Uganda’s only hope is a stronger civil society

As published in the Financial Times on March 9, 2014.

Sir, Michael Holman (“The west lays itself a trap over Uganda’s anti-gay laws”, March 6) is highly perceptive in his analysis of how western donors have responded to Uganda’s determination to persecute gay people, but he offers no clear ideas of how these donors might best promote more enlightened government.

He is right to assert that the gay rights issue has become far too prominent in the donors’ discourse and to point out that other more basic issues such as the government’s tendency to curb political freedoms have not attracted the same level of criticism. Yet, despite his criticism of the president’s authoritarian ways, he seems to be arguing for stronger support for Yoweri Museveni in the upcoming election, presumably because he considers the alternatives to be even worse, though he doesn’t say so.

The political situation in Uganda presents western donors with several difficult challenges. First, the geopolitical aspects cannot be ignored. The lurking presence of China interested in accessing new oil finds greatly constrains the west as does the threat of creeping Muslim fundamentalism in eastern Africa and the Horn.

Second, promoting democratic processes but denying the majority of Ugandans the right to implement laws that are prejudiced against gay people is awkward to say the least. The challenge here is not so much to condemn Mr Museveni, but rather to persuade ordinary Ugandans to be more tolerant of people’s sexual orientation.

Third, given Uganda’s leaders’ tendency to be corrupt and unaccountable, there is an urgent need to seek more effective ways to promote better governance.

Mr Holman makes only a vague reference to the potential role of civil society in stemming Uganda’s steady drift towards authoritarian government. Uganda’s only hope is that its active and vibrant civil society will grow strong enough to insist on honest and accountable government. Consequently, the donors need to be much more energetic in supporting citizens’ initiatives fighting for better governance, something they have so far largely failed to do.

Pierre Landell-Mills, Founding President of the Partnership for Transparency Fund