In her book tilted, “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror,” American writer, Helen Epstein writes that President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been able to rule over Uganda for now close to 40 years because of his close relationship with the West, particularly the United States of America and the United Kingdom.
Epstein who worked in Uganda and the Great Lakes region for more than 20 years, details how American money has been able to grease Museveni’s regime for the last 30 years.
She notes that billions of American dollars have been used to train and buy equipment for Museveni’s army that has been the fulcrum of his long stay in power as he has used it to suppress dissent.
In return, Museveni been able to do the American and the European bidding in more ways than one. Has it been fighting American and European wars in the Great Lakes region and in the Horn of Africa or far afield like Iraq and Afghanistan?
In this way, Museveni and the West have had a quid pro quo relationship where one serves the selfish interest of the other. This dyed-in-the-wool relationship that Epstein enumerates variously, seems to have been tested if events of this week are anything to go by.
This week, Museveni signed into law the Anti-homosexuality Act that has received sustained international condemnation and also two very important organizations; the United Nations Human Rights Office and the Democracy Governance Facility (DGF) exited the country after they had been forced out by the government.
Does this mean Museveni’s relationship with the West is taking a new turn or its simply another small ignorable episode in their long relationship? How does this exit reflect on the nature of the regime in Kampala and how should the opposition that seems to have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the work of both the UN Human Rights Office and the DGF react? Is there anything more than what the public sees in this apparent fallout? The answers to these questions depend on who you ask.
Government officials say that Uganda is simply asserting its sovereignty while those in the opposition argue that with the expulsion of Human rights organizations, Museveni has shed off the skin of pretense to expose himself as a dictator who wants to do as he pleases without anybody looking.
Speaking to URN, Muwada Nkunyingi, MP for Kyadondo East who also doubles as the shadow minister for Foreign Affairs urged Ugandans to brace for bad times because now their rights are going to be violated without the piercing eyes of human rights organizations that have been supported by DGF and now have to close shop after their funding went dry.
“We believe that UN agencies have a higher stake in monitoring human rights because we can’t afford to leave Uganda under a singular rule of Mr Museveni who respects no human rights and the rule of law; that’s why these offices are very important. It’s an attempt towards silencing civil society because it has been these organizations that have helped in empowering the people and other actors,” said Nkunyingi.
He adds that by closing DGF and therefore, the organizations it has been supporting, the government is trying to keep people away from the information that is crucial for making informed decisions on how they are governed.
“Surely there is no sound reason why government is not renewing the host agreement of these organizations. That’s why I strongly believe that we must move away from cabinet ratifying these treaties they should be ratified by parliament which is easier to monitor and push by the public. If it was parliament ratifying, where on earth would it happen that it refuses to renew the agreement of an organization like DGF or the UN Human Rights Office,” adds Nkunyingi.
For David Lewis Rubongoya, National Unity Platform (NUP) secretary general, he says by closing DGF and the Human Rights Office, Museveni has exposed himself as intolerant to any contrary views. Rubongoya said they have been stressing that Uganda is a military dictatorship but some elements within the international community weren't believing them.
“Museveni is removing all pretense and he is showing that Uganda is an absolute military dictatorship. These organizations were here supporting civil society organizations to do their work. Museveni and his regime don’t want anybody to light a touch on what is going on. So, we should be very worried about the state of human rights and governance and every citizen should be concerned,” said Rubongoya.
He added that government institutions that are concerned with human rights have been captured that they can no longer do their work.
“We have a lame-duck Uganda Human Rights Commission, the judiciary is under capture, all institutions are unable to function, the only avenue for you to feel comfortable are those international bodies so, by closing them, it makes our work very difficult and the only hope we have is now the ICC,” said Rubongoya.
However, Dr Chris Baryomunsi, the minister of Information and National Guidance in an interview said Uganda will always assert its sovereignty in the face of those wanting to undermine it.
Baryomunsi said that although the country is interested in the money that organizations like DGF have been providing, they are not willing to compromise Uganda's independence for it.
“Every foreign organization is here on the invitation of the people and the government of Uganda and if they breach the rules, the state reserves the right to say no because we can’t bend to the level of international organizations simply because they have money. You can’t use your money to blackmail the country and these civil society organizations if they deviate from the rules, the government has a right to say no, you either play to the rules or you can as well leave we can get other NGOs,” says Baryomunsi.
The minister explained that Uganda didn’t renew the agreement with the UN Human rights office because it had already served its purpose for which it was allowed to open office.
“They came to Uganda because there was a conflict in the greater north where there were lots of abuses of human rights at the invitation of government and now the country is peaceful and the government has strengthened local institutions to handle human rights grievances. So, we don’t think it means much that when they leave, they will leave a gap. If you have any complaints regarding human rights, you go to the Uganda Human Rights Commission and it has been handling these complaints. What value have they been adding in terms of resolving human rights conflicts in Uganda? They already have an international office which they can use to oversee Uganda like they do with many other countries,” added Baryomunsi.
Is this the end with Museveni?
The closure of DGF and UN Human Rights Office and the signing of the Anti-homosexuality Act into law have led some pundits to argue that Museveni’s cosy relationship with the West could be faltering.
However, Nkunyingi says Museveni is simply playing politics. “Museveni is a mere pretender; he is just playing politics. He brings a bill, it passes, he signs it, and then pays money to some of his people to go and oppose it in court. He is just rotating around but what I can say, he is a human rights violator,” said Nkunyingi.
Dr Yusuf Serunkuma, a researcher at Makerere University says what is happening between Museveni and the international organizations that are normally giving Uganda money is confusing. He says the two have been working very well together and he doesn’t see this relationship being shaken for anything.
“They are the best of buddies as they have conspired against the country especially starting in 1980s when Museveni handled them the economy. I’m not sure what is causing the fight but these fights notwithstanding, Museveni is still doing work for these guys. He has over one million refugees in Uganda, he is procuring refugees from Israel, from the United Kingdom, he is doing their work in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia. They look opposed to each other but their goal is the same,” says Serunkuma.
He added that until there is more information on the nature of the alleged fallout, he will not be among those writing Museveni and the West’s obituary.
“You would suspect that DGF threatened to close and leave and Museveni moved ahead of them and closed them before their due date. So, you have protagonists who are not willing to tell the public enough. So, when these organizations leave the country either on their own will or when they are pushed, this doesn’t affect the relation in any way. The relationship that Museveni shares with the international community is not of a cultural or humanitarian nature but its resource-based relationship. These human rights wrangles don’t change much because Museveni has to continue doing the work of the international community and the EU wants so much that refugees don’t go to Europe, they want to control the Persian Gulf, they want to have a fair share of the Indian Ocean in the Horn of Africa, they want DR Congo to remain their land of prey,” said Serunkuma.
For Rubongoya, the work of the opposition to continue mobilizing the population against the government is cut out because the international community has been nothing but Museveni’s walking stick.
“It is important that the international community sees Gen. Museveni for who he is; he has called them idiots, useless and other names for calling him out on elections but somehow, they come back dealing with him especially because of Somalia and other things. But we have told them that they need to cooperate with the people of Uganda and not just Gen Museveni. We have also told them that issues of human rights are very important.
"Museveni and his people shot dead over 100 people in broad daylight in 2020 but we didn’t see the international community come out as they are now. We are saying all human rights are important and must be treated as equal. When you see the belligerence of Museveni is because he knows he has blackmailed them for a long time and they will do nothing because indeed, they have always threatened but they have never taken a firm action against him,” Rubongoya said.
But Baryomunsi said that nothing is going to stop Uganda from doing things that are in its interest simply to appease outsiders. He however added that their relationship with the West is still valued but it must be built on respect.
“We don’t have to pass laws that please outsiders and that one we are very firm and like the president was saying, if the law is promoting our values whether America or the European Union gives us money, we respect their views we respect the partnership but they should also respect our sovereignty. It’s not that we are promoting conflict with the West but we are simply reasserting our sovereignty,” said Baryomunsi.