POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 25, 2014
WASHINGTON » On the February day that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed a law making homosexuality a crime punishable by life in prison, the White House sharply criticized the measure as "more than an affront" and warned that the administration would review the U.S. relationship with Uganda in light of the law.
A month later, administration officials have announced that President Barack Obama is sending more special operations forces and additional military aircraft to help Museveni as he continues to hunt down Joseph Kony, the elusive rebel commander who is bent on toppling the Ugandan government. Kony is believed to have been hiding out in the jungles of Central Africa for years.
The timing of the decision to increase U.S. military help for Museveni, even as his government has been locking up journalists, targeting opposition leaders and criminalizing homosexuality, has dismayed human rights advocates. On Monday, a number of them questioned Obama's support for advancing civil liberties in Africa.
"Who wouldn't want to get rid of this brutal rebel group?" said Sarah Margon, acting Washington director of Human Rights Watch, in a reference to the Lord's Resistance Army, the guerrilla group led by Kony that has terrorized civilians in Uganda, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "But they're not a direct threat to Museveni right now, and what he gains by this is continued American support to his military, and legitimacy, just when he signed this law."
In sending additional CV-22 Osprey aircraft and more U.S. commando units, Obama "is sending a mixed message" to the Ugandan strongman, said Jennifer G. Cooke, Africa director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The tension between security and human rights is going to dog all of our foreign policy interests, but we should ask: How important is this security relationship?" Cooke said. "Because Museveni has not been a consistent force for stability in the region."
Obama administration officials said they were continuing to press Museveni about the anti-homosexuality law.
"We are cognizant that there are many who share our concerns about Ugandan President Museveni's recent enactment of the anti-homosexuality act," said Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
"Ensuring justice and accountability for human rights violators like the LRA and protecting LGBT rights aren't mutually exclusive," she added, referring to the Lord's Resistance Army and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Obama administration officials said that the search for Kony, who is believed to be hiding in the border region between Sudan and South Sudan, has entered a crucial phase. His resources are low after years on the run, and members of the guerrilla army have come close to capture.
But Kony has continued to evade pursuers because poorly equipped African Union troops actively searching for him have often found themselves without long-range helicopters capable of responding quickly to reported sightings. The Ospreys could fill that void, officials said.
White House officials said that although they were helping Museveni with one hand, they will continue to look for ways to admonish him with the other.
The U.S. is cutting funds to organizations in Uganda that lobbied on behalf of the anti-homosexuality law, including the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda. Although the council will still receive $2.3 million for treatment for patients with HIV and AIDS, the U.S. will give $6.4 million that was intended for the organization to other nongovernmental groups in Uganda, a White House official said.
The Ugandan law "potentially threatens the safety of LGBT tourists in Uganda and the liberty of those who show support for Uganda's LGBT community," Hayden said. She said about $3 million in funding designated for eco-tourism will also be redirected to nongovernmental groups.
Obama is being careful not to retaliate too sharply against Museveni, Africa experts said, because the Ugandan president has been helpful in fighting terrorism.
In particular, Museveni earned the United States' appreciation when he sent Ugandan troops into Somalia in 2012, forming the largest African contingent fighting al-Shabab, a group of Islamist rebels. The counterinsurgency pushed the Islamists from Mogadishu, Somalia, and large areas of the south, helping to burnish Museveni's image as a peacemaker.
But he also has sent troops into Congo and South Sudan, which U.S. and Western officials say has helped destabilize those countries. That, combined with the anti-homosexuality law, and the recent targeting of journalists and government opponents in Uganda, has left the Obama administration scrambling to figure out how to handle the African strongman.
"It's true, the situation in Uganda is not on a good trajectory," said Michael Poffenberger, co-founder of the Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, a research and advocacy group that is focused on Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army.
But Kony, he said, has terrorized Central Africa for years. His fighters, bent on overthrowing the Ugandan government, are believed to have slaughtered thousands of villagers in Uganda and neighboring countries.
For the Obama administration, the Uganda issue has become one "of carefully balancing the trade-offs, minute risks, and how to work with governments who don't always have the best interests of their citizens at heart," Poffenberger said.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
Helene Cooper, New York Times