More guns, no butter in Africa: US strategy, dictatorships, and buying off the human rights groups

I love a man in uniform: Museveni (R) ogles Maj. Gen. David Hogg of US Army Africa Command (AFRICOM), at Kampala military summit, May 2012

I hope African human rights activists, including LGBTI activists, will read this document. It’s the White House’s new “strategy paper” for sub-Saharan Africa, released in June. There is the usual airy talk about democratization and feeding people, unballasted by details or dollars. (There is substantial attention to trade, which reaffirms my sense of the shape of aid conditionalities to come: the main quid-pro-quo for US assistance to Africa will be not decreased rights abuses, but increased trading opportunities for US firms.) But the core of the paper mentions no ballots and promises no butter. It’s about guns. “Security” is its watchword. Reuters noted, in its neutral fashion, that the paper lacks “a single signature project which could cement Obama’s Africa legacy”:

Instead, attention has focused on AFRICOM, the unified U.S. Africa Command that the Pentagon established in 2007. It is playing an increasingly important role as the United States pumps resources into training African militaries. …

J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Atlantic Council, said Washington’s emphasis on security, coupled with the lack of new economic initiatives, had shifted the balance in U.S. ties with Africa.

“It is militarization by default,” Pham said. “Part of the reason is the U.S. interest in fighting al Qaeda, and part of it is because of the weakness of our African partners which are unable to contain these threats themselves.”

A slight image problem: AFRICOM

One consultancy group of “Africa experts” speculates that “the timing of the paper is in response to the recent controversy generated by news stories reporting of the US’ ‘shadow war’ in sub-Saharan Africa.” Yup. Shortly before the strategy paper’s launch, the Washington Post revealed that the US has set up networks of secret bases across the continent, to use surveillance technology and Special Forces incursions against alleged terrorists and other undesirables. Special training for African militaries is part of the package. So, too, are murders:

The lightly equipped commando units train foreign security forces and perform aid missions, but they also include teams dedicated to tracking and killing terrorism suspects.

O, left hand! O, right hand! Here, poor Third Worldies, have some food before I shoot you.

Why should LGBTI activists care? Well, Hillary Clinton is, with quite genuine élan, promoting the liberties of LGBTI folk on the continent. The right hand is on your side. But US military policy is propping up exactly the regimes — in Uganda, the DRC, Ethiopia, and elsewhere — that relish your oppression. The left hand doesn’t give a damn about you. For how can there possibly be any benign result to all this: secret US aid to train secret African military forces in secret strategies of murder and oppression? What can this conceivably achieve but to prop up dictatorships, and threaten even democratic governments with armed coups and dictatorial control?

Right hand, ignore that pesky left hand: US Gen. Carter Ham of AFRICOM describes actions against Joseph Kony

Just for one example:The BBC World Service just carried a fascinating report on the militarization of Ugandan politics, as the country becomes more and more a security adjunct to US ambitions in the region.  See, or rather hear, here. (You have to sign up to listen.)

A reader has also pointed out Phil Clark’s op-ed from this spring, fingering the dreadful Kony 2012 campaign as part of a broader project to build up Museveni’s repressive military by any excuses necessary. It capitalizes on wide support “for two of the international community’s preferred means of ending mass conflict — military intervention and international justice.” And the enthusiasm has come not just from trigger-happy Western governments but from naive human rights organizations. They deliberately overlook

the fact that, in pursuing rebel leaders in central Africa, the United States and the I.C.C. have cooperated with the Ugandan and Congolese governments, which themselves are responsible for murder, forced displacement, rape and torture of civilians over the last 15 years. …

When President Obama sent 100 American military advisers to support the Ugandan government’s campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army last October, it was the latest move in a long-standing military relationship. Since the 1990s, Washington has viewed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government as a key regional ally against the Sudanese government during Khartoum’s wars in South Sudan and Darfur, the “terrorist” threat of the L.R.A., and most recently Al Shabab in Somalia. Washington’s political, military and economic aid to Uganda has propped up Museveni’s regime and strengthened the role of the armed forces in everyday politics. One reason that widespread protests in Uganda in early 2011 did not transform into another Tahrir Square was that the Ugandan armed forces — nourished for years on Museveni’s corrupt patronage, funded mainly by the United States — remained fiercely loyal to the president, including when asked to fire on innocent civilians.

All the President’s men: See http://musevenikaguta2.blogspot.com/

It’s not just Obama. As Clark emphasizes, the International Criminal Court, beloved of those who think human rights aren’t real unless they have police and prosecutors attached like sinister Siamese siblings, has been equally complicit in whitewashing Museveni. The Court, he writes,

has relied on Museveni and the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, for the referral of their conflicts to the court, the security of its investigators, and assistance in identifying and transporting witnesses and gathering evidence. In January 2004, the I.C.C. prosecutor appeared side-by-side with Museveni in London to announce the opening of international court investigations in Uganda. Two weeks ago, Ocampo announced that he would soon visit Kinshasa to meet President Kabila and “thank him for his support” during the Lubanga investigations. From the outset, the close working relationship between the I.C.C. and the Ugandan and Congolese governments has allowed the latter to focus the court’s attention on atrocities committed by rebel leaders while insulating themselves from prosecution.

Museveni and Kabila have proven masterful at making themselves indispensable to international actors. Unquestioning international cooperation with the Ugandan and Congolese governments has allowed them to appear as agents of peace, security and justice while continuing to commit abuses against their citizens. That the United States and the I.C.C. voiced no concern while Museveni and Kabila cracked down on the political opposition during last year’s elections has emboldened them. The claim by the I.C.C. and its supporters that the court deters criminal behavior and therefore contributes to lasting peace rings hollow when state crimes are committed under its watchful eye.

Promoting his armed approached to governance and freedoms as a model for other regional leaders, Museveni this year hosted a conference of military brass from across the continent. Talk about resisting aid conditionality!  When it comes to pernicious plots against sovereignty, it seems, the homosexuals are a minor annoyance next to perverted foreign pacifists. He blasted belt-tightening demands from donors that might shrink military spending:

“Africa armies must be ideologically independent from foreign exploitation and manipulation. Some external forces told us not to spend 1.9 per cent of our budget and we had to reduce the size the army,” Mr Museveni said.

Spheres of affluence: US military commands

A final point. I mentioned AFRICOM, the US military’s Africa command, above. At present, this relatively novel US unit is based in Germany, from where it played a leading role in the Libya intervention. That success (from the American standpoint) gave it a great deal of street cred, or rather sky cred, with DC policymakers. The Bush administration set up AFRICOM in large part as a military counterweight to growing Chinese involvement, and investment, in Africa. From this perspective, the secretive “counterterrorism” campaigns it dallies with conceal, like the proverbial Chinese boxes, yet another secret: they mask a larger geopolitical ambition. They’re more about Beijing’s honchos than Bin Laden’s heirs: AFRICOM aims to keep China away from that vast wealth of African raw materials that we’ve already succeeding in keeping Africans away from. (One fascinating thing about Africa is that all its riches, without exceptions, make the bulk of Africans poorer. This is a cultural phenomenon worth Mitt Romney’s study, though it has more to do with Western culture than its African counterpart.)

For more on AFRICOM and what it’s up to in Africa, see here, here, here, and here. 

Several of Museveni’s supporters in the US Congress — including the head of the House’s subcommittee on terrorism, Republican Ed Royce — are exploiting the Kony 2012 mania to push for laws expanding AFRICOM’s role in Africa. Some want to move the command’s headquarters from Europe to the continent itself. All this would vastly increase the support it can provide to Museveni and fellow dictators.

Africans and their allies have mobilized against AFRICOM’s present and predicted roles in repression. You can visit the Resist AFRICOM site here:

With the establishment of AFRICOM, the Pentagon attempts to increase access to Africa’s oil and to wage a new front in the Global War on Terror without regard for the needs or desires of African people. Enabled by oil companies and private military contractors, AFRICOM serves as the latest frontier in military expansionism, violating the human rights and civil liberties of Africans who have voiced a strong “no” to U.S. military presence. We reject this militarization of foreign engagement. Instead, our vision is a comprehensive U.S. foreign policy grounded in true partnership with the African Union, African governments, and civil society on peace, justice, security, and development.

Uganda Pride 2012: Hillary, Kony, drones, and the police

African gay man pride Uganda

Uganda Pride 2012 participant. All Pride images courtesy of David Robinson

On Saturday, August 4, Ugandan activists tried — and, on the whole, succeeded in — staging the country’s first ever LGBTI Pride. There was, however, the nasty interruption of a police raid. This came just one day after the US State Department gave a coalition of Ugandan queer campaigners its annual Human Rights Defender award, calling them a “model for others and an inspiration for the world.”  On that same day, visiting Kampala, Hillary Clinton met with Yoweri Museveni and, by the Department’s account, raised the issue of LGBT rights yet again. We’ll get back to Clinton in a moment.

Frank Mugisha at Pride: Nobody’s perfect

Pride took place in Entebbe, by the shores of Lake Victoria, and hence was called a Beach Pride Parade. (I cannot speak too highly of an event which induced my friend and colleague Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda to dress up in the manner of Some Like it Hot‘s Osgood Fielding III.) Maurice Tomlinson, a Jamaican attorney leading the legal battle against the sodomy law there, visited to serve as grand marshal; he writes:

The Pride March had a truly carnival atmosphere … Everything was done very tastefully as the organizers were aware that it was a public beach and many young children were around.  Many parents even brought their kids over to hear the music and listen to the few speeches and share in the jubilant atmosphere.  The Pride organizers even shared food and drinks freely with the onlookers.

However, according to a statement from Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG):

Police stormed the venue where people had gathered after the march and ordered the party to stop and that no one should leave the area. Police is believed to have been tipped off by either a small group of Christians who were for baptism a few yards away or by the local[s] of the area who had gathered to witness the pride march. Police alleged that there was a gay marriage taking place and that two gay men were seen kissing. They then declared that the gathering was unlawful and wanted to arrest the whole group.

The “gay wedding” has now become the stimulus of choice for moral panic and police repression around the world. The propensity of the general public and the gendarmerie to fantasize nuptials with no provocation is one of the more fascinating aspects of our present moment in modernity, and one of the least remarked side effects of Goodridge v. Massachusetts.

Kasha Jacqueline and Frank Mugisha at Pride: Marry this

Among those arrested were Tomlinson;  Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, director of FARUG and the coordinator of Pride Uganda; Jay Abang, FARUG’s programs manager; and several others. Tomlinson writes:

I was detained for assisting a 60 year old woman climb into the back of the police van after police officers refused to help her! … After a very confusing and utterly disgraceful performance at the station by the police (including the officers insisting we all sit on the bare floor until we were processed, one officer pushing a young female to the floor and another verbally abusing the 60 year old female anthropologist from Makerere University) we were all released without charges or an explanation.

After their release, Kasha Jacqueline said,

Tomlinson and Kasha Jacqueline at the march

I feel like our rights have been trampled upon. It is becoming a habit of police to interrupt our gatherings. It is as if a section of Ugandans do not deserve certain rights. The laws and bills [Uganda’s draconian, proposed “Anti-Homosexuality Bill”] have not been passed but police is already enforcing them.

Uganda’s police have in recent months shut down two workshops for LGBT activists, one in June, one in February when the country’s Minister for Ethics and Integrity personally led the raid.

Police break up Beach Pride

Now, back to Clinton. Her support for LGBTI activists in Uganda, and for their freedoms of association and assembly, is genuine and unquestionable. What is questionable is her support for those freedoms as a property of Ugandans in general. After all, the US rushed precipitately to congratulate Museveni on his victory in a fraudulent presidential election in 2011. It issued only anodyne expressons of regret in the ensuing months when Museveni brutally suppressed demonstrations against the sham vote, arrested his opponent and members of Parliament, and ordered Ugandans shot for engaging in walk-to-work protests against skyrocketing fuel prices.

A curious form of reverse “pinkwashing” is at work in the Ugandan case, I’d (almost) argue. Museveni’s crackdowns on LGBTI people give the US something to condemn, so that it can claim it’s done its due diligence in criticizing Uganda’s rights record. For Museveni and Clinton alike, they help keep the spotlight off other violations. It’s not that the abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity are comparatively minor, or that the others are more grave or violent: far from it. But the US reprimanding Museveni for the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” won’t bring his regime down; if the US dissociated itself from his election fraud, it might.

Pinkwashed: Police spray Ugandan opposition protesters with pink liquid during demonstrations, May 2011

So, in Kampala this time, Clinton pretty much left the question of when Uganda’s dictator might leave power as something for him to think about casually in his spare time: “It is important for leaders to make judgments about how they can best support the institutionalization of democracy,” she told reporters. “It’s not about strong men, it’s about strong institutions.” But the man is strong, so strong! — and we need him. “U.S. officials stressed that Clinton’s visit to Uganda was aimed at thanking it for its strong security assistance in Somalia and elsewhere”:

In Uganda, Clinton visited a military base where Ugandan and U.S. soldiers showed her the U.S.-made “drone” aircraft now patrolling the skies over Somalia, where an African Union force is seeking to crush al Shabaab Islamist insurgents.

Uganda, a strong U.S. security partner, has contributed the bulk of the Somalia force and Clinton said she foresaw a day when drones might help the United States and Uganda with another of their joint military efforts – the hunt for renegade Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.

“Now we have to figure out how to look through thick vegetation to find Joseph Kony,” Clinton said, after inspecting a drone, a small unmanned aircraft no more than a yard long and mounted with cameras.

The United States last year dispatched about 100 military advisers to help Uganda and other central African nations track down Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army has been charged with repeated atrocities against civilians.

Give Museveni enough drones and you won’t need a few perambulating Christians to point out the perilous promixity of Pride. Electronic surveillance will search out the signs of gay weddings, and ensure that no exchange of vows passes without massive retaliation.

Although hunting down Joseph Kony would certainly be a popular move with the thousands of Americans hoodwinked by the viral video campaign earlier this year, it’s a minor matter to the US. The important thing for us is that Museveni is Stable, and willing to support US counterterrorist interference in East Africa, as well as our access to raw materials. If using some drones to neutralize an annoyance to the Museveni regime is the price the dictator charges, then, drone warfare being cheap, it’s easy to pay. Indeed, the function of the Kony 2012 campaign and the attendant hysteria becomes clearer and clearer in hindsight. It mobilized a public that by and large couldn’t tell Uganda from Uzbekistan to take some painless cyberaction on behalf of one of Africa’s more unpleasant despots.  Indeed, while the US feints at criticizing Museveni’s harshness toward the gays, the head of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism introduces measure after measure to  expand US military activities in Uganda: ostensibly to oppose Kony, but actually to prop up Museveni’s army. All very convenient.

Clinton presents award to Ugandan LGBTI activists, Kampala, August 3

Kampala’s campaigners for LGBTI rights have in fact long pressed their Western supporters to couch their opposition to Uganda homophobia in terms of Museveni’s appalling record as a whole — not to single out queers for special grace and favor. However well the message may have gotten across to Western civil society, it’s unlikely to play terribly well with the US government. But it does a disservice to the brave activists who marched, and faced down police, in Entebbe to divorce their courage from the politics and repression that give it meaning.

Images from Uganda Pride, 2012.