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From Shoo-in Election to Gay-Bashing, Uganda Finds Itself on the Defensive
The Washington Diplomat / March 2011

By Larry Luxner

Uganda prides itself on its democratic institutions, yet its president, Yoweri K. Museveni, has held onto power for 25 years — longer than any head of state in East Africa.

The country declares itself an ally of the United States in the war on terrorism, but human rights groups accuse the Museveni government of using its peacekeeping troops in Somalia to curry favor with Washington while silencing abuses at home.

And even though “the people of Uganda are amongst the most hospitable in Africa,” according to the embassy’s official website, that hospitality doesn’t apply to Uganda’s own homosexuals — who face some of the most vicious and extreme anti-gay laws on Earth.

On Jan. 18, exactly a month before the ritual of national elections whose results were never seriously in doubt, The Washington Diplomat interviewed Perezi K. Kamunanwire, Uganda’s gregarious ambassador to the United States.

We began our hour-long meeting by asking him straight out about widespread reports of past vote-rigging and violent intimidation of opposition parties by Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).

“You know,” the 73-year-old ambassador replied, “we Ugandans have a saying: Wherever there is raw meat, you have lots of flies.”

In other words, accusations that Uganda is anything less than a full-fledged democracy just plain stink.

“Our human rights record is well known, and our democratic institutions are well known, so there is no way we can intimidate anyone,” Kamunanwire insisted. “We have over 30 parties registered, and eight are participating. Any of those eight could win.”

Perhaps not surprisingly though, none of them did. Museveni handily secured a fourth term in an election rejected by the opposition coalition as marred by voter intimidation and fraud.

In the past three elections, Museveni’s share of the vote has in fact declined — from 75 percent in 1996 to 69 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2006 — though the NRM controls 205 of Parliament’s 289 elected seats, just over 70 percent of the total. This time around though, it was reported he received 68 percent of the vote, as of press time.

“When Yoweri Museveni captured power in 1986 after a five-year guerrilla war, he was seen as the best thing to happen to the country which Britain had christened the Pearl of Africa,” according to The Guardian. “One of Museveni’s defining early pronouncements was his diagnosis of Africa’s problem: leaders who did not want to leave power. Some 25 years later, Museveni seeks to extend his grip on the country for another five years, after changing the constitution to allow him to do so.”

Now, with Museveni set to extend his rule to 30 years, he may finally be overstaying his welcome. But to be fair, the president remains highly popular among Ugandans for raising livelihoods while preserving stability, and he’s scored points with the West for his innovative HIV/AIDS campaign and commitment to fighting terrorism. He’s also instituted a modicum of democracy, with opposition parties allowed to compete in elections, although the outcome of those elections is pretty much preordained given Museveni’s built-in advantages. From the government-controlled electoral machinery to millions of dollars in resources at his disposal, the president all but guarantees that his opposition never really has a fighting chance.

Journalists Michael J. Wilkerson and Andrew Mwenda recently reported that Museveni may have spent $350 million on this most recent election to ensure his victory.

“Meanwhile, the government is effectively bankrupt,” Wilkerson wrote in Foreign Policy on Feb. 17. “In January, parliament passed a supplemental budget increase of $260 million, yet just weeks later, Minister of Finance Syda Bbumba announced that the government was broke and ministries would be examining emergency cost-cutting measures. According to local newspaper reports, government officials confirm that money was diverted to NRM campaigns for the presidency and parliamentary seats, and $1.3 billion, or almost a third of the annual budget was spent in January alone.”

In the article “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose,” Wilkerson also points out that the high spending reflected the high stakes of this particular election because Uganda is set to begin producing oil in the next year or so, and government revenues are expected to skyrocket. “Whoever wins has access to the state treasury — and skimming off the top is common,” he wrote.

Museveni, an ex-rebel commander, is also not averse to harassing opposition members or throwing them into jail if outspending them doesn’t work. In the Feb. 18 election, for instance, he thwarted efforts by the main opposition leader Kizza Besigye to produce his own election results with mass arrests of electoral agents, according to the opposition coalition.

Besigye, who authorities said received 26 percent of the vote, described the government as a “ruthless dictatorship” and the election as “fundamentally flawed. Besigye, who is Museveni’s former physician, lost both the 2001 and 2006 polls — both of which were ruled flawed by the Supreme Court, although it upheld Museveni’s win, saying the irregularities were not substantial enough to affect the overall result.

Although most experts don’t predict a Tunisian- or Egyptian-style uprising in Uganda, Besigye has warned that he could call for protests to challenge the results, while Museveni in turn has promised to imprison anyone who tries to spark unrest.

But Kamunanwire, Museveni’s man in Washington since 2006, says the democracy debate overlooks significant advances in other areas.

For one thing, he told The Diplomat, Uganda has maintained a steady economic growth rate of 6 percent to 8 percent a year for more than 20 years now, translating into an annual per-capita income of about $1,200 for its 33.8 million citizens.

That’s particularly important for Uganda, whose annual population growth rate of 3.56 percent is the second-fastest in the world, outranked only by destitute Niger. Left unchecked, there will be 91.3 million Ugandans by 2050, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Thankfully, the economy should grow even faster by 2013, when this Oregon-size, coffee-exporting nation starts exploiting its recently discovered oil deposits. That’ll allow the government to finance 100 percent of its national budget — up from the current 70 percent — and depend on foreign aid only for areas that need special attention, like transportation, health and education.

For this reason, Kamunanwire said, Ugandans keep returning their president to power time and time again.

“More than 60 percent of European countries don’t have term limits. There is no term limit in Australia. This was the will of the people, that there should not be any term limits,” the ambassador pointed out. “If the people don’t want you, they won’t vote for you. As you Americans say, if it ain’t broken, why fix it?” But it is broken, according to leading human rights groups and even the U.S. government, despite Kamunanwire’s insistence that relations between Washington and Kampala have never been better.

Amnesty International, whose online index of press releases on Uganda goes on for literally dozens of pages, concluded in its 2010 report that “law-enforcement officials were not held to account for human rights violations including unlawful killings, torture and other ill treatment. Despite a high prevalence of gender-based violence, there was little progress in bringing perpetrators to justice and implementing long-promised legislative reforms.”

According to The Guardian, “Uganda’s electoral commission has been hugely discredited and the opposition has persistently called for its disbandment. Having failed to produce a proper voter-identification system, the commission has now put in place a system that is a perfect recipe for multiple voting and ballot-stuffing — the ruling party has been accused of using both tactics to rig past elections.”

And last April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a critical report to Congress, highlighted the lack of an independent electoral body in Uganda as a threat to the credibility of the electoral process.

But ever since a pair of suicide bombings on July 11, 2010, that killed 74 people and injured 70 in Kampala, U.S. attention has shifted from ensuring fair elections in Uganda to fighting terrorism in Somalia, where Uganda is a major troop contributor to the African Union peacekeeping mission protecting the weak Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. On that front, Uganda has been a key security player in the Horn of Africa, earning both praise from Western countries wary of getting themselves sucked into Somalia’s lawlessness, as well as scorn from al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgent group with ties to al-Qaeda that’s pledged retaliation for Uganda’s presence in Somalia.

Retribution hit home with the July bombings. The coordinated twin attacks — which targeted crowds watching the final match of the 2010 World Cup on TV — have come to be known as Uganda’s 7/11.

“For Ugandans, it was sickening. Such a thing had never taken place before,” recalled the ambassador. “Al-Shabaab had warned us they were going to do it. We have a lot of Somalis in Kampala who came there as refugees years ago. These guys had nothing to do with the agents of al-Shabaab. But tempers were very high and we lost people. It was awful.”

Kamunanwire agrees that Uganda was specifically targeted because it provides 7,200 of the 8,000 troops in the United Nations-backed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM); Burundi accounts for the rest.

“We in Uganda have never forgotten how many people lost their lives assisting us to get out of chaos,” Kamunanwire said in justifying Uganda’s disproportionate role in AMISOM. “To help such a people who are also striving to get their country back is our hallmark. If we are able and invited, we go and assist. East Africa is our neighborhood, and somebody has to do it.”

In late December, the U.N. Security Council voted to boost the number of peacekeepers supporting Somalia’s beleaguered transitional government to 12,000. All the additional 4,000 troops will come from Uganda, according to the council, which also extended AMISOM’s mandate to Sept. 30, 2011, to enhance its ability to secure Mogadishu and key Somali government institutions such as the presidential palace, the airport, seaport and main roads.

“We and the United States work together in peacekeeping efforts, and we are allies against terrorism,” said Kamunanwire, who previously served as Uganda’s ambassador to Germany and as permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.

“Uganda was one of the first countries to become members of the coalition of the willing. Even in Afghanistan, there are still some Ugandan guards in the safe areas.”

And as long as Museveni remains one of the few leaders willing to commit troops to Somalia, he’ll remain an indispensable partner of the West’s larger counterterrorism fight, despite his human rights record.

“President Yoweri Museveni has long defined his relationship with the United States by positioning himself as a staunch ally against Islamist extremism in East Africa. Moves like immediately volunteering troops for the AU mission, viewed by the United States as a high strategic priority after it helped topple the temporary rule of the [Somali] Islamic Courts Union in 2006, have given Museveni a sort of trump card, allowing him to deflect concerns about human rights, governance and corruption,” wrote Wilkerson in the Foreign Policy article “Uganda’s War on Terror Comes Home.”

Despite last year’s carnage in Kampala, there’s one group Ugandans fear even more than al-Shabaab: the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a shadowy rebel movement dedicated to overthrowing the Museveni government that has terrorized the region for more than two decades.

Considered one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organizations, the LRA, since its formation in 1987, has engaged in murder, abduction, mutilation and the sexual enslavement of women and girls. It has also forced children to kill other children — including their own brothers and sisters — among myriad other atrocities.

In fact, a 2006 article in The Independent described the movement as “a cannibalistic cult that has slaughtered whole villages and left its victims without hands, feet or faces. It abducted children, forcing boys to become killers and even eat their relatives” to alienate them from society.

The Ugandan government claims the LRA has between 500 to 1,000 soldiers in total, but other sources put the number as high as 3,000, along with 1,500 women and children. Since the LRA began fighting 25 years ago, it’s estimated that its cult-like leader, Joseph Kony, has forced more than 10,000 boys and girls into combat.

In the past, Sudan provided military assistance to the LRA, in retaliation for Uganda’s aid to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south, although Khartoum has made moves recently to cut off that assistance. At present, the LRA — branded a terrorist group by the State Department — continues to operate in parts of Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic since being flushed out of its original base in northern Uganda, where its fight with the Ugandan government killed thousands of civilians and displaced 2 million.

“We are not frightened by the LRA anymore. Yes, it wreaked havoc in the north for many years. The government fought them and drove them into Sudan, where we believe they were being assisted by the government for obvious reasons, because we were also supporting the SPLA,” said Kamunanwire, as he pointed to a map showing where in northern Uganda the LRA had been a particular threat.

“But after the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan, the Ugandan government approached Sudan and said the LRA was a cancer and that we must jointly do something about it. They are now in the Central African Republic, maybe Chad. As frightening as it is, people in the north have gone back to their homes.”

Incidentally, now that southern Sudan has voted to secede from the north, Kamunanwire said he hopes Africa’s longest-running conflict will recede into memory, once and for all. “I think there’s going to be enough pressure on both sides not to resume the war. We’ve had enough wars in Africa.”

According to the CIA, “instability in southern Sudan is the biggest risk for the Ugandan economy in 2011, because Uganda’s main export partner is Sudan, and Uganda is a key destination for Sudanese refugees.”

Although Sudan attracts the most headlines, the LRA remains a silent stalker for much of the region. Since September 2008, the notorious rebel group has been blamed for hundreds of attacks that have killed at least 2,300 people and the abduction of more than 3,000, including many children. Another 400,000 civilians fled the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan and Central African Republic, the LRA’s current stomping ground.

Last November, President Obama released a strategy for the U.S. government to engage with regional partners and help stop the violence perpetrated by the LRA, as mandated by the bipartisan Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009.

Among other things, the law states that it is U.S. policy to protect civilians from the LRA, to apprehend or remove Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield, and to disarm and demobilize the remaining LRA fighters. It also requires the White House to develop a comprehensive, multilateral strategy to protect civilians in Central Africa from LRA attacks and take steps to permanently stop the rebel group’s violence.

“For years, civilians in central Africa have suffered immensely from LRA violence. President Obama should move swiftly to take advantage of this historic opportunity to help bring closure to one of the worst human rights crises of our day,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Yet a recent “report card” released by a coalition of civil society organizations including the Enough Project and Invisible Children gave Obama mixed marks on his handling of the situation so far — ranging from a “B” in helping communities rebuild to a “D” in expanding U.S. involvement in the ongoing crisis.

“It’s time for the Obama administration to show it is serious about ending LRA violence against civilians,” said David Sullivan, research director for the Enough Project. “By committing senior staff and resources commensurate to the urgency of the crisis, the United States can help galvanize wider international action that has been absent for too long.”

But it’s another human rights crisis that’s been grabbing the world’s attention, and it has nothing to do with Obama — but rather Uganda’s horrendous treatment of homosexuals.

A few months ago, dozens of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender protestors waving rainbow flags and angry signs showed up at the Ugandan Embassy on 16th Street, NW. They brought huge bags containing letters — some 10,000 of them, according to Kamunanwire — protesting the proposed “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” now being considered by Uganda’s Parliament.

Among the bill’s drastic proposals: prison terms for Ugandans who fail to report a homosexual within 24 hours; life terms for a single gay or lesbian act, and the death sentence for a range of acts, including having gay sex while HIV-positive, or having gay sex with a disabled person or being classified as a “serial offender” — that is, someone who has gay sex more than once.

Under considerable pressure from donor nations such as Germany, Sweden and the United States, Museveni promised back in October 2009 that the bill would be scrapped, but nearly a year and a half later, nothing’s happened. On the contrary, some analysts say the legislation could be passed following Museveni’s easy election victory on Feb. 18.

For his part, however, Kamunanwire can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“This anger comes from misinformation. Those protesters did not have their information correct before they came here to demonstrate,” said the unflappable ambassador, who sent a deputy out to talk to the screaming crowd. “We have a law in our country against homosexuality, but we did not make homosexuality a crime. The British colonialists enacted an anti-homosexuality law which we inherited and which we still have in our penal code. So there was no need to introduce a new one.”

Even so, Kamunanwire says the bill’s sponsor, David Bahati, should have the right to introduce any measure he wants without being harassed, especially since, the diplomat claims, “We’ve had some people from Western countries who came to Uganda with literature targeting schoolchildren on how to become gay. In the West, people think you’re born gay. But in Africa, we believe it’s a learned behavior.”

Bahati, incidentally, is a core member of The Family, a powerful Christian evangelical organization with close ties to Museveni. Last September, he told visiting American investigative journalist Jeff Sharlet that he wanted “to kill every last gay person.”

Likewise, Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, James Nsaba Buturo — who calls himself a devout Christian — told the New York Times: “Homosexuals can forget about human rights.”

There’s also plenty of anti-gay fervor being whipped up by ultraconservative, white homophobic evangelical preachers from the United States who have had great influence on Ugandan churches, some of whom have visited the country to teach Ugandans about how to turn gay people straight, and how the gay movement is “an evil institution.” As the ambassador himself noted, “our archbishop is now almost seceding from the Anglican Church of England” because it recently consecrated a lesbian bishop in Los Angeles.

“No gay has ever been harassed, prosecuted or killed for being gay, [though] there is a newspaper which had gone out of its way to photograph people it thought were gay,” said Kamunanwire, insisting that “the law is there, but Ugandan people look the other way. We don’t kill homosexuals. We let them do their own thing.”

That, of course, was before the Jan. 26 murder of David Kato, Uganda’s best-known gay rights advocate. Though the investigation is ongoing, police recently apprehended a 22-year-old man who allegedly confessed to using a hammer to bludgeon Kato to death, reportedly for not following through on a promise Kato made to the man to pay him money for having sex with him.

Whether or not more information comes out about Kato’s brutal death, his murder jolted the nation and refocused attention on its treatment of homosexuals.

That’s because just a few months earlier, Kato, a former high school teacher in his mid-40s, had his picture appear on the front page of the Ugandan tabloid Rolling Stone (no affiliation to the American magazine) under a headline screaming “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak — Hang Them.”

Kamunanwire couldn’t be reached for comment on Kato’s murder, though Hillary Clinton had plenty to say.

“David Kato tirelessly devoted himself to improving the lives of others,” the secretary of state said in a Jan. 27 statement urging Ugandan authorities to “quickly and thoroughly investigate and prosecute” those responsible for the crime.

In the meantime, it’s a pretty safe bet that Museveni will rule Uganda for another five years and possibly even longer. It’s also a safe bet that neither he nor his ambassador in Washington share Secretary Clinton’s liberal views on homosexuality.

“Personally, as an African, this is not our thing. It’s inconceivable; I can’t imagine it,” Kamunanwire told us. “But as a diplomat, I cannot say more.”

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