In any true democracy, the streets are filled with rejoicing upon a popular candidate’s electoral victory. The majority are excited and satisfied for a new beginning. In Uganda, the only things filling the streets after the February 18 voting day were military machinery and silence. General Yoweri Museveni’s continued stranglehold on his 30 years in power was underway.
It was a scene from the dictator’s handbook: tear gas, police brutality, disappearances and arrests. The opposition-supported, would-be president elect Dr. Kizza Besigye was placed on house arrest for nearly two months.
No one expected the court petition declaring the presidential election illegitimate to succeed. Those presiding over the matter of fraudulent elections in the Supreme Court unanimously decided — under rumors of death threats and reports of millions of dollars used by Museveni’s closest allies to influence their decision — that Museveni indeed defeated Besigye at the polls despite allegations from virtually all observing entities (apart from the Museveni-appointed Electoral Commission) that the process was not free and fair.
One group of former political prisoners and other concerned citizens from various tribes and regions of the nation visited the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Kampala, hoping to raise their concern over the rapidly escalating insecurity in the country. Police fully equipped with protest-disrupting weapons and anti-riot gear dispersed the group despite their peaceful visit to an international institution with an open-door policy.
My wife — Suzan Abong Wilmot, also a former political prisoner — happened to be among the group. She was arrested with organizer Johncation Muhindo and forcefully marched through Kampala’s streets under the watch of armed guards to Kira Road police station. The district police commander heading the forced dispersal of the group of a few dozen people angrily asked me, an onlooker, what human rights concern the group could possibly have in the “democratic” environment of Uganda. Fully clad with shin guards, a bulletproof vest, a helmet, grenades, and a gun, the irony of his question made it so laughable.
In one massively pro-opposition corner of the Rwenzori mountains — a region over 200 miles west of Kampala on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo — police opened fire, killing six people. Shortly thereafter, guards at the royal palace of the Bakonzo were killed in broad daylight. The death toll in the region has reached at least 90, and Museveni continues to exacerbate the crisis by sending tanks and troops — bitter over what was an electoral loss in a region where he failed to steal a significant number of votes.
Angered over electoral theft, a group of young activists in Kampala tied themselves to individual poles throughout the city, sporting shirts that read, “Break the chain – free my vote.” Indeed, police broke their chains, though they placed them behind new ones. The activists are currently remanded in Luzira prison until their next court date on April 18.
If these incidents and others were not enough to signify the deteriorating political space in Uganda, Museveni drew his lines clearly in a statement on Saturday, promising to crush protesters, even using the term “kill.”
Uganda’s genocidal, dangerous environment begs one to consider the role of external actors amidst the madness. What are foreign stakeholders doing to help – or hurt – the chances of Ugandans dreaming of a day when they might discover freedom and wholeness?
During a recent visit to Kampala, Katherine Hughes-Fraitekh, associate director of field initiatives for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, said she could see the fear and trauma in the eyes of Ugandans. Having lived through various circumstances of unrest in the Middle East, she noted, “There’s a kind of anger boiling in Ugandans from the hurt. People are deeply suspicious of others.”
So what are those who are afforded a far greater measure of safety doing about the living nightmare confronting Ugandans?
For perhaps the first time during Museveni’s three-decade rule, Ugandans in the diaspora are organizing themselves for substantial public action.
Groups have gathered across Asia, Europe and North America to advocate for their friends and relatives back home. Their concerns vary widely. A protester at the United Nations in New York mourned the dismantling of cooperatives. Others simply want the electoral victory of their candidate Besigye to be upheld. Refugee LGBTI Ugandans have brought their own messages on placards to strategic places, like Ugandan embassies and other points of international diplomacy and influence. The common thread these diaspora members share is their disdain for Museveni’s military coup.
Ugandans abroad called for Canadian, American and European governments to place travel bans on Museveni and his key allies, such as ruling party secretary general Kasule Lumumba (who threatened to open fire on protesters contesting election results weeks before the actual voting day), Kale Kayihura and Katumba Wamala (both vicious security operatives trained by the United States).
Diaspora members also leveraged their influence in the sphere of performing arts. Bebe Cool, one of the musicians featured in Museveni’s campaign theme song “Tubonga Nawe,” was pressured by Ugandans living in Dubai to leave the stage. Many Ugandans in the diaspora heeded the call of the Forum for Democratic Change opposition party to boycott performances of artists aligned with the regime.
Milton Allimadi, editor for Black Star News, wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama that said, “In whichever country they reside, Ugandans should make it clear that the international community can’t continue business as usual with an illegitimate ruler. The United States, Uganda’s principal sponsor, is even barred by the Leahy amendment from working with the Museveni regime whose army has been used for violent repression.” A group of Ugandans residing in America are exploring the possibility of suing the Obama administration for continued illegal military relations with Museveni.
The U.S. government
The United States is Uganda’s largest bilateral funder, annually offering hundreds of millions of dollars in known military financial support alone. The United States also places heavy investments in Uganda’s health sector, much of which is ultimately embezzled. Museveni’s anti-terrorism rhetoric and neoliberal policies have long captured the support of the western powers.
For this reason, it was rather shocking that the U.S. Embassy of Kampala denounced Museveni’s use of security forces to repress Ugandans before and during voting day. It was probably the strongest human rights statements Ugandans could have received from a foreign diplomatic mission. Nevertheless, the United States — in keeping with its support of the Musevini regime — was quick to recognize the Supreme Court’s ruling on the fairness of the election. What’s more, newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador Deborah R. Malac submitted her credentials to Museveni just days after the election, symbolically recognizing him as head of state — this despite the fact that she condemned Uganda’s government for human rights abuses upon first stepping foot in the country.
While it would be easy to draw conclusions about her mixed support for Museveni — given her position representing what is arguably the largest military relationship in Africa — the truth is that the United States isn’t alone. According to Muhindo, the aforementioned organizer who attempted to meet with UNHCR staff, “The world outside of Uganda legitimizes the dictatorship through its funding and support.”
Perceived roles of external actors
There are many international agencies, NGOs and Ugandan citizens raising their alarms, but there also seems to be little communication between various stakeholders to ascertain which institutions play which roles in times of violence and political upheaval.
There are efforts underway to map this complex terrain. The Atlantic Council, Open Society Foundation and Rhize have partnered with activists in Uganda, Sudan and 10 other countries around the world currently in conflict in order to collect views on the roles of outside supporters in relation to those struggling to cultivate democracy through social change movements. While the data has not yet been fully collected and analyzed, it may produce some quantitative and qualitative insights to inform institutions in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere what others are expecting from them.
One thing is clear, however: Superpowers usually like to be on the side of the winning team. Therefore, external actors might not play the roles they are mandated to play unless they witness massive in-country support for those striving to change the system. For the time being, Ugandans should probably expect less from foreign governments and more from their diaspora members who, though constrained by numbers and resources, have a personal stake in the struggle.
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