Ugandan People’s Defense Forces raid on opposition candidate Bobi Wine’s Headquarters puts US in awkward position

The UPDF has raided the political headquarters of Ugandan opposition MP and presidential candidate Bobi Wine, per Reuters and other news reports.

Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, told Reuters dozens of police and soldiers barged into the offices of his National Unity Platform (NUP) party in Kamwokya, a suburb of the Ugandan capital Kampala

The security personnel, he said, seized documents containing signatures from supporters that his party had collected to back his nomination, as well as 23 million shillings ($6,207.83).

We have Americans working to support Bobi Wine, and presumably Museveni as well, in the campaigns, and Americans working through USAID to support the democratic process. Uganda has always been a challenging environment on democratization–one in which our diplomats face an extra helping of competing priorities.

Uganda has never had a peaceful transition of power but remains more stable under Museveni’s rule than at most times prior to his military ascension in 1986. Museveni is a critic of the West who generally does business with the United States and generally facilitates our humanitarian and development aid programs, while doing business as well with China, North Korea, the former Gaddafi regime in Libya and other non-democratic actors.

Over the years that I have been informally watching (since 2008 really) we have offered occasional but muted criticism of Museveni’s disappointing performance on “deepening democracy”. See, i.e., Uganda: Retiring US Ambassador “stings Museveni for overstaying in power” but emphasizes support for Uganda’s role in regional stability”.

Uganda billboard Museveni and Gaddafi

The use of the Ugandan military in the domestic election process against democratic norms, however, presents a particular problem because of the strong military-military relationship.

Ten years ago, ahead of Uganda’s 2011 election, I wrote a blog post entitled “Democracy and Competing Objectives: We need you to back us up”:

I also had a senior military officer, a general, say to me, “It really doesn’t help us when you all don’t come out and criticize sort of half-hearted democratic elections. You tell us ‘Democracy, Democracy’; then you accept when we don’t have fully up to a minimal level of standard, because you’ve got presumably some other competing objective there that mitigates against that, because otherwise we don’t understand the point of continuing to strive for that standard. We need you to back us up and to back up our societies.”

This was Kate Almquist, now Senior Fellow for Security and Development at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, at a Military Strategy Forum on AFRICOM at CSIS in July (2010). Ms. Almquist was Assistant Director for Africa at USAID from May 2007 to 2009. She is speaking on a panel, relating her recent discussions with senior African military leaders at the Africa Center in response to a question about “competing objectives” regarding U.S. “strategic partners” including Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia, and “how do we know U.S. military support is not increasing autocratic tendencies and not decreasing democratic space?”

Since this event we’ve had a substandard election season in Rwanda–as well as the leak of a draft UN report using the term genocide in reference to Rwandan activity in the DRC. In Uganda, Museveni has announced formally that he is running for re-election, while continuing to refuse action to relinquish the unilateral appointment of the Electoral Commission. At the same time, Rwanda is threatening to pull its “peacekeeping” soldiers out of Darfur, and Uganda is offering an additional 10,000 soldiers to be “peacekeepers” in Somalia. The conundrums continue.

Here is a link to the audio and video from CSIS (also available on podcast). This discussion starts at 32:50 in the panel following General Ward’s speech.

“Another Fine Mess” in Uganda? Time to read Helen Epstein on “America, Uganda, and the War on Terror” if you haven’t yet

I first bought a copy of “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror“, by Helen Epstein, then “hot off the press” as a “sizzling indictment” of our policy in Uganda while evacuated to the Florida Panhandle from hurricane Maria last year.

Helen Epstein Uganda Another Fine Mess

This year in Northeast Florida were have missed Florence but are watching our neighbors in the Carolinas with concern. Meanwhile our neighbors in Uganda are suddenly on the radar screen in a heightened way.  Museveni’s political repression has struck an international nerve through the popular musician turned Member of Parliament and opposition by-election campaigner Bobi Wine.

See “Ugandan politician confronts diplomat over torture allegation” from VOA Africa.

Earlier this week Bobi Wine agreed to be represented pro bono in Washington by the Vanguard Africa Group.

Epstein’s book from the Columbia Global Reports series is a quick read (and inexpensive) so there is really no excuse to duck it if you are an American concerned about Uganda. Helen Epstein is an American with “skin in the game” in Uganda. She has lived there and worked with the failing health systems — her “active voice” as a critic comes not from the abstract but the specific. You do not have to agree with her about everything, or think she has figured out all our governmental secrets or inside-the-beltway motivations, but you would be foolish not to take her seriously and account for what she has to say.

Update: let me add here a couple of key blurbs for Epstein’s book from other writers who I have relied on and who will be well familiar to readers here:

William Easterly: “As her new book reveals, Helen Epstein is an eloquent advocate of human rights and democracy for Africans, as well as a courageous critic of how U.S. aid supports oppressive dictators like Yoweri Museveni in Uganda.”

Michela Wrong: “For decades, Western policy-makers have hailed Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni as a benign autocrat, a charming African Bismarck and trusted partner in the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. Another Fine Mess reveals a far darker side to this key African ally, while exposing the cynicism at the heart of American policy in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. This gripping, iconoclastic, angry book raises a host of uncomfortable questions.”

I want to note that Epstein highlights my old friend the late Joel Barkan’s investigation of Uganda’s economic issues for the World Bank.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to discuss this work with Joel a few years ago. Joel also prepared a prescient warning for American policy makers back in 2011 at CSIS of the risk of instability in Uganda with Museveni’s advancing age, elimination of term limits and need to transition.

[Note: Some of my Washington friends took a bit of umbrage about some of Helen’s real time reportage on Kenya’s last election–fine. If we were more transparent we would not risk being misunderstood; I was not in Kenya for the 2017 vote and at the end of the day we will have to see what the record shows. In that regard I am still working on 2007 and 2013. Uganda is Epstein’s lived experience in a different way.]