‘Beacon of impunity’: US eyes Uganda ties as abuses continue.
In 1987, a year after fighting his thanks to power in Uganda, Yoweri Museveni made his first visit to the White House.
“Pleasure to satisfy with you,” said Reagan to his beaming guest. “I know your concern and progress you’re making with reference to human rights.”
It was the start of an extended relationship between Museveni and therefore the us , during which the previous rebel positioned himself as a bastion of regional stability and important security partner.
But fast forward to 2021, six American presidents later, which bond is under strain – not least due to human rights violations under Museveni’s rule.
In January, Museveni was declared the winner of a presidential election that the opposition said had been rigged. During the campaigns, state security forces shot dead several people on the streets and abducted many others, many of whom are still missing.
“Uganda’s January 14th elections were marred bye election irregularities and abuses by the government’s security services against opposition candidates and members of civil society,” said Ned Price, the US State Department spokesman, during a briefing last week.
“We’ll consider a variety of targeted options to carry accountable those members of the safety forces liable for these actions.”
His comments followed calls from senior members of the foreign affairs committees within the United States Senate and House of Representatives to impose targeted sanctions on Ugandan security officials and review assistance to the country.
Ofwono Opondo, a Ugandan government spokesman, described the US as “an international bully” that’s financing “political actors” in Uganda and trying to impose “American standards”.
“Our relationship with the us is sweet , it’s important, we value it, but we reject them meddling in our affairs,” he said.
But the singer and opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi – better known by his pseudonym Bobi Wine – told Al Jazeera that the Biden administration should follow through with its threats.
“I think the us should still be an ethical leader,” he said. “General Museveni is showing the planet that one are often a dictator but still be accepted by the world’s leading democracy.”
He added Museveni has used the rhetoric of “the fight against terrorism” to “hoodwink the us and to carry them under blackmail whenever he’s called out on human rights abuses”.
Beacon of hope’
Museveni once impressed Western diplomats together with his charisma, market-friendly policies, and proactive approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On a visit to Kampala in 1997, Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, called Uganda a “beacon of hope”.
The US-Uganda relationship was built on military cooperation. At first, the enemy was the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in northern Uganda and, indirectly, the Sudanese government.
Later, the main target shifted to Somalia where Ugandan troops, trained and equipped by the US, are the core of the peacekeeping that’s battling the armed group al-Shabab.
“They are an honest partner for us in addressing the challenge in Somalia,” said Deborah Malac, the American ambassador in Uganda from 2016 to 2020, chatting with Al Jazeera. “We have an interest … in maintaining good relationships with countries that try to take care of stability.”
But Ugandan soldiers even have an extended record of human rights abuses, from crackdowns on the opposition to the massacre of quite 150 people within the town of Kasese in 2016. the present wave of abductions is perpetrated partially by a commando unit that was previously deployed in Somalia.
“The [Ugandan army] may be a beacon of impunity within the domestic context of Uganda itself,” said Maria Burnett, senior associate at the middle for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who spent quite 10 years in Uganda researching human rights.
“The question is: how does one relate to a military that’s highly politicised and highly built around prolonging the interests of the chief in the least costs?”
That question has become harder to avoid as Museveni has demolished all constitutional obstacles to a life presidency. And relations are tested further by his repeated claims that “foreigners” are backing Bobi Wine and interfering in Ugandan affairs.
The Ugandan government has suspended a cash transfer programme funded by the United States government and denied accreditation to the bulk folks election observers who applied.
Shortly after the election security forces blocked the US ambassador, Natalie Brown, from visiting Bobi Wine at his home, where he was being held under confinement .
Malac, the previous ambassador, said the time is true for “a tangible recalibration within the relationship”.
“Already after 2016, we [at the embassy] were pushing hard to form that happen,” she said, “but it ultimately depends on willingness and support within the Washington interagency process to prioritise the difficulty .”
One option is visa bans and asset freezes for human rights abusers under the Magnitsky Act, which has previously been used against a former Ugandan captain .
Congressmen have suggested possible targets including Major General Abel Kandiho, the chief of military intelligence, and general officer Peter Elwelu, who commanded the 2016 attack in Kasese.
A more far-reaching step would be to reduce security and development assistance, which currently totals about $1bn a year – but that might require coordination across different parts of the govt at a time when attention is concentrated on crises elsewhere, like the war in Ethiopia.
“Given that Africa policy is never a top priority in Washington, DC, to vary this type of relationship that has been happening for many years would require really significant diplomatic bandwidth,” said Burnett of CSIS.
“It’s much easier to form condemnatory statements … than it’s to truly find out a pathway that changes that relationship.”
‘Harden the regime’
Moses Khisa, professor at North Carolina State University, argued that US officials have had “a transactional relationship” with Museveni as a private , which can probably continue as long as he demonstrates he’s responsible .
“Even when the US from time to time would express concerns about human rights and democracy, they never really did or said things that particularly concerned Museveni and threatened his power,” he said.
Khisa noted that Museveni has cultivated relationships with countries like China, which weakens the leverage of Western powers.
“Targeted sanctions or withdrawal of funding are complicated measures to require ,” he said. “When you go too hard on a regime like Uganda’s you really harden the regime.”