Uganda: Museveni's American Dilemma

Kampala, Uganda — Ned Price, the U.S State Department spokesperson, during a press briefing on Feb. 23 said new U.S. President Joe Biden's government would consider a range of options for those who may have perpetrated abuse during the Jan. 14 presidential elections in Uganda.

"Uganda's January 14 elections were marred by elections irregularities and abuses by the government's security services against opposition candidates and members of the civil society. We will consider a range of targeted options to hold accountable for what we saw in relation to Uganda elections," he said.

Price acknowledged the role Uganda and Museveni play in regional stability, especially with AMISOM in Somalia, and added: "We can pursue our interests and values at the same time."

Biden has clocked a month in office, is in review mode, and his foreign policy agenda is shaping out. Ned Price's comments possibly signaled the first indication of the Biden administration's attitude towards President Yoweri Museveni who secured a sixth term in the January polls that were allegedly tainted.

The U.S. State Department, especially the office of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, is the go-to position for the US Administration on running US foreign policy with African nations.

The diplomats in this department can have major impact on US relations with countries on the continent depending on their personality and maneuvers.

The statement by the U.S. State Department spokesperson was the latest in a long running dynamic between the two countries.

Strong exchanges

There were a series of exchanges between the government of Uganda and U.S. State department officials in the last weeks of former President Donald Trump's administration.

Tibor Nagy, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under the Trump administration, issued a fusillade of tweets critical of the Ugandan government in days leading up to and after the Jan. 14 election.

Nagy also called for the release of Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan human rights activist, on Christmas Day last year after Opiyo was abducted commando style by security operatives while at a restaurant in Kampala.

Nagy is believed to be the mastermind behind the US sanctioning of former Inspector General of Police Gen. Kale Kayihura in September 2019 on accounts of torture of Ugandans, corruption and other human rights violations Kayihura allegedly committed.

According to some reports, Kayihura appealed to Nicholas Opiyo, who he believed to be networked internationally, to have the U.S. sanctions on him lifted. Sources however say lifting of sanctions on individuals, never mind nations is a complex process that takes years of negotiations and back channeling.

As Nagy was clearing out his office in January, there were looming sanctions on a number of Ugandan security commanders due to the security crackdown on opposition politicians and their supporters in the lead up to the 2021 election.

The sanctions were recommended by American congressman Eliot Engel who chairs the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Engel cited the Ugandan commanders' alleged involvement in human rights abuses past and present.

Those targeted included Lt. Gen. Peter Elwelu, the Commander of Land Forces, Maj. Gen. James Birungi, the Commander of the Special Forces Command, Maj. Gen. Don William Nabasa, the former Commander of the Special Forces Command, Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho, the Chief of Military Intelligence, (CMI) Maj. Gen. Steven Sabiiti Muzeyi, the Deputy Inspector of General of Police, Frank Mwesigwa, a Commissioner of Police, and Col. Chris Serunjogi Ddamulira, the Director of Crime Intelligence.

Some of the figures mentioned are notable because President Museveni said CMI was behind some of the "disappearances" of Ugandans whom the state suspected of a number of crimes.

Nagy was replaced by Robert Godec, who is a former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya. Godec is still in acting capacity and may be wary of making any combative statements. But analysts will be observing his future public statements when he is confirmed. His boss, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has also kept a relatively low profile for America's top diplomat. With a new administration, it awaits to be seen what the engagement will entail.

More continuity

Critics of Museveni and the opposition always find themselves in a bind because whereas American diplomats put out eloquent statements denouncing Museveni, the same government extends military aid to the longtime leader and quietly refer to him as a strong ally on counterterrorism and security.

As Biden considers the ever thorny issue of U.S. military engagement in Africa, he might have to decide on the future of a lofty annual military aid package to Uganda under Museveni who has been in power for 35 years.

Biden was in the room as vice president when the government of Barack Obama agreed America's military package for Museveni in 2014.

At the time, an official letter from the U.S. Department of Defence to a U.S. Congressional committee on foreign affairs indicated that Uganda was eligible to receive military assistance worth U$12.6m for counterterrorism programs.

This money was directed to the Special Forces Command (SFC), a semi-independent unit of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF). The letter from the department of defence indicated that the SFC would undergo human rights "vetting" before such assistance is provided. It is not clear what entailed the vetting process and the assistance to the SFC went ahead.

Today, the SFC is tasked with protecting President Museveni, his family and other critical national security assignments in Uganda. The unit is now under the command of Museveni's son Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

The package was a tip of the kind of military aid Uganda has continually received from U.S. and it has gone on for years.

Moses Khisa, an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University, U.S., says there is likely to be more continuity than change in American foreign policy towards Uganda under the new Biden administration.

"A few things may change here and there, and the rhetoric will certainly be louder and more pronounced than under Trump, but in substance I highly doubt there will be much change."

Khisa adds "Remember foreign policies are crafted and implemented by career foreign service officials who remain in office even when there is change at the top."

He agrees that there is a lot of speculation towards Biden's overtures towards Uganda but remains unconvinced by what's doing the rounds.

"I believe that the US is generally keen on seeing a smooth succession in Uganda but its role depends on the balance of forces inside Museveni's ruling core and the Uganda society."

Khisa says Museveni will as he is wont to, have a fallback position in case anything goes awry. "If history tells us something on this issue, it is that rulers like Museveni get more emboldened and whip up nationalist sentiments when foreign powers try to pressure them."

Mounting criticism

There has been a lot of criticism from the Ugandan opposition, media and civil society towards the U.S. for continually funding Uganda's military which same military is used to brutalise members of the political opposition and their supporters in Uganda's increasingly volatile body politic.

Museveni fresh off his sixth presidential election is under ever increasing pressure both at home and abroad for his brutal handling of dissent and wanton violation of human rights. More recently, Museveni, ordered his security forces to carry out arguably the most ruthless assault on the opposition after a Ugandan election.

In a televised address on Feb. 13, Museveni said some of the abductions were carried out by a highly trained commando unit brought in from Somalia. The president however used the term "forced disappearances" as opposed to abductions or kidnaps.

"We brought a distinguished commando unit from Somalia- which had also destroyed ADF rebels. This commando group quickly defeated the terrorists who wanted to disturb elections. They killed some and arrested some of these terrorists," Museveni said.

Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer, himself abducted by security officers in December last year says there will be "consequences". He was responding to a question by The Independent on the international implications of the unending abductions now entering their third month.

"Well there will be consequences for the individuals involved during and after the election," Opiyo said.

He said with the current level of abductions and human rights abuses, Uganda becomes a "high risk country."

"There will be consequences in some of these foreign capitals. When the dust settles... " Opiyo also said it is up to local actors to document all the ongoing abuses. "As local actors, we need to have an accurate account of these injustices which will enable the push for justice."

Museveni's main challenger in the election, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, was arrested several times, his supporters jailed and tortured, some killed. Kyagulanyi spent days under house arrest after the election.

Weeks to the election, Ugandans were alarmed as scores of their relatives and friends went missing through abductions by security agents. On March 3, Kyagulanyi's party, National Unity Platform (NUP) availed a list of those who have been abducted that had 243 names on it. Majority of these were supporters of Bobi Wine and agents of NUP.

Two weeks ago, on Feb. 22, the tensions were heightened again when Kyagulanyi declared that he had withdrawn his presidential election petition from the Supreme Court citing bias among the judges. He declared he was going to the court of public opinion.

As Kyagulanyi mulls his next move, the government and security forces are on standby ready to counter the singer-turned politician. With tensions brewing, Western diplomats and their home governments are also curiously wide-eyed on the political situation in Uganda.

On March 2, Museveni held a meeting with the UPDF High Command together with the Police leadership at State House Entebbe to discuss the security situation in the country.

Biden and Museveni

Museveni is two years younger than Biden but the two men's political outlook could not be more different: Museveni clocked his 35th year in power on Jan. 26 and all his cards are now bent on political survival at all costs.

Biden is a longtime American politician whom the nation turned to for a time of national healing and consensus building after four years of Donald Trump stoking racial hatred, undermining his own government and insulting fellow leaders across the world.

Now Western political analysts say, the grandfatherly figure who came to office on the back of a strong repudiation of Trump must find a way of not abetting Trump like figures in the world if his promise is to have meaningful impact beyond American shores. A mob incited by Trump nearly impeded the transition of power in the U.S. in January in the nation's capital.

Biden promised to have a democracy summit in mid-2021 that would serve as an olive branch signaling 'America is back'.

It is not yet known what will transpire at the summit or which presidents will be speakers but it is expected to have a theme of restoring normalcy among the U.S. and its allies. But observers watching are wondering whether the likely to be high profile gathering won't be another moment of political pageantry that liberal politicians in the West are known for.

When Biden was declared winner of the U.S. election in November, Museveni congratulated him and said he looked forward to more trade cooperation between the two nations mentioning the African Growth and Opportunity Act meant to provide market access to a variety of African manufactured goods.

Ofwono Opondo, the government spokesperson, told The Independent shortly before Biden was inaugurated that Uganda expects continued relations under a Biden presidency but added a caveat. "Uganda looks to continued good bilateral relations with new US administration under Joe Biden based on mutual respect and support."

Opondo added that he expects Biden to improve multilateral relations through an improved UN system. Opondo who is always in testy back and forth statements with Western diplomats said he expects a prosperous world order "including efforts to open the U.S. market to Africa."

More From: Independent (Kampala)

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