WASHINGTON — The Obama administration faces a crucial diplomatic test in Central Africa, where its strategic ally Uganda is drawing criticism for its military presence in South Sudan and its official hostility toward gays and lesbians.
But experts on U.S. policy in Africa say the administration’s denunciation of Ugandan government policies is unlikely to alter that country’s behavior and that the United States isn’t likely to take stronger steps.
On Sunday, President Barack Obama condemned legislation that would radically curtail the rights of gay and lesbian Ugandans after the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, said he’d sign it. Obama’s statement, posted on the White House website, called the bill “a step backward for all Ugandans” and said enacting the legislation “will complicate our valued relationship with Uganda.”
The statement followed one a week earlier from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki that called for the “phased withdrawal of foreign forces” from South Sudan. Only Uganda, which borders South Sudan, has acknowledged having troops there.
Neither statement said how the United States would react if Uganda doesn’t change direction, and that worries some analysts.
“I’m both disturbed and not surprised that it doesn’t specify any direct measures,” J. Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said of Obama’s comments on the anti-gay legislation, which would impose life jail terms on any HIV-positive individual who engaged in homosexual intercourse. “It will be read by Uganda and Museveni and his advisers as nothing.”
Pham said it probably would take the United States threatening to withdraw military assistance to get Museveni’s attention. “We’ve condemned their actions in a number of instances but they’ve continued to act duplicitously,” he said. “The one area where we could, if we really wanted to, send a signal is on the military side.”
But that would risk what may be one of the closest U.S. military relationships in the region. Beginning in the 1990s, the United States has built the capacity of Museveni’s Uganda People’s Defence Force so it could be counted on to help stabilize difficult situations throughout Central and East Africa.
Ugandan troops were the first foreign forces to deploy in 2007 under the African Union Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, to combat insurgents linked to al Qaida. The U.S. has contributed more than $300 million to the AMISOM mission, according to the State Department, some of which is allocated directly to the Ugandan forces.
Moreover, U.S. and Ugandan military officials are working directly to hunt down Joseph Kony, who’s been internationally indicted on war crimes charges in connection with atrocities in many parts of Central Africa.
If the U.S wants to influence events in Uganda, experts said, funding cuts for these military partnerships need to be under consideration.
But the U.S.-Ugandan security partnership appears to trump other concerns.
“Our relationship in Uganda is complicated,” said Jennifer G. Cooke, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center. “We tend to not speak out as forcefully as we should because of the security concerns.”
Efforts to reach Ugandan diplomats in Washington, New York and Geneva were unsuccessful. There was no response to an email sent to the Ugandan president’s office.