Gay rights and increased military involvement have redefined US-Uganda relations. The relationship is moving in parallel, yet opposite ways — on the one hand, the US is moving toward further engagement. On the other hand, a movement is diplomatically disengaging the two countries.

The US reevaluated its policy of aid to Uganda after the East African nation passed a law making homosexuality a crime punishable by life in prison. Meanwhile, military assistance, which the US has provided Uganda since 2011, was scaled up in response to the continued security threat presented by Joseph Kony and the Lords Resistance Army (LRA).

Legal systems set up in Africa under European colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in anti-sodomy laws in 38 of Africa’s 55 nations. However, many of these laws were not strictly enforced. The Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda, originally drafted in 2009, made capital punishment the consequence for homosexual acts.  The law was lobbied by Scott Lively, an American evangelical pastor who “preaches that gay Nazis were behind the Holocaust and that gay men recruit children.” After the UK and the EU opposed the bill and threatened to cut off aid, the bill was shelved. It was later revived and in December of last year the Ugandan Parliament passed the law, but replaced the death penalty statute with life imprisonment. The language of the law is frightening — it specifically states that one may be sentenced to life in prison for touching. Prior to the new legislation, same-sex relationships were punishable by incarceration in prison for up to 14 years, which still applies to minor offenders.  

The Act reads as follows:

The offence of homosexuality.

(1) A person commits the offence of homosexuality if—

c) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.

(2) A person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for life.

One can’t help but wonder exactly how touching another person “with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality” is to be understood. In Section III of the Act, harsh punishment is also promised to any person or organization that promotes homosexuality. What constitutes “promoting” homosexuality is dangerously ambiguous, completely subjective, and leaves an enormous amount of room for the abuse of power. Perhaps even more alarming is the section of the bill that incriminates anyone who knows of homosexual activity but fails to report it, creating the perfect environment for fear-based witch hunts. The verbiage of the law threatens to incite false accusations based on a homophobic perception of the interaction between homosexuals as well as heterosexuals and the organizations they are involved in.

In what appears to be the first public action to enforce the new legislation, Ugandan police raided the offices of an American-financed project that offers services to AIDS patients, according to a Ugandan government spokesman. The project is a partnership between the Makerere University in Kampala and the United States Military HIV Research Program. The government accuses the Makerere University Walter Reed Project in Kampala of “training youths in homosexuality” and one Ugandan employee was arrested and briefly detained.

The law creates tension between Uganda and the West, where great strides have been made in recent years toward LGBT equality. Western aid agencies and human rights organizations have decried the law as a gross violation of human rights. As a result of the bill, Norway and Denmark each redirected $8.5 million in government aid to the private sector and aid agencies. Norway froze a $9.6 million subsidy to the Ugandan judicial system and the US has threatened to redirect and/or cut $119 million in aid.

Uganda remains defiant. On April 1, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni lead a rally in Kampala to celebrate signing the act into law. Men, women, and children filled the city’s football stadium and carried signs that read “We love the homos but hate homosexuality, the people we love the act we condemn.” Museveni spoke to thousands of supporters stating that the law was passed to protect the future of Uganda and reject Western values that promote homosexuality. He also claims that Uganda does not need Western aid. When aid was cut in 2013, due to a corruption scandal, Uganda’s economy grew by 6 percent. In response to threats from the West, Museveni proudly declared “We don’t need aid… because a country like Uganda is one of the richest on earth.” It does not appear that cutting aid or imposing sanctions will have any effect on Uganda’s local laws concerning homosexuality.

While the US has distanced itself diplomatically, Washington has simultaneously committed 150 more Special Forces troops and for the first time, military aircraft to the search for Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA.  The LRA has been waging war on the Ugandan government and civilians in the western and northern regions of the country for over 20 years. The rebel group is infamous for murder, rape, and kidnapping. Children in these regions are regularly stolen from their homes and schools and forced to kill alongside the rebels.  Invisible Children‘s controversial Kony 2012 campaign (whose director and star was possibly suffering from the white man’s burden), demanded the US take action against Kony and protect the “invisible children of Uganda.” The campaign went viral on YouTube and eventually helped catalyze the deployment of 100 US military personnel, tasked with taking an advisory role in Uganda’s efforts to dismantle the LRA.

According to the New York Times, the Air Force Special Operations soldiers and other airmen will maintain the advisory role assumed in 2011. The military collaboration achieved mild success when African Union forces, supported by US Special Forces, killed the deputy to the LRA last year in Central African Republic. Now with CV-22 Osprey aircraft in the mix, there is hope that more substantial results will come soon. The region where the search for Kony is taking place is one of the most unstable in the world. Uganda is bordered to the north by South Sudan and to the east by the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both countries are currently experiencing wide scale violence and insecurity.

Is the US standing up for LGBT equality while simultaneously aiding Uganda in its fight to end the atrocities committed by the LRA in the north? If so, perhaps we should applaud the US for engaging with Uganda on matters that protect civilians from brutal violence while also attempting to deter the government from further institutionalizing homophobia. However, when homosexuality in Uganda was punishable by 14-year prison sentences, the US spent millions on aid to Uganda. In 2012, Uganda received $218.5 million in US aid. The money was allocated to Democracy and Governance ($1.0 M), Economic Development ($32.1 M), Education and Social Services ($2.5 M), Environment ($2.5 M), Health ($158.7 M), and Peace and Security ($0.2 M).

One question still begs to be asked: how, if at all, can the US redirect the allocation of these funds in a way that will not hurt Uganda’s health, economy, and education initiatives that benefit the poor and sick? Is the US kindly lending its military expertise to an African friend, or capitalizing on an opportunity to place military personnel in a unstable, oil-rich region? There is an inconsistency in policies on the part of the US, which seems to say, we might not give you money but we will gladly put American boots on the ground and aircraft in your skies.

It remains to be seen if the US can continue to walk the line of military engagement and diplomatic disengagement. As it stands, the US is sending mixed signals to Uganda.

(Photo above: AP Photo/Ben Curtis)