Dec 21, 2009
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

In Uganda, A Tale of Two Headlines

Not long ago I noticed two headlines that appeared in the national newspapers here within a week or so of each other: one of them was “China Doubles Aid to Africa,”(1) and the other was “U.S Slams Uganda’s New Anti-Gay Bill.”(2) These headlines raise some important concerns and contrasts. That the Anti-Homosexuality Bill now in Uganda’s parliament –which calls for the death penalty in “aggravated” cases and makes the failure to report a suspected homosexual a crime- enjoys significant support among Ugandans raises concerns about the levels of tolerance and protection of minority rights that is essential to a functioning liberal democracy. It also raises the question: To what extent will the democracies of the world – several of whom are significant donors to Uganda – care to or be able to prevent the bill’s passage? Uganda’s Ethics Minister, James Nsaba Buturo, has recently confirmed that, “…Western countries were threatening to withdraw aid if the current Anti-Homosexuality Bill was not revoked.”(3)

Then there’s China. The New Vision article relates that both Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Sudanese President Omar el Bashir attended the China-Africa Summit in Egypt on November 8th, 2009, during which China announced its intentions to dramatically increase loans to several African countries and to step up initiatives ranging from food security to research scholarships. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also took the opportunity to deny that China’s interest in Africa is based solely on its need for natural resources. According to the article, he also “[R]epeated that China would not interfere in the internal politics of any African country.”

Foreign aid represents 30% of Uganda’s operating budget, and while this is down from 50% three years ago (due largely to the global recession)(4), Uganda surely does not take alienating the donor community lightly. Carl Gershman and Michael Allen noted as recently as 2006 that, “Uganda appear[s] to be refraining from certain restraints on NGOs in no small part out of fear that foreign aid will be cut off.” (5)

Then again, Mr. Buturo has repeatedly asserted that, “…The integrity of our country and our values are more important than their aid.”(6) I cannot help but wonder if this statement is mere political rhetoric, or if there is (beginning to be) something to it. That is, I wonder if Uganda is better positioned to ignore the West’s moral outcries and monetary threats over illiberal practices due to the rise of China as a significant donor. After all, as Robert Kagan notes, “[China] will [not] impose conditions on aid to African nations to demand political and institutional reforms they have no intention of carrying out in China.”(7) While homosexuality has been de-criminalized in China, the government has essentially ignored campaigns to extend protections and rights to the gay community (8). And China’s human rights record in other respects requires no further comment here.

Uganda may very well pass this draconian measure, and if it does, what does this signify? Does it mean that Uganda has taken a step “backward” on the path towards becoming a democratic regime that respects human rights and protects citizens who are minorities? Does it mean that Western influence is being trumped by the aid and the attitude of the Chinese?

Until very recently the West – and the U.S. in particular – considered Uganda to be, as Larry Diamond puts it, “[O]ne of the brightest stars of African development.” (9) In my next blog post I will explore some of the reasons why this was case, and some of the reasons why it is the case no longer. Changing assumptions about the democratization process seem to have as much to do with this as developments within Uganda itself.

Sources:

(1) Josephine Maseruka and Agencies. 2009. China Doubles Aid to Africa. The New Vision. 09NOV.

(2) AFP. US Slams Uganda’s New Anti-Gay Bill. 29OCT2009. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jEEJXoeBrTi17hexzYZqvmPgpPxg

(3) Moses Mulondo. 2009. Pray for Replacement of Corrupt Officials. Sunday Vision. 29NOV.

(4) Liz Kobusinge. 2008. Let Us Examine the Role of Foreign Aid. The New Vision. 17NOV. http://allafrica.com/stories/200811180049.html

(5) Carl Gershman and Michael Allen. 2006. The Assault on Democracy Assistance. Journal of Democracy. Vol. 17, No. 2. April. P.46.

(6) Mulondo. Pray for Replacement.

(7) Robert Kagan 2008. The End of Dreams and the Return of History. Knopf. April 28. P.70

(8) The Economist. 2009. Comrades-In-Arms. 20JUN. Vol. 392 Issue 8636, p43-43

(9) Larry Diamond. 2008. The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World. Times Books. P.250.

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1 Comment

  • It is absolutely a step in the wrong direction. Civil liberties protects the rights of those who hold unpopular beliefs. Without them, democracy is simply tyranny of the majority.

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