Time to cut Uganda’s Museveni loose from military aid?

This article was originally published in Responsible Statecraft.

On February 23, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked a brief question about Uganda’s recent elections and the apparent win by incumbent Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.

 “Uganda’s January 14th elections were marred by … abuses by the government’s security services against opposition candidates and members of civil society,” acknowledged Price, before reminding reporters that “Uganda … does have an important role when it comes to some of our interests in the region.” 

Seconds later, Price confidently argued “this goes to the point that we’ve now made even more times throughout this briefing, that we can pursue our interests and pursue our values at the same time.” While being able to simultaneously pursue interests and values in Uganda would be ideal, this clearly does not reflect the reality of the U.S.-Uganda counterterrorism partnership constructed in its fullest form on the heels of 9/11.

Over the past two decades, Uganda has become a major recipient of U.S. military aid and stands as one of America’s closest military allies on the continent. Although such military assistance is difficult to quantify due to the classified nature of certain programs, Ugandan officials in 2016 estimated that Washington provided $170 million per year in military assistance.

As this counterterrorism partnership has flourished, abuses against the political opposition in Uganda have skyrocketed. In 2011, during opposition demonstrations dubbed the “Walk to Work” campaign, tens of people were shot dead and hundreds injured by a joint military-police operation. When student demonstrators protested the lifting of the age amendment that would allow Museveni to run for president again in 2021, military forces shot them; when opposition MPs opposed the same proposal, Museveni sent plainclothes special forces to beat them on the floor of parliament. More recently, the supporters of singer-turned-activist politician Bobi Wine have been tortured and beaten to death. In fact, Museveni himself admitted that security forces killed at least 54 civilians at a November 2020 opposition protest that was sparked by another arrest of Bobi Wine.

Though official State Department reports acknowledge these atrocities, no consideration is given to how the U.S. might be culpable for such abuses given its counterterrorism partnership with the Museveni regime. That would seem a bit hypocritical, however, given its routine condemnation of such behavior in online statements and press conferences.

There are two pathways through which the U.S.-Uganda counterterrorism partnership contributes to human rights abuses. The first is the United States contributing directly to the violations by supporting the Ugandan military which carries them out. The second involves Washington accepting such abuses — at least to the level at which it does not preclude military aid — in order to maintain the counterterrorism partnership, thereby allowing such behavior to continue.

The highly politicized Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and the paramilitary structures that benefit from the same (or superior) U.S. funding, equipment, and training have tortured and killed opponents of the Museveni regime. Therefore, by supporting the same military units that brutalize dissidents as a result of its counterterrorism partnership with Uganda, the United States contributes to egregious human rights abuses of the country’s political opposition. 

In addition, America’s blunted criticism of numerous human rights violations, which stem from not wanting to strain the counterterrorism relationship with Uganda, allows crackdowns on the political opposition to continue. Even a Congressional Research Service report agrees, making the claim that “President Yoweri Museveni has been a vocal supporter of counterterrorism efforts in the region, but the State Department has documented serious human rights abuses … in Uganda, and some observers have expressed concern that Museveni’s cooperation on counterterrorism constrains Western criticism for alleged political abuses.”

Although lately the United States has gone further in its condemnations compared to its past use of empty statements, there is no indication that the culpable counterterrorism partnership with Uganda and related military assistance will see any significant change or reduction.

In a 2008 speech, President Museveni confidently stated, “I am a revolutionary; I have never been a terrorist. … When you target noncombatants, you are a terrorist.” While Museveni’s assessment of terrorism is accurate, his negation of identification with the label misses the mark. 

As it was in 2008 as it is today, on any given day in the streets of Kampala, Museveni orders his henchmen to specifically target noncombatants, fearing that any lack of repression of such nonviolent protesters may spell the end of his regime. Despite such actions being correctly identified as human rights violations, it seems as though they also fall under a separate label: terrorism. 

If such is the case, as it appears so using Museveni’s own preached definition of the word, it is worth considering whether America’s counterterrorism policies in Uganda undermine its counterterrorism aims as well.

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