Among other measures, the US suspended plans to fund a health institute, cancelled a US-sponsored military exercise and are imposing visa restrictions on ‘certain individuals’ – without specifying who they may be. The Ugandan shilling plunged following the US announcement. Predictably, Ugandan government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo said the country wouldn’t be blackmailed into changing the law and that, in any case, it wasn’t ‘critical’ for Ugandans to travel to the US – or any other country for that matter.
The response in Uganda raises the question whether this is really the best way to deal with regimes accused of curtailing their citizens’ human rights, be it through legislation or otherwise. Does the US administration offer enough carrots in its carrot-and-stick policy towards Africa? Or has US President Barack Obama simply failed to lure the continent into seeing things his way – something he seemingly won’t manage to do before the end of his second mandate? And if sanctions are maintained against Uganda, why not re-impose sanctions against Egypt? Surely the harsh sentences against Al Jazeera journalists, announced last month, is an affront to media freedom and journalism around the world?
If only these questions had simple answers. The two cases in question – Uganda and Egypt – have some elements in common. The issue at hand is US sanctions vis-à-vis governments hiding behind laws and institutions to mask violations of basic human rights; and a US administration eager to show the world that it is on the side of freedom and of the marginalised.
However, aid and sanctions are complex issues. Analysts agree that sanctions can be hugely effective – for example, sanctions played an important role in bringing down the apartheid regime in South Africa – but in some cases, like Zimbabwe, they have little impact.
During Obama’s term, withholding US aid has been used in Africa to punish regimes for violating human rights, aggression against their neighbours and unconstitutional changes of government. Last year, for example, the US withdrew its military aid from Rwanda following a United Nations report that accused the country of supporting the M23 rebels.
Crucial aid through its African Growth and Opportunity Act programme to Madagascar was suspended for several years, and is only now being reviewed, following the election of a new president in December last year. Sanctions against Zimbabwe are still in place, and President Robert Mugabe can probably forget about setting foot in the US again in his lifetime.
For many Africans, this way of dealing with aid leaves a bitter aftertaste and encourages them to turn to countries like China for development aid – which, it is said, is given without political interference. Ugandans, for example, say that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ and accuse the US of trying to impose values that aren’t their own. To support this, Ugandans have been portrayed as ‘deeply conservative.’
Incidentally, it is clear that there is much more to the homosexuality debate in Africa and its accompanying anti-Western rhetoric than meets the eye. While homophobia is widespread in many countries and being gay is punishable by death in places like Sudan and Mauritania, homosexuality has historically been accepted in various African cultures, even a Muslim country like Senegal, where the so-called goordigen have existed for as long as people can remember.
However, a wave of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals – from Nigeria and Senegal to East Africa – and the new laws have made life extremely difficult for gay people in Africa. Ageing politicians like Museveni and Mugabe have found the latent anti-gay sentiment amongst their electorate very useful and an easy rallying point.
At the same time, and the US government is certainly aware of it, right-wing American evangelists have also been linked to the upsurge of homophobia in countries like Uganda and Nigeria. It is claimed, for example, that donations of Western churches to Uganda tripled after the introduction of the first anti-gay laws in Parliament in 2009.
Does this mean US sanctions may have a chance of reversing the repression against gays in Africa? Is the ambiguity big enough to leave a door open to Ugandan authorities to be more lenient if they see the sanctions are hurting them?
The same question is being asked about sanctions against Egypt. In an unfortunate turn of events, US Secretary of State John Kerry had just announced that aid of US$575 million to Egypt would resume when the devastating verdict of long jail sentences against Al Jazeera journalists was announced. This has predictably been met with calls for sanctions against Egypt to be reinstated to uphold press freedom and to prevent journalists around the world from suffering the same fate.
One way for the US to show its disapproval would be by ‘uninviting’ certain heads of state from the long-awaited US-Africa summit, which is to take place in August this year. According to diplomatic sources, at this stage all African leaders are invited, except for those from Zimbabwe and Sudan, who are on UN sanctions lists; Eritrea, who is accused of fomenting war in Somalia; the Central African Republic, which is still under sanctions of the African Union (AU) and Western Sahara, which isn’t recognised by the US.
Egypt and Guinea-Bissau had initially also not been invited due to AU sanctions – but these were to have been lifted at the AU summit, as expected, following the end of their suspension.
Madagascar was initially not invited, but following successful elections, President Hery Rajaonarimampianina was also expected to make the trip. So, the list is flexible. Under the circumstances, Museveni might choose not to travel to the summit anyway.
Obama’s Africa policy has raised some criticism and is judged to be disappointing, despite a commitment of up to US$80billion a year. Some may even say he is doing less for Africa than his predecessor, George W Bush – despite beautiful speeches like the memorable one at Nelson Mandela’s funeral aside. The successful and highly publicised US initiatives like the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) were started before Obama took over the reins from Bush.
Obama probably has more urgent issues on his mind at the moment, with a real threat to US interests posed by Islamists in Iraq and Syria. However, the announcement of some bold initiatives at the upcoming summit might help Africans in general to bite the bullet of his carrot-and-stick approach.
This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies