This article was first published in the global magazine Truthout, 9-September 2018
On August 13, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was attacked by an angry mob of Ugandan citizens who back the political opposition. Protesters surrounded President Museveni’s motorcade, pelting the vehicles with stones. One of the vehicles had its rear window broken.
Numerous political rallies by Museveni’s party and the opposition had been scheduled that day ahead of a parliamentary election in which the independent candidate Kassiano Wadri, while in detention, would win in Arua, Uganda — the third consecutive parliamentary election loss for Museveni’s party.
Museveni has responded brutally, as he has repeatedly during his 32-year tenure as president. That day, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu — the popular singer known as “Bobi Wine,” who also serves in the parliament — was arrested. After a music career of more than 15 years, Ssentamu has emerged as the most formidable political opposition against Museveni. Numerous disturbances have broken out around the country. Yasin Kawuma, Ssentamu’s driver, was killed.
On August 23, after not being seen or heard from for 10 days, Ssentamu was arraigned on charges of treason in a military court for allegedly possessing fire arms in his hotel room despite the fact that he is a civilian. Many were alarmed at his appearance, bearing physical signs of torture while he has been detained.
However, Ssentamu’s treatment is not an anomaly. Museveni has repressed his opposition on many occasions, all with the financial assistance of the US.
The US Ignores Human Rights Abuses of Its Allies
President Museveni has benefited extensively from US military support, most notably $444 million last year. Museveni’s record on human rights is clear in its abusive extent, including documented cases of torture and arbitrary detention of opposition leaders and their supporters. The Museveni government has repeatedly denied due process, imposed severe restrictions on press freedom and has been connected to numerous corruption scandals. But none of these circumstances has affected its relationship with the US.
Museveni is among the US’s most reliable allies in Africa, never hesitating to send Ugandan troops on behalf of US interests to influence the outcomes of regional conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya, where election-related violence broke out in 2007. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Museveni plays a role akin to the head of a brokerage firm for rebels, rebellions and peace missions.
His role has extended to the Middle East, where he sent Ugandans to work as security guards for US forces in Iraq. He also recently announced he will be sending 8,000 troops to fight alongside troops of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen.
As part of this relationship, many troops in Uganda have been trained by the US military, including using sophisticated communications equipment, night-vision goggles and small surveillance drones — all from US defense contractors. Ugandan troops deployed to Somalia travel in mine-resistant vehicles that once ferried US soldiers around Afghanistan. Ugandan choppers engaged in operations against warlord Joseph Kony are powered by fuel paid for by the US.
As disturbances have multiplied and become more volatile in the aftermath of Ssentamu’s arrest, the US embassy in Uganda recently issued travel warnings to any US citizens planning trips to Uganda, cautioning them to not get caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, sanctions or cuts in military aid would seem unlikely, given the record of Museveni’s abuses and violations of human rights and how long they have not been acknowledged by the US.
The US consistently ignores the human rights violations and excesses of dictators whose militaries are backed with US funds. In 2014, a Human Rights Watch report documented incidents of sexual abuse by Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia, and this information did not bring any disciplinary action from Washington.
Regrettably, Museveni is not the exception in Africa. Many African despots appear to prefer heeding their Washington providers over their citizens, and whenever Washington has taken any action against their misdeeds, they have responded positively. For example, in 2014, when the US cut a small portion of its annual aid package and canceled military exercises with Uganda after it enacted a homophobic law, Museveni responded swiftly and revoked the legislation.
While the US seldom imposes consequences on the Museveni government for its human rights abuses, Ugandan citizens could campaign for more accountability.
Ugandans Pressuring Governments at Home and Abroad
The recent plight of Ssentamu has received commendable support not only from Ugandans at home who continue to protest in the streets and demand his release, but also from Ugandan migrants in the US and Europe. Demonstrations have been organized in Boston, Washington, Toronto, London and other cities where Ugandan immigrants are centered. Recently, scores of music celebrities — including Chris Martin, Brian Eno, Chrissie Hynde, Damon Albarn, Peter Gabriel, Adam Clayton, and Femi Kuti — signed an open letter demanding Ssentamu’s immediate release.
At a recent Boston demonstration, Ugandan migrants expressed criticism not just for President Museveni, but also the US in the context of conscience and concerns about hypocrisy. Many demonstrators are quick to point out that they are not “anti-American,” however. But they are still deeply unsettled about why governments in the US and Europe are consistently willing to support dictators in their home countries, especially when human rights abuses and crimes are plainly evident.
In Boston, one demonstrator voiced his support for fellow Ugandans at home to resist and reject Museveni not just on the streets, but also in their homes and places of work. He suggested creative forms of protest, such as hampering and preventing the military aides from emptying the mobile commode the president uses when he travels. He said that they should ship his waste along with the country’s oil to the US and Europe in exchange for more military hardware. US readers might see this as an absurd gesture, but many Ugandans, at home and abroad, are past the point of even the smallest bit of patience after more than 30 years of a heartless dictatorship.
Ugandan migrants are caught in a dilemma they find increasingly difficult to resolve with ease or peace of mind. Many, including those with extensive education and professional training, reluctantly left their homeland to find economic opportunity in a nation they respect and admire. Now, they worry about being rejected by their host country, as US President Donald Trump has said he prefers to end migrants coming from “shithole countries” like Uganda.
In 2018, the US asylum process has become even more difficult for refugees coming from Uganda and other countries deemed “friendly” to US interests. Well before Trump assumed office, most Ugandan migrants have had to wait on average of four to five months just for interviews, and many cases can take two years or longer. It doesn’t take a leap of comprehension to see why Ugandan migrants are frustrated to the point of anger, trying to understand why the US continues military funding for countries that subvert the basic foundations of human rights and dignity.
But Ugandan demonstrations, even in Washington, capture barely any attention from policymakers or the media. The audience for these protests is primarily African. It seems the only way to attract meaningful attention is to secure paid lobbyists. That option is off the table because migrants are working the “3-D” jobs (dirty, demanding and dangerous) at wages that might pay $12 an hour, if they are lucky. Further, many US taxpayers are unaware of just how much money goes to sustain dictators who barely care one whit about justice for their own people, politically or economically.
What could the frustrated people of Africa do to convince taxpayers and voters in the US to halt military funding that has become the lifeline for African dictators?
As they define strategies and tactics, African opposition parties must understand that independent sovereignty, especially in the economy, is extremely difficult to attain. Even if all of their country’s citizens supported their cause, it could never go anywhere without the blessings and goodwill of the US or Europe.
Political opposition movements must understand they must not only confront their country’s dictators, but also the full might of a long-running tradition of US military support and funding. Opposition political leaders would do well to counter the dictator’s representatives in Washington and London with their lobbyists, who can demonstrate that besides standing for human rights and democracy, they, too, are capable of representing US and European interests reasonably and responsibly. This should remove uncertainties about replacing long-serving dictators such as Museveni without upsetting the political and diplomatic balance.
To some, these suggestions may sound outlandish, but in the absence of evidence of improvements, the current realities demand more creative responses for overcoming the policy effects that have done little more than enable self-aggrandized dictators who have done nothing to stabilize the economic or political climates in their countries.