President Yoweri Museveni has become a liability to the Americans. The question on table being discussed by the Joe Biden Administration is when and how they can get rid of one of their most trusted allies in East Africa, who has since shifted allegiance to China and Russia.
This concern was re-energized when on the afternoon of January 18, 2021 U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Natalie Brown tried to pay a visit to the home of opposition leader Bobi Wine, in a suburb of the capital, Kampala and was turned back by security forces at the gate of his residential compound.
The message was in the ruddiness with which the military turned away Brown, who had planned to check on Bobi Wine’s health and safety.
The pop star-turned-presidential candidate, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was under house arrest since casting his vote in the January 14 general elections.
Museveni and his government accused Brown of trying to subvert Uganda’s election results by trying to visit Bobi Wine. “An ambassador has diplomatic protocol and norms required in circumstances like this, which Natalie didn’t bother to follow because Americans are arrogant,” government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo told World Politics Review via WhatsApp, when asked why Brown’s visit had been blocked.
Museveni was announced winner of the election with about 59% to clinch a sixth term in office amid allegations of vote-rigging and an internet blackout that lasted more than four days. The election, which Bobi Wine called a “complete sham,” was one of the most violent in recent memory, as Bobi Wine and his supporters were repeatedly harassed, arrested, tear-gassed and even shot by security forces.
The night after Brown’s attempted visit, the U.S. Embassy in Uganda issued a harsh rebuke of its host. “The effective house arrest of a presidential candidate continues a worrying trend on the course of Uganda’s democracy,” it said in a statement. “Nobody should be unlawfully denied a means to communicate and the freedom to leave their home.”
The stern tone of the statement, while welcomed by Uganda’s opposition, belied the long history of American financial and diplomatic support for President Museveni’s repressive regime. Bobi Wine himself has on multiple occasions called on the United States to re-evaluate its relationship with Uganda and ensure that future engagement is conditioned on respect for human rights.
Museveni’s actions in the wake of the recent elections also prompted a fresh wave of criticism from elected and appointed officials in Washington. Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the stifling of Ugandan opposition candidates and their supporters “unacceptable.” President Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Twitter that the news from Kampala was “deeply concerning,” and warned Museveni that “the world is watching.” Whether this rhetoric will be followed by policy changes, though, remains to be seen.
According to Ken Opalo, a specialist on comparative politics in Africa at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, relations between the U.S. and Uganda have always been a complicated dance, characterized by a wide gulf between rhetoric and action—especially on the part of U.S. officials.
“If there was genuine interest in stabilizing Ugandan politics, we’d see action that was more continuous, and that had long-term gains in mind, cognizant of the reality in Uganda,” Opalo said. “If you raise your voice only after there are riot police in the streets, people have been shot dead and the election is underway, then you have failed.”
Museveni and his National Resistance Movement have been in power since the mid-1980s, spanning seven U.S. administrations. In 1997, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Kampala and called Uganda a “beacon of hope,” praising Museveni’s “success in enfranchising women and minorities” and his empowerment of a “vigorous and independent press,” among other things. But Uganda at the time was already a one-party state with tight restrictions on political space and frequent abuses by security forces, according to a State Department report published just a year after Albright’s visit.
Museveni has “put the National Resistance Movement into the service of the global war on terror,” helping to shield his regime from criticism.
Even as the human rights situation in Uganda deteriorates further, Museveni has curried favor with the U.S. by positioning himself a key ally in the battle against al-Shabab, al-Qaida’s East African affiliate that frequently carries out attacks in neighboring Kenya and Somalia. Uganda contributes around 6,000 troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia, aimed at countering the extremist group.
According to the State Department’s website, the U.S. provides Uganda with “significant security and development” assistance of around $970 million per year—equivalent to nearly 3 percent of Uganda’s GDP. Since 2014, Washington has also donated roughly $270 million in military equipment to Uganda, including multiple armored trucks, under the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, which supports nations involved in peacekeeping efforts.
Museveni has “put the National Resistance Movement into the service of the global war on terror,” said Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, a security analyst who focuses on the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions. By “putting his troops at the service of the U.S,” Halakhe added, Museveni is able to shield himself from criticism.
Perhaps as a result, past condemnations of Uganda have come without consequences. In 2014, for example, then-President Barack Obama criticized the country’s draconian anti-homosexuality act, warning Museveni that “enacting this legislation will complicate our valued relationship.” But just over a month later, Obama promised 100 American troops to help Uganda’s hunt for Joseph Kony, commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group notorious for massacres of civilians and other atrocities.
Troublingly, a recent loan meant for Uganda’s health care sector may have been diverted to support Museveni’s bloated security apparatus. In September, the World Bank awarded Uganda a $300 million line of credit to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly before the announcement, the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development allocated a similar amount to a classified expenditure account, according to government documents obtained by World Politics Review. A budget plan in the same documents revealed that the lion’s share of this money went to the Defense Ministry.
The recent electoral violence makes this allocation particularly concerning. At least 54 people were killed in two days of violent protests that followed Wine’s arrest in November. Wine himself often wore a ballistic helmet and bulletproof vest while campaigning.
The internet blackout during the election cut Uganda off from the outside world, potentially allowing violence against opposition supporters to occur with impunity. “The regime’s aim was to obscure the truth. Reports of abuses are now trickling in, but they need to be confirmed,” said Helen Epstein, author of “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror.” Wine and his supporters have also alleged massive vote-rigging, but say they have struggled to share evidence with the internet shut off until recently and social media still restricted.
In Washington, Jeffrey Smith, founding director of the advocacy nonprofit Vanguard Africa, has doubled down on calls for the government to re-evaluate its dealings with Uganda. “There needs to be a review of U.S. policy towards Uganda, including a comprehensive review of the millions of dollars we provide on an annual basis to their security forces and military,” said Smith, who has worked closely with Wine for the past three years, connecting him with journalists and politicians in the U.S.
When asked about the U.S. diplomatic response to Uganda’s elections, a State Department spokesperson only referred World Politics Review to previous public statements.
Staffers on Capitol Hill were more forthcoming. “The U.S. is a security partner, a diplomatic partner. Sometimes we are strange bedfellows and allies in different ways, but we’re not going to stand idly by and allow without some consequence the President of Uganda to out-rightly steal an election,” a Congressional aide told World Politics Review on the condition of anonymity. The aide added that any next steps would need to holistically evaluate a range of political and humanitarian concerns, and be developed in partnership with the Biden administration.
But it is unclear if the tough rhetoric will lead to any policy changes. The previous presidential election, in 2016, was also marred by widespread irregularities, claims of fraud and an internet blackout. Opposition candidate Kizza Besigye languished under house arrest for some 40 days after contesting Museveni’s victory. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry called Museveni to voice concerns about Besigye’s continued detention, but announced no concrete measures in response.
Despite being trapped at home, Bobi Wine showed no sign of backing down. “What happened on the 14th of January is an insult. It is an insult to all who paid the ultimate price for democracy,” he said last Friday in a Facebook livestream. Encouraging his supporters to remain nonviolent, Wine added, “We call upon the people of Uganda to reject this mockery and refuse to acknowledge Museveni as the winner.”
Uganda, US on collision path
Since Museveni took power in 1986, Western nations have maintained a relatively stable relationship with Uganda, hinged largely on international donations.
However, a new chapter in Uganda-Western relations may be about to begin, however. Diplomatic relations between Uganda and the US hit a low on January 19, 2021 amid allegations that some US officials and diplomats are encouraging dissent in the country.
The US and other countries in the West have taken a keen interest in Uganda’s 2021 election, compared to the past, and have occasionally issued statements raising concerns about events during and after the polls.
Uganda has accused the United States of meddling in its internal politics and supporting the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party.
A statement from the US Department of State stopped short of congratulating Museveni on his victory and instead drew a tougher line on the conduct of Ugandan authorities during the election process.
“We are deeply troubled by the many credible reports of security force violence during the pre-election period and election irregularities during the polls,” said spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus in the statement. “We reiterate our intention to pursue action against those responsible for the undermining of democracy and human rights in Uganda.”
The Africa Program director at Chatham House, Alex Vines, said the diverse reactions are indicative of how different governments plan to approach relations with Uganda.
“The US has brought out a strong statement. … I think that’s an early signal that we’ll see much more clearer cut values around [President-elect Joe] Biden’s activities in Africa,” he told DW.
“[Museveni staying on for six terms] is increasingly going to be an issue for a number of countries who will also be arguing that Museveni no longer a guarantee of Ugandan stability but increasingly represents a pathway to instability,” Alex Vines from Chatham House.
He believes the US and EU will still consider targeted action against Uganda in the aftermath of the troubled election.
“Some of this will depend on how the government of Uganda treats Bobi Wine,” he said.
“We’ll have to see how Museveni handles this moving forward. That will be a key determinate on how robust the US or the EU will be.”
“We need to have a critical assessment of the conditions that are linked to foreign aid,” said Anna Reismann, Country Director for Uganda at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German political foundation.
“The international community should have certain indicators as to how they evaluate the current state of democracy and rule of law in the country and be able to make the right decision as to whether to continue with foreign air or maybe to withhold it,” she told DW.
Still, it’s unlikely that Western nations will be in a rush to cut ties to Uganda. From a geopolitical standpoint, Uganda is considered a stabilizing force in a region beset by war and conflict.
Museveni has also approached foreign policy in a way that makes Uganda valuable to the international community — particularly in terms of troops in the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), which is currently being supported by the US.
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