25 April 2019
The Honourable Donald J Trump
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC, 20500
Dear Mr President:
We are writing to call your attention to the dire state of affairs in Uganda – a country sustained, in large part, by US financial aid and military support. Many regard Uganda as a bastion of democracy and stability in a troubled region. In reality, it is a military dictatorship in which the Ugandan Junta, under the direct control of President Yuweri Museveni, uses violence to terrorize civilians and suppress political dissent.
Uganda has elections, courts and newspapers, but these function at the mercy of a powerful network of security organs that are instrumentalized to rig votes, override the decisions of judges and elected officials, arrest journalists and close NGOs that criticize the regime. These illegal actions fly in the face of Uganda’s constitution and its guarantees of freedom of assembly, association, peaceful demonstrations, and the right to participate in the affairs of government.
Indeed, it was the actions of the Ugandan government in April 2019 that prompted us to write this letter. Ugandan police targeted our client, the hugely popular musician/Member of Parliament HE Robert Kyagulanyi AKA Bobi Wine, and his supporters, blocking his concert in Busabala – Wakiso District. In total, the government has blocked 124 concerts organised by Mr Kyagulanyi, who uses his music to criticise government excesses. Police blocked a peaceful procession and threw teargas cannisters to disperse the crowd. In the chaos that ensued, Mr Kyagulanyi was once again, arrested violently. Sometime later, the musical festival’s organisers, Andrew Mukasa and Abbey Musinguzi, were also arrested.
Upon his release, Mr Kyagulanyi and his family were held under house arrest, with access to his supporters limited at the whim and discretion of military and police commanders operating outside the rule of law.
On 24 April 2019, Congresswoman Karen Bass, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, issued a public statement condemning the arrest of Mr Kyagulanyi and the assault and harassment of Ugandan citizens. In her statement, Representative Bass called upon the Ugandan government to “adhere to the rule of law and treat all its citizens justly regardless of political affiliations”[i].
Mr President, in nineteen short months, the Ugandans will face the prospect of another staged election, rigged to defeat the expectations of the common man to achieve a voice in the affairs of their country. Mr Kyagulanyi and other opposition leaders are fighting for the rights of those people to be heard. Recently, I was privileged to attend, with Mr Kyagulanyi, a meeting in Berlin wherein he outlined not only his program for Uganda’s future development, but his fears for the continuation of any form of opposition activity at the present moment in time.
These events, and those detailed below, illustrate the lengths that President Museveni will go to in order to retain his control over Uganda and importantly, highlight the urgent need for US attention.
Museveni’s repressive rule in Uganda
Mr President, elections in Uganda are routinely marred by state sponsored violence, beatings and killings of opposition figures and their supporters, voter bribery and most likely electronic vote manipulation.[ii] Numerous critics of Museveni’s government have died under mysterious circumstances in car accidents, apparent poisonings, drive-by shootings and other incidents. While investigations have been promised, they either have not been carried out, or the reports have not been made public.[iii]
Torture and other human rights abuses have been a mainstay of President Museveni’s regime since he seized power in 1986.[iv] In September 2017, Museveni’s Special Forces troops, wearing plain clothes, raided the floor of Parliament to prevent opposition MPs from filibustering a bill that would enable him to extend his grip on power. In the course of the raid, Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze was crippled and had to be flown abroad for extensive surgery. She was then rearrested and tortured again in June, necessitating another trip abroad for surgery. [v]
In 2016, over 150 unarmed subjects of the Rwenzururu kingdom in Western Uganda, including at least 14 children, were gunned down by security forces in broad daylight. The commander of this operation, Peter Elwelu, then received a promotion.[vi]
On 13 August 2018, five Parliamentarians, including Mr Kyagulanyi, and twenty-nine others were rounded up, tortured and held in illegal detention for several days at the conclusion of a by-election campaign in the northern Ugandan town of Arua. During the melee, Mr Kyagulanyi’s driver was shot dead, though it is widely believed that Mr Kyagulanyi himself was the intended target. News of these events, and those which followed, were reported widely in the international press and numerous NGOs, including Amnesty International[vii], released public statements in protest.
The Arua detainees were all charged with treason, a crime punishable by death, in connection with the alleged stoning of a vehicle in President Museveni’s convoy. Most, if not all of the accused detainees were nowhere near the scene of the alleged stoning. Several of the accused, including two of the MPs were severely beaten; one, Francis Zaake, had to be flown to India for surgery and the other, Shaban Atiku, may never walk again. Numerous journalists, peaceful demonstrators and bystanders were also arrested and tortured in connection with the events in Arua.[viii]
The Arua detainees were granted bail on 27 August 2018, however, many other political prisoners remain behind bars, some reportedly in Uganda’s notorious secret detention centres[ix]. To this day, many of their families remain unaware of their whereabouts.
Museveni’s activities in the Great Lakes region
Ugandan citizens are not the only ones who have suffered at the hands of President Museveni’s regime. Indeed, while Museveni has received praise for hosting millions of refugees from war torn South Sudan, less has been said about Uganda’s role in prolonging and worsening that very same war. Recently, it has emerged that since the fighting began, the Ugandan military has been illegally funnelling weapons and other military hardware donated by the European Union and the US government into South Sudan.[x] Meanwhile, Museveni’s officials have looted millions of dollars donated by the international community for refugee programs.[xi] In this way, Museveni’s henchmen profit from the very crisis they are helping to create.
This is nothing new. During the 1990s, Uganda’s military massacred unarmed civilians in northern and eastern Uganda, looted animals and food stores, engaged in the mass rape of men and women and forced nearly two million Acholis into camps where, according to the World Health Organization, the death toll from disease and hunger rose to above 1000 people per week.[xii]
During this same period, Uganda supported violent rebels who either sparked or participated in wars in neighbouring countries that cost millions of lives, including those in Rwanda, Sudan and Congo.[xiii] In 2005, the International Court of Justice ordered Uganda to pay US$10 billion in reparations for looting and crimes against humanity in Congo. To date, this debt remains outstanding.[xiv]
While Uganda’s troop contribution to the African Union Peacekeeping Force in Somalia (AMISOM) has helped contain the Al Shabaab insurgency, this force, often underpaid and riven with ethnic division, has been implicated in grave human rights abuses, including the rape of children,[xv] and has even been caught selling weapons to Al Shabaab itself.[xvi] Thus Western taxpayers have been, at times, funding both sides of this brutal war.
Since January 2018, over 18 people have been shot and killed and over 850 homes and properties have been burnt down by security forces in Amuru district. This appears to be one of many disguised land grab projects orchestrated by the Ugandan government throughout the country in recent years.[xvii]
Museveni’s misuse of Western foreign aid
Since 1986, billions of dollars have been stolen by President Museveni’s associates from the Ugandan Treasury and foreign aid programs, including the Global Fund for AIDS TB and Malaria and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.[xviii] Despite this, the United States gave Uganda nearly US$1 billion last year.
While some foreign aid to Uganda goes to reputable charities and supports care for people suffering from diseases such as HIV, much of it also goes to multilateral organizations such as the World Bank which aid Uganda’s Treasury directly. This aid is highly vulnerable to theft and misuse.[xix] Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of hardware and training have also gone to Uganda’s military, which deploys it for internal repression or diverts it to clandestine support for foreign wars.[xx]
Museveni’s corruption and dismissal of democratic values
While on the one hand President Museveni welcomes funding from US and other foreign financial aid programs, on the other, he continuously flouts the values we believe in. In May 2017, Uganda claimed to have cut ties with North Korea, whose brutal military has been training Uganda’s security forces for decades.[xxi] However, according to the Wall Street Journal, North Korean operatives remain inside Uganda.[xxii] In December, Chinese businessman Patrick Ho was convicted in a US court of having sent bribes of $500,000 each to Museveni and his Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa, when the latter was Chairman of the UN General Assembly.[xxiii]
In addition to these unsavoury political relationships, Uganda is also a major smuggling route for gold,[xxiv] elephant tusks,[xxv] pangolin scales[xxvi] and other contraband.
Why Museveni should matter to the US
The sheer scale of the atrocities committed by President Museveni’s regime and the complete absence of the rule of law in Uganda should be a high priority for the United States. Washington is Uganda’s largest development donor, and has given President Museveni over US$300 million in military assistance since 2012 alone. When demonstrations in support of the Arua detainees broke out across Uganda, Museveni’s forces used US weapons to suppress them.
It is time for the United States to reconsider its relationship with Uganda. US military support has helped President Museveni to suppress the rule of law and has contributed to the persistence of the Ugandan Junta and their illegal aggressions against citizens. A lasting peace in this troubled region of Africa can only be achieved through the free politics of a true democracy – something President Museveni will do anything to prevent. In light of this, it is clear that the United States must take immediate action to cut off military support to Uganda and to denounce the crimes committed by President Museveni’s regime. Most importantly, it is time for the United States and other Western donors to ensure that all aid, military and non-military, is conditional on the holding of free and fair elections. Ending the harassment of my client, Mr Kyagulanyi, would be an important first step.
AMSTERDAM & PARTNERS LLP
[iii] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/04/03/murder-uganda/; Epstein. Another Fine Mess.
[iv] Helen Epstein. Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror. Columbia Global Reports. 2017.
[x][x] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/11/29/uganda-funneled-european-weapons-south-sudan-breaching-arms-embargo-report/; https://www.voanews.com/a/un-blames-uganda-kenya-fueling-south-sudan-conflict/4229939.html
[xii] Adam Branch. Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda. Oxford University Press 2011; A Brilliant Genocide. A documentary film by Ebony Butler. Atlantic Star Productions 2016
[xiii] Helen Epstein. Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror. Columbia Global Reports. 2017.