Uganda: The General Challenges the Dictator

In the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton, concerned about the specter of militant Islam in Africa, secured military alliances with a number of African strongmen, among them Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.1 Since then, human rights groups have accused Museveni, now in his twenty-eighth year in power, of widespread corruption and political repression. I’ve been working as a public health consultant on and off in Uganda for twenty years, a period when development agencies such as the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) spent $20 billion on aid projects in the country. I’d looked on with dismay as the budgets of many of these projects were looted, elections were rigged, and innocent people who tried to draw attention to this were intimidated or worse. Museveni, now sixty-nine, has long been an important US ally in the war on terror—his troops have been deployed on America’s side in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq—so the money kept flowing anyway.2

Yoweri Museveni
Yoweri Museveni; drawing by James Ferguson

In fact, Museveni has made Africa even more dangerous. Uganda backed the Rwandan rebels whose invasions in 1990 and 1994 set off the genocide in that country.3 Uganda’s troops then looted some $10 billion worth of timber, elephant tusks, gold, and other minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo,4 and Ugandan-backed militias have raped and killed countless villagers there.5 Uganda’s army has taken sides in the current civil war in South Sudan, a move that could spark a wider regional conflict.6 Ugandan officers in the US-supported African Union Mission in Somalia have even been caught selling guns to the terrorist group al-Shabab.7

Meanwhile, even as US officials made lofty pledges to support African democracy,8 Museveni used looted development funds to close off nearly every peaceful means of loosening his grip on power. That’s why I found the mysterious death of Cerinah Nebanda, a Ugandan member of Parliament whose case I wrote about in the last issue of this magazine, so disturbing.9 The Ugandan police and prosecutors claim that she died from a drug overdose, but her family and colleagues in Parliament strongly believe that she was poisoned by government agents. Though only twenty-four years old, Nebanda had been a fearless critic of the corruption and cruelty of Museveni’s government. Understanding what had happened to her and why, I felt, could shed light on why this country, and perhaps the entire region, is on such a troubled course.

The person most likely to know about Nebanda’s case was General David Sejusa, until recently a senior adviser to Museveni and coordinator of Uganda’s two main spy agencies—its FBI and CIA. He’d been a commander in the National Resistance Army that brought Museveni to power in 1986 and had held senior positions in the army and government ever since. As intelligence coordinator, he had been responsible for defending many government abuses, including media crackdowns and a…

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