Uganda: Pressure Mounts on U.S. to Act on Country's Abuses

U.S. Senators on the Committee on Foreign Relations have given the Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, up to March 31 to present a detailed analysis of the US-Uganda relationship "informed by an inter-agency review of whether continued partnership" with the regime in Kampala poses risks to Washington's interests in the region.

The Senators, James Risch (Republican, Idaho) and Cory Booker (Democrat, Washington), in a March 4 letter to Mr Blinken, said despite repeated calls on the state democracy and human rights abuses in Uganda, the Washington-Kampala relations have "remained largely unchanged for years" while the State Department and Department of Defence "have generally responded with platitude" about the Kampala regime's essential contribution to Amisom, managing the South Sudan peace process, and the longstanding partnership on HIV/Aids, and additional regional security.

"Uganda's critical role in these areas is undeniably true, but this should not grant President Yoweri Museveni, his government, and party -- which are virtually synonymous -- a free pass to commit human rights abuses at home," the senators wrote.

The State Minister for International Relations Okello Oryem told The EastAfrican that the Ugandan government "will respond to the senators appropriately once the letter is addressed to us officially."

"We will respond just like we have in the past to previous letters by other Senators, and recently to the resolution by the European Parliament," Mr Oryem said. "We know the Senators are acting on misinformation by some political actors here through their lobbyists."

Last December, Democratic senator Bob Menendez, who currently chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, tabled a resolution to compel the Secretary of State and heads of other departments and agencies to consider the imposition of targeted sanctions and visa restrictions.

Two weeks earlier in December, the House of Representatives Committee on foreign chair, Eliot Engel (who lost his seat), also wrote to the former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, recommending sanctions against the commander of Land Forces, Lt-Gen Peter Elwelu, Maj. Gen. James Birungi, the former Commander of the Special Forces Command (SFC), Maj-Gen. Don William Nabasa, former SFC commander who was redeployed as commander of Ugandan troops in Somali, and Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho, chief of Military Intelligence.

In the March 4, 2021, letter, the senators echoed previous calls for Washington to invoke the Magnitsky Act to sanction individuals involved in corruption in recent years, and in egregious human rights violations during and after January's polls.

"We also ask that State Department review all US non-humanitarian assistance to Uganda to ensure that it is not aiding or abetting corruption or human rights abuses," the letter reads in part.

The senators specifically tasked Mr Blinken to furnish the Committee with among others, a detailed list of security assistance and capacity building programmes to Ugandan security forces since the FY 2015, an assessment of US government's capacity to perform end-use monitoring of all weapon sales and transfers to the Ugandan military especially for Amisom, and a list of all current US-funded programmes funnelled to government agencies.

They also requested for summary of corruption scandals involving US and other foreign donor money, an overview of Washington's engagement with the Kampala regime and political opposition parties concerning the just concluded polls, an evaluation of the credibility of the presidential polls, and a plan to intensify US response to human rights abuses "beyond rhetorical condemnations."

"Uganda is a young and vibrant country with enormous potential. If managed by a competent and uncorrupt government rather than one that has time and again put its interests first," the senators wrote.

Mr Oryem however said that the government has admitted to some mistakes in the recent political process and committed to do better.

"For instance during the November protests when people were killed, government admitted culpability for some of the victims and promised to compensate families. World over, individuals commit mistakes; when the officers knelt on George Floyd's neck, did they represent the US police? Such things happen, but the most important thing is to admit mistake and work on it," he said.

The latest call to Washington to take action against the Kampala regime comes on the backdrop of widespread reports of civilian abductions by unidentified security operatives and driven in vans with no registration plates, known as "drones" to unknown destinations, leaving families and relatives in distress.

There have been widespread accusations that security forces kill people at will as long as they can qualify an individual was a protestor or threatened them, and go unpunished.

During his address on the security situation in the country mid-last month, President Museveni ordered individuals still in military and police incarceration to be freed or their identities and whereabouts publicly disclosed so that the controversy about kidnaps and disappearances of civilians by security personnel "goes away."

However, almost a month later security agencies are still flip-flopping on the detainees.

The US gives Uganda nearly $1 billion annually, mainly for health and security support. In return, the Kampala regime has positioned itself as an anchorman of stability in the volatile Great Lakes region, including running security errands, more significantly fighting al Shabaab in Somalia.

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