What the US Is Ignoring in Uganda

Uganda protest.jpg

Marc Hofer/AFP/Getty Images

A woman running away from tear gas that was used by Ugandan authorities to disperse well wishers welcoming opposition leader Kizza Besigye back to Uganda, May 12, 2011

Last year, the Parliament of Uganda debated a law that would make habitual homosexual behavior punishable by death. Americans and Europeans were outraged. This East African nation is one our closest African allies, and the recipient of some $16 billion in foreign aid during the past two decades. Activists staged demonstrations outside Uganda’s embassies, organized petitions, sent funds to Ugandan gay rights groups, and denounced American fundamentalist Christians who were linked to the Ugandan pastors and politicians behind the bill. Western diplomats threatened to cut off aid to Uganda if the Anti-Homosexuality bill passed, and the bill died in Parliament in May.

What I’d like to know is this: where are those activists and diplomats now that the Ugandan government is inflicting even worse abuses against all Ugandans, gay and straight? Since national elections in February, Uganda’s security forces have fired on peaceful demonstrators—killing at least nine people including a toddler—and imprisoned hundreds of others; the opposition leader Kizza Bessigye was shot in the hand and doused with so much tear gas and pepper spray he nearly went blind; soaring inflation, in part due to the [looting of the Treasury] ( to finance the ruling party’s election campaigns has caused the number of children hospitalized with malnutrition to [triple] ( Meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni just spent $50 million of British development aid on a private Gulf Stream jet, described by its manufacturer as [“the world’s most versatile and stylish”] ( on the market.

When I was in Uganda last summer, I happened to pass a newsstand selling copies of Bukedde, the main Luganda-language paper. On the cover that day were two images side-by-side: one showed Obama wagging his finger; the other showed Uganda’s President Museveni looking surprised and worried. “Obama Embarks on Uganda!” the headline read. The story concerned a new US State Department report [criticizing] ( government corruption and urging reform of the Electoral Commission—which was stacked with officials associated with Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. Ugandan journalists wondered whether the Americans would impose sanctions if the elections were deemed unfair. In other words, were Americans now going to take all human rights abuses as seriously as they took abuses against gays?

Apparently not. Election related “irregularities” commenced at once. The electoral register was bloated with dubious “voters”: three hundred people with the same name and birth date were registered in one village, and over two hundred people over 100 years of age were registered in another (Uganda’s average life expectancy is 53 years). When opposition groups complained, American and European embassies purchased millions of dollars worth of electronic equipment for registering voters—but no machine can correct a rotten system.

When I toured the country last summer, I saw ruling party candidates passing out Uganda shilling notes hand over fist. Some even used donated medicine to [win over voters] ( Most of this money came directly from the Treasury and foreign aid programs, but when journalists and civil society activists launched a “Return Our Money” campaign in protest, the police warned them to stop or they’d be [charged with treason] ( Days before the election, enormous tanks, fighter jets and anti-riot vehicles roared through the countryside, warning voters of what would happen if the elections didn’t go Museveni’s way. On election day itself, soldiers reportedly advised people to vote NRM if they wanted to avoid a war. There were also reports of army involvement in ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and [theft of ballot boxes] ( As expected, Museveni’s party won by a landslide. However, opposition leaders claim that the votes announced at many of the polling stations, in the presence of both opposition and ruling party observers, didn’t match up with those [announced] ( by Museveni’s Electoral Commission.

The flood of cash into the economy during the elections amplified inflation, and the price of beans and matooke—the savory bananas that are the nation’s staple food—doubled. For the first time in living memory, the people of this fertile, rainy country are facing widespread food insecurity. Even in the days of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, this never happened on such a scale.


Kizza Besigye

In April, opposition leaders organized peaceful “walk-to-work” demonstrations to protest rising prices. Museveni’s security forces fired on the marchers, [killing at least nine, including a two year-old] (, and wounding hundreds of others. Kizza Besigye, leader of the main opposition party, was arrested four times and forbidden to participate in further marches. Then, after a two-hour stand off with police on April 28th, his car windows were shattered and he was [sprayed in the face] ( with several canisters of pepper spray and tear gas. As he staggered out of the vehicle, he was beaten and thrown onto the bed of a police pick-up truck and driven away. Charged with “holding an unlawful demonstration” he appeared before a judge later that day, unable to see, hear, or stand unaided. The judge was so shocked by his appearance that she acquitted him at once.


What are Uganda’s donors doing to punish the nation’s leaders for this behavior? Nothing. The British government recently praised Museveni for his “great work” and plans to lavish another [$600 million] ( on the country. US legislators are considering tens of millions of dollars in additional military aid to Uganda, most of which will be spent on [training and equipping] ( Ugandan troops deployed with AMISOM, the African Union’s anti-terrorist peacekeeping force in Somalia. If this is all beginning to sound familiar, it is. During the Cold War, Western nations supported numerous African tyrants who brutalized their own people and held economic and social development back for decades. This did our international reputation no good, and helped create some of the most serious foreign policy problems we face today. Now it seems, we are doing it again.

“We’re watching the situation very carefully,” a State Department official told me when I asked him whether the US was considering putting pressure on Uganda to implement democratic reforms. “But we aren’t considering sanctions.” Uganda has come a long way on the road to democracy, he explained, although he admitted there had been some “backsliding recently.”

If this is the road to democracy, it seems a very indirect one. Both of Uganda’s two previous elections in 2001 and 2006 were marred by rigging and violence as well. Such “blind-eye” diplomacy can probably only be explained as a side show in the War on Terror.

After the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” fiasco in Somalia in which 19 American soldiers were killed, successive US administrations began training and equipping African armies so that American soldiers would never have to be deployed on the ground in the region again. Museveni, a former rebel leader himself, has been an eager participant in this program. During the 1990s, the US secretly aided the Southern Sudanese rebels via Uganda, and has since supported Uganda’s troops in Somalia. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s general support to Uganda’s budget enabled vast sums to be channeled to the hugely corrupt Defense Ministry. According to many observers, army corruption probably prolonged the [conflicts in northern Uganda and Eastern Congo] ( that together claimed [more than 4 million lives] ( between 1997 and 2003. As many as two thirds of soldiers on the military payroll at that time did not exist, although someone was receiving their salaries. Those soldiers who did exist were so poorly equipped that they didn’t have a chance. Many [testified] ( in an internal army investigation that they were in worse shape than the rebel groups they were supposed to be fighting.

Civilian aid has also gone astray. During the past decade, millions of dollars disappeared from the accounts of foreign aid programs intended to pay for children’s vaccines, and to help poor farmers and victims of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. In response to donor pressure, investigations into these scandals were launched and reports were issued, but the ringleaders named in them have never been seriously prosecuted and most remain in Parliament or high government positions. Meanwhile, more than 100 Ugandan children die daily from malaria, the [highest rate in the world] (, and the HIV infection rate, once in decline, is rising again. The main teacher’s college has had to close because the state can’t afford to feed the students, and 16 women die in childbirth each day because the nation’s hospitals lack oxygen, safe blood and even fuel for ambulances. At the maternity ward in one regional hospital, expectant mothers are greeted on the veranda by the corpses of women who have recently died there from [labor complications] (


Kizza Besigye has recovered his sight and the use of his hand, but Ugandan security forces are watching his every move. However, other Ugandans have decided they’ve had enough; small shopkeepers, taxi drivers, teachers, health workers and public health activists are now organizing their own boycotts and strikes; even the patients in the main government hospital have threatened a hunger strike because of poor services. In response, Museveni has proposed to enact a new law that would deny bail even to peaceful demonstrators for six months.

There is only so much international donors can do to resolve this mess, but given their success with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, they could do far more than they are doing. They could start by pressuring Museveni to obey the laws of his own country regarding freedom of assembly, and urge him to allow a truly independent investigation into the conduct of the election and the violence that followed. But first of all, the donors must recognize that international security depends not on alliances with African bullies, but on human rights and justice.

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