How America Can Shore Up Asian Order
A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy
A mob of violent thugs, incited by an authoritarian president, storm a democratic legislature and disrupt controversial constitutional proceedings. The invaders damage property, injure lawmakers, and drag many opposition legislators from the chamber.
No, I am not describing the assault on the United States Capitol last week; rather, I refer to the one the Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni orchestrated in 2017 on the Parliament in which I serve. The previous year, Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, claimed to have won a fifth presidential term in an election that international observers said fell far short of international democratic standards. Seemingly bent on remaining president for life, Museveni then initiated a campaign to alter a clause in Uganda’s constitution that required presidential candidates to be under the age of 75. That clause would have prevented Museveni, now 76, from contesting the 2021 presidential election, which is scheduled to take place on Thursday.
Appalled by Museveni’s antidemocratic charade, I joined an opposition campaign to stop the constitution from being altered. Museveni’s response was to deploy plainclothes special forces to Parliament to shut down our endeavor. The special forces, which operate as Museveni’s private army, proceeded to batter opposition lawmakers and drag us by force from the floor. I was injured along with many other members of Parliament, including Betty Nambooze and Francis Zaake, who were singled out for abuse and had to be flown abroad for emergency medical care. Nambooze’s injuries have left her with permanent disabilities.
In the week following the raid on Parliament, assailants threw a grenade at my home that struck my 12-year-old son’s bedroom window. The homes of other critics of the regime were attacked as well. In the face of such violence and intimidation, our legislative effort disintegrated: Museveni’s constitutional amendment passed quietly in December 2017, enabling him to run in Thursday’s election and in all elections thereafter.
Uganda’s 2021 presidential election is shaping up to be as unfree and unfair as ever. As one of ten opposition candidates challenging Museveni, I have faced a relentless barrage of violence. Security forces have detained me on multiple occasions and brutalized my supporters. In mid-November, while I was being held behind bars on unspecified charges, my supporters took to the streets in protest. Security forces responded by murdering 54 demonstrators and bystanders, including at least one child.
Last week, my team and I submitted an official complaint to the International Criminal Court detailing the Museveni regime’s illegal detention and torture of my colleagues and me, as well as the often lethal violence it has meted out against our supporters and other unarmed civilians. During a press conference to announce our complaint that was livestreamed on the Internet, Ugandan security officers surrounded my vehicle, yanked me out of it against my will, and roughed me up. I was eventually allowed back into the vehicle, but officers then drove alongside my team and me, launching tear gas and pepper spray at us even as stunned reporters watched over Zoom. If Museveni’s forces are brazen enough to commit such barbaric acts while the world is looking on, consider what they must be willing to inflict on less well-known Ugandans every day.
It pains me to say this, but the international community is part of our enduring problem in Uganda. Over the years, Museveni has managed to position himself as a military ally and development darling of many Western governments that look the other way when it comes to his horrendous human rights record. During the 1990s, the Museveni regime funneled weapons to rebels in Sudan on behalf of the administration of President Bill Clinton; today, Ugandan forces fight in the U.S.- and European-supported African Union Mission in Somalia and serve as guards under U.S. command in Iraq. Museveni also embraced neoliberal economic reforms that have been hard on the poor but endeared him to institutions such as the World Bank.
Uganda’s 2021 presidential election is shaping up to be as unfree and unfair as ever.
In nearly 35 years in power, Museveni’s government has received tens of billions of dollars in direct foreign aid from Western countries, including the United States and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Much of this money has been properly spent on projects such as AIDS treatment and malaria prevention, but much has also been siphoned off by Museveni’s henchmen. And as multiple researchers have documented, billions of dollars in taxpayer and development funds have been diverted to the security forces—the same forces that attack me, my colleagues, and our fellow citizens with impunity. As a result, Uganda’s military budget has steadily swollen over the years. It ballooned from $24 million in 1992 to nearly $400 million in 2020, even as poverty deepened, social services atrophied, and basic human rights and good-governance benchmarks went unmet.
By partnering with the United States to fight terrorism, in particular in Somalia, Museveni has positioned his regime as a guarantor of stability in East Africa. He has also won international praise for welcoming refugees from war-torn countries—even though many of them are victims of conflicts that Museveni himself stoked. But just as often as Ugandan forces have trained their sights on terrorists abroad, they have trained them on Ugandan citizens at home.
In the late 1980s, in northern Uganda, for instance, Museveni’s forces undertook what the political scientist Adam Branch, director of the Centre of African Studies at Cambridge University, has called “a counterinsurgency without an insurgency.” This operation, ostensibly aimed at the remnants of the armies of previous regimes, was in fact ethnically motivated and unleashed such staggering violence upon local civilians that it provoked real insurgencies—including the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony, which tortured, kidnapped, and killed tens of thousands of Ugandans, many of them children, over the next two decades. Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, Museveni not only arguably prolonged the conflict with the LRA for his own ends but cynically used the violence to justify repurposing foreign development aid for military aims.
The international community is part of our enduring problem in Uganda.
Ugandans who have sought to peacefully oppose Museveni’s abuses have also been met with state terror. In 2011, for instance, security forces opened fire on demonstrators who had taken to the streets to protest government corruption and economic mismanagement, killing at least nine people. Then, in 2016, the Ugandan army slaughtered 150 unarmed people, including at least 15 children, in a western region of the country where relations with the central government were tense. In 2018, security forces assassinated my driver and arrested me and four of my parliamentary colleagues, as well as dozens of our supporters, holding us for days without access to counsel or even to our families. When we were finally taken to court, many of us—including me—were on crutches.
Despite these horrendous crimes against Ugandan citizens, international funds have continued to flow to Museveni’s government. Just this past June, the World Bank released $300 million in relief funds, ostensibly meant to combat COVID-19, which then promptly vanished into a classified military budget that is now being used to repress me and my colleagues who are demanding a free and fair election.
As part of Museveni’s cynical strategy to retain power, he is now trying to paint our movement as violent and sponsored by nefarious “foreign actors.” On December 30, I was arrested along with 100 of my aides as we prepared to campaign on an island in Lake Victoria called Kalangala. Forty-nine of these aides have been falsely charged with illegal possession of ammunition and firearms. I have been speaking out against electoral violence since even before my political career began. And throughout my campaign, I have maintained unequivocally that ours is a nonviolent struggle for democratic change and must be a peaceful revolution. The charges of violence by my staff members are merely a pretext for Museveni and his enablers—in Uganda and in the West—to justify their suppression of our long-denied democratic aspirations.
Thankfully, U.S. policy toward Uganda may be shifting. The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently called on President Donald Trump’s administration to impose sanctions on five current and former heads of Ugandan security agencies for human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture. What is more, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, led by then ranking member Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, condemned my arrest last month and demanded a free and fair election. Menendez also called for greater scrutiny of U.S. support for Museveni in the event that Thursday’s election is rigged.
In recent weeks, Americans have for the first time in their lives faced the specter of a violent transition between presidential administrations. Ugandans have never experienced a peaceful transition of power. In fact, with Museveni’s regime approaching 35 years of age, the vast majority of Ugandans have never witnessed any transition of power at all.
This week is a pivotal one for my country. Millions of young people demanding reform and a say in their future are pitted against a small cadre of tyrants committed to retaining power at all costs. My sincere hope is that the international community will watch this week’s elections in Uganda closely. International attention matters now more than ever. Indeed, it is what has kept me and my colleagues alive up to this point. If Museveni steals another election on Thursday, we hope that good people of conscience around the world will hold him and this regime accountable.
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