Feeble and gaunt from the illness that has eaten away at his body, Fideli Donge wobbled onto the porch of his mud-and-straw home, which is hidden by short palm trees off an isolated, craterous dirt road used mostly by barefooted pedestrians and the occasional bodaboda, an East African motorbike taxi. He’s in his 60s, he thinks, but a lifetime of hard labor and poverty has left him looking closer to 90. A few months ago, as Donge lay bedridden, and as his children and grandchildren -- he has 52 altogether -- worked the 20-acre farm that his family has owned for nearly half a century, men from the local municipality in his western Uganda village knocked at his door. 

“They told me that all the residents here have to leave and that they will give me a house or money,” Donge said. He and his family will have to abandon the land that they rely on for their own food and livelihood; they make pennies from the sale of maize, sugar cane, and cassava, a staple crop across Africa. “We don’t know when we will go, or where,” he said. The municipality promised Donge a new home, one large enough to accommodate his family, with soil rich enough to farm, but he hasn’t heard anything since the officials came to his door. “Until now, we are just waiting.”

Since 2008, more than 7,100 residents in surrounding villages have been given similar offers as part of the Ugandan government’s grand scheme to build an 11-square-mile oil refinery in the Lake Albert basin, along the country’s disputed border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The government hopes that the project will transform the downtrodden and war-torn nation, which just barely cracks the top 20 African economies by GDP, into the continent’s fifth-largest oil producer. The Ugandan government, in partnership with London-based Tullow Oil, discovered commercial reserves eight years ago, but production has been slowed by technical challenges and, especially, bureaucratic hang-ups. In early February, after years of protracted talks, the Ministry of Energy finally announced that it had signed deals with China’s CNOOC, France’s Total, and Tullow to build the estimated $15 billion worth of infrastructure needed to develop the oil fields. If successful, the government estimates reserves of up to 3.5 billion barrels of crude oil -- enough to finally make this nation of 36 million people self-reliant for its energy needs.

The Lake Albert refinery is an ambitious venture, particularly for a government plagued by corruption allegations and with a history of empty promises. (Last year, the government’s auditor reported $100 million missing from the national budget.) But, perhaps, this time is different. The refinery is a pet project of President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country for 28 years; he has repeatedly gone on record calling the reserves “my oil.” Uprooting Ugandan farmers to make way for a refinery might seem like a surprising move for Museveni, who spends so much time out of the capital of Kampala, at his own cattle ranch in southern Uganda, that he earned the nickname the Gentleman Farmer (it’s one of many). But the refinery plan is, ultimately, the perfect way to shore up a presidency for life.


To many Ugandans, Museveni is the savior who brought peace and stability to the country following decades of bloodshed, the worst of it in the 1970s, under the notorious dictator Idi Amin. But Museveni’s star has recently been fading, due to a clampdown on the press that has grown tighter by the year, infighting among his inner circle over a range of issues (most recently, a controversial anti-homosexuality bill), and tensions with Uganda’s neighbors. In the DRC, the government’s shaky peace deal with M23 rebels threatens to re-ignite the continent’s deadliest war, a conflict that has fought its share of proxy wars on Ugandan soil. In South Sudan, fighting continues between rebels and the nascent government despite a recent cease-fire, including in border towns with Uganda, where there have been spillovers in the past. Add to those wars the threat of terrorism from al Shabaab, the group responsible for last year’s Westgate Mall massacre in Nairobi and a deadly 2010 bombing in Kampala.

The wave of recent violence in South Sudan, sparked after President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of an attempted coup in January, has killed more than 10,000 people in less than a month and sent some 80,000 fleeing to Uganda and the DRC. In January, Museveni seized the chance to send the army, known as the Uganda People’s Defense Force, into South Sudan to recapture territory that rebel fighters had seized a month earlier. The presence of Ugandan forces soon after the attempted coup was a sore spot in the first round of peace talks, which resulted in a delicate cease-fire deal on January 23. The fighting threatens to destabilize a South Sudanese regime that holds strong political and ethnic links to Uganda.

But observers point to other incentives for Museveni to get involved in South Sudan’s fight. The world’s newest country is home to some seven billion barrels of proven oil reserves -- but it is landlocked. South Sudan currently pays Sudan more than $7 billion to export its oil through an existing pipeline. But with relations faltering since South Sudan’s 2011 independence, Uganda and Kenya are hoping to step in. A proposal to run a pipeline from South Sudan’s oil fields through Uganda to the Kenyan port of Lamu on the Indian Ocean was on the table with the Kiir government when the fighting began.

Uganda’s military orbit extends beyond its closest neighbors. Since 2007, its troops have been deployed to Somalia as part of a peacekeeping force to help contain al Shabaab. Uganda is hardly going it alone: the U.S. government recently allocated more than $14 million to bankroll East African operations aimed at crushing the terrorist network. That came on top of $82 million of counterterrorism assistance in 2012 from the Pentagon for six African countries, more than half of which went to Uganda. The United States is also helping Uganda in its efforts to eliminate Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and senior leaders of the LRA, sending 100 troops in late 2011 to help in the fight. Kony’s LRA fled its original bases in Uganda and South Sudan in 2005, either to the Central African Republic or the DRC. Ugandan forces and rebel fighters are on the ground in both countries trying to weed it out.

The refinery plans at Lake Albert are closely tied to the government’s security policies, as future revenues may one day satisfy Museveni’s desire for greater clout among African leaders. Uganda’s newfound oil wealth “has literal bearing on [Museveni’s] behavior,” said Charles “Mase” Onyango-Obbo, a prominent Ugandan writer based in Nairobi. By playing “regional sheriff,” he said, Western governments turn a blind eye to Museveni’s undemocratic practices at home. “He wants to shape the conversation in the world about Africa, and the stereotypes about its leadership,” Onyango-Obbo said. “But most of his actions on the domestic scene negate that.” Still, Museveni knows all too well that there are plenty of Ugandans willing to overlook his corruption and authoritarian streak so long as there is stability. “Some say as long as we can sleep at night, he can stay in office,” said Leonard Okello, an activist with the anti-corruption coalition Black Monday. “He wants to be seen as the center of stability in the region, yet he is the chief exporter of instability in the region.”


The cost of corruption and governmental waste under Museveni is plain to see in the village of Mbulamuti, outside of the city of Jinja, which sits on the banks of Lake Victoria east of Kampala. Down rocky dirt roads, past rows of mud-brick homes with straw roofs, Rebecca Bebedeye washes her infant son at home in a bucket of muddied water. She and her nine children are among the village’s outcasts who are infected by jiggers, a parasitic flea that burrows into exposed skin, laying eggs and creating infections and other dangerous complications. She doesn’t care about Kampala or its politics -- she is too preoccupied with growing enough vegetables in her small backyard so that her children can eat. Ugandan gospel singer Judith Babirye says the jiggers are a punishment from God for those who shun the gospel. But, in fact, they’re easy to treat with antibiotics and regular hygiene, which these residents, living far below the poverty line, can’t afford or access. Mbulamuti’s plight is just one illustration of why Uganda ranked 22 in the Fund for Peace 2013 Failed States Index. Neighboring DRC and South Sudan were among the top five; Somalia topped the list.

Irena Namukasa and a few low-paid community outreach workers go door to door, offering residents soap and other cleaning products and teaching the importance of washing hands, washing clothes, and bathing. It’s one of a number of Namukasa’s outreach programs, which include providing information about family planning and helping prevent gender-based violence in a village where 12-year-old girls are often impregnated by schoolteachers or close male relatives. Asked about government support for her work, Namukasa just smiled. “It is a very long process,” she says. “We get one million shillings” -- $405 -- “per quarter to fund all of our projects.” She pauses: “Yes, all of them.” A survey last year by the World Health Organization found that the Ugandan government spends just $11 per person on health care every year, far below its own annual target of $28. The minimum annual threshold around the world is about $34 per person.

Corruption plagues all levels of government. In 2012, the federal Office of the Prime Minister funneled more than $12.7 million in donor funds into private accounts. The money was supposed to support Uganda’s war-ravaged north and its most destitute villages. The scandal prompted the European Union, along with Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Norway, to suspend aid. (Approximately 30 percent of Uganda’s 2012 national budget came from foreign aid, according to Human Rights Watch.) Anti-corruption activists such as Leonard Okello point to this scandal, and many others like it, as a curse, and future oil revenues are not immune.

“Our biggest challenge is the rule of law,” Charles Peter Mayiga, prime minister of Uganda’s largest ethnic group, the Buganda Kingdom, told me. “For that to happen, there needs to be sustainable institutions.” But instead, the government has acted in increasingly repressive ways. In 2009, it abruptly shut down four independently owned radio stations, including Buganda’s own station, Central Broadcasting Service, even though the tribe is supposed to enjoy a large degree of autonomy. The networks were charged with “flouting rules by inciting people, mainly the Baganda tribe, against President Yoweri Museveni, his government and against other tribes.”

In 2011, Ugandans loyal to longtime opposition leader Kizza Bisigye took their cue from North Africans in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and protested against higher food and fuel prices and rising unemployment (youth unemployment soared to 62 percent last year, according to Action Aid Uganda). Some protesters even called for an end to the Museveni regime. But the Gentleman Farmer was neither consolatory nor sympathetic. “There will be no demonstrations in Kampala,” he told a press conference at his cattle ranch southwest of the capital. “If Bisigye wants to walk for exercise, let him do it somewhere else.”

Many young Ugandans believe that no matter what Museveni does to hold onto power, he can count on the backing of the United States, so long as he continues to support the fight against al Shabaab and the broader war against extremist groups in Africa. But as Museveni evicts farmers, pins his hopes on oil rents -- like many autocrats before him -- and tries to project Ugandan power abroad, grassroots activism grows in Kampala. As for the country’s most destitute people, who are too isolated and too poor to help themselves, they are left at the mercy of a government that has all but forgotten them. “I don’t want to die until I know my children have a place to live,” Donge told me. As they lose faith in the high hopes and failed promises of Museveni’s system, many Ugandans are pining for the basic things that the government has long failed to provide. “We need to improve education, health, alleviate poverty,” Mayiga said. “That’s the way to empower people.”

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  • VIVIAN SALAMA is a freelance foreign correspondent who has spent the past decade reporting mostly from the Middle East. She is a 2014 Africa Fellow with the International Center for Journalists.
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