessness.

At the same time, the debates on local radio stations and in the streets are often just as pessimistic. Headlines in local papers highlight corruption scandals, the failure of public services and violent deaths.

Why is it so much easier to sell and tell a negative story? The western media alone are not the culprits; bad news sells everywhere. And the pubic is complicit, after all, as consumers of bad news. Critical views, especially those aired publicly, are important for accountability and multi-sided public debate is valuable in its own right. But at some point we have to interrogate our own role in shaping the debates about society, politics, and progress.

I recently returned to Kampala after a 6-month sojourn in the U.S. and as always, I am always amazed by the changes that have taken place while I was away. Granted, I am occasionally greeted by the expansion of a pothole I thought had finally been filled up for good, but more often than not, the changes are positive ones.

Every time I come back there are new buildings that have gone up, new shops that have opened, and new businesses and products breaking into the market. The streets of Kampala are cleaner and less cluttered than when I left them. Fewer matatus crowd the roads and public buses bustle efficiently through town. City garbage collectors dash to their trucks with bags full of trash and scoop up plastic bottles that have clogged drains and ditches. The same is also true, though less surprising, whenever I visit Rwanda.

This time around, I arrived in the midst of a roaring debate about who was responsible for the death of a policeman who had been hit in the head with a stone during a demonstration by the opposition group, A4C. Following this incident, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni visited the home of the fallen officer, and photos of him with the grieving family were splashed all over the papers. The policeman’s clearly meager existence prompted debates about the poor pay and living conditions of the police, and many saw President Museveni’s house-call as a political maneuver.

I struck up a conversation with a cab driver one evening not long after the demonstration. The young man fully blamed the policemen for the unfortunate event, and remained an ardent supporter of de facto leader of the opposition, and the leader of that particular demonstration, Kizza Besigye. The young man had lived under the same president his entire life, and was tired of Museveni. University graduates can’t get jobs, he said, and everything is run by members of the same ethnic group – the president’s ethnic group. There is no change, he said.

We drove past one of many multi-storied buildings under construction. What about all this construction, I said, pointing – this city is growing and changing every day. He laughed. That building is owned by one of five people, like all the buildings in town. Both of his mobile phones began ringing and we drove on.

There is much to be frustrated about when it comes to governance and political leadership, whether you are in East Africa or elsewhere. Change does not come soon enough, and when it does, it comes in fits and starts. Politicians everywhere tend to flip flop on important issues, and then pick petty fights to derail what would otherwise be good policies. Corruption and unemployment are high, and access to economic and political opportunity is not equal. But the narrative, whether at home or abroad, is often hyperbolic. The positions that get the most attention are those that are most extreme, and thus there is an incentive to make them so.

Bad news sells, and we are just as responsible for this state of affairs as the news organizations we are so quick to castigate. We are addicted to narratives that we hate, and we gravitate toward clichés that we know can’t be true. The same phrases sprinkle news stories time and again, and while we sneer at them, they play a tune we can easily sing along to.

The stories aren’t going away anytime soon, and even good news plays to stereotypes. Senegal’s recent presidential turnover had commentators falling over themselves – they always knew the country had been a “beacon of democratic stability in a troubled West Africa!” Rather than passive consumers of these hackneyed formulas, we fight back, as we should. But no sooner do we switch off the radio than we become producers of our own hyperbolic platitudes.

As we approached home my driving directions periodically interrupted our lively cab-ride conversation – turn right at the dirt road, turn left after that house. There are still no street signs and in the final stretch we bumped along on dusty roads. But alongside them are a string of new homes and a towering apartment complex. A sprawling new shopping mall has sprung up just moments away from home. No need to join the Saturday rush into town to shop these days, which is great news. There are simply too many cars on the road!

African Literature Conference 2012, Makerere University

The Department of Literature at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, will be hosting an African Literature Conference July 12-14, 2012. Submissions for abstracts and panel proposals are due January 14, 2012 to litconference@chuss.mak.ac.ug. More information available here (h/t @alleneli).

review this: Kampala online

Well, after 24 hours of the worst flu I’ve had since childhood, I’m back. There is a serious virus(es?) going around this town (Kampala that is); several people are reporting symptoms on twitter and a number of friends have been taken ill. Wash those hands! The good news is the worst symptoms (namely, high fever with the usual chills and aches) seem short-lived. But that’s not much comfort when you’re in the middle of the thing.

Anywayyyy… what I really wanted to share is an email I got from TripAdvisor after reviewing Endiro (coffee shop in Kisementi) online. After I wrote a post on Uganda’s online tourism presence, I decided I should do my part in sharing information online about the places I frequent. Ideally, there should be a forum other than TripAdvisor to do this, but I had a feeling more people would read reviews on that popular platform than elsewhere. It might be useful for the managers/owners of the restaurants/hotels/etc. to see what others are saying about them online as well (the second review of Endiro, for example, is rather scathing).

Yesterday, I got this email from TripAdvisor:

What I found most interesting, of course, was that there were “3,105 travelers looking for information about Kampala this week”.

I don’t know how they calculate the number of “travelers” (as opposed to clicks on Kampala-related sites on their page) but at least this gives us a clue as to how many people are seeking information about Uganda online. First of all, this figure is only for Kampala, and second of all, it is only for TripAdvisor, suggesting that the number of folks looking for information online on Uganda is in the multiple thousands every week.

I had not previously found data regarding online searches for Uganda tourism, but this at least gives us a rough idea, and provides further evidence that Uganda’s online tourism presence matters! Over to you, UTB.

On a related note, Bernard Tabaire (@btabaire) has an interesting column on Uganda’s tourism sector in last Sunday’s Daily Monitor, link here.


Today marks the inaugural post of a new series, cleverly titled “cows“. Featured here are the cows of Kampala and beyond, just going about their business.

Cow-of-the-day: Norman of Naalya, 10:45am

Have your own cow photos? Send them along!