Balancing Counterterrorism and Democracy in Uganda

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Ronald Kabuubi / Reuters

Mourners bury Alice Kyalimpa, a victim of the July 11, 2010, terrorist attacks that tore through a restaurant and rugby club in Uganda's capital

U.S. President Barack Obama took office promising to make good governance the cornerstone of his African policy, and Uganda came to typify the shift in priorities. Repeated attempts by President Yoweri Museveni to meet with Obama were denied, apparently in response to Uganda's sluggish pace of political reform ahead of presidential elections in February. President Obama also directly challenged Museveni to lift his support for a draconian bill persecuting gays.

But just as the 9/11 attacks drew the U.S. closer to autocratic Arab regimes whose security services were needed to help fight al-Qaeda, so have the July 11 bombings of two Kampala nightspots by the Somalia-based al-Shabab militant group reminded the Obama Administration of Uganda's importance in the battle against extremism in the Horn of Africa. And that strategic interdependency challenges the U.S. democracy agenda.

"Washington is now forced to do a balancing act," says Livingstone Sweanyana, executive director at the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Kampala. "If the U.S. is going to work with Museveni on al-Shabab, the U.S. can't afford to see or treat him as an unfriendly force."

U.S. officials insist that democratic reform still figures at the top of Washington's agenda in Uganda. But as Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) has used the July 11 terror attacks as a pretext to shrink the political space, Washington's critique hasn't kept pace. Three days after the bombings, parliament passed a bill enabling phone-tapping. Weeks later, nationwide demonstrations demanding an independent election commission were violently suppressed on grounds that they could be exploited by terrorists. And the media have since been banned from commenting on the twin bombings.

Following the crackdown on protests calling for an election commission, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson did say that security concerns were no justification for squelching dissent. Curiously, however, the previous day he told a reporter on the sidelines of an African Union (A.U.) summit in Kampala that Museveni had been "elected openly and transparently in free and fair elections," contradicting a 2006 State Department assessment that the polls had been "marred by serious irregularities."

The about-face may be driven by growing desperation. At the same A.U. summit, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that "ending the threat of al-Shabab to the world will take more than just law enforcement" and that Washington was therefore going to work closely "to support the African Union's [military] mission in Somalia [AMISOM]." Washington is looking to boost current troop levels from 8,000 — most of them from Burundi and Uganda — to 20,000. The problem is that few member states other than Uganda have volunteered to step up. Museveni, a former rebel leader, is reportedly prepared to mobilize that many troops on his own and has been leading calls to switch AMISOM's mandate from peacekeeping to peace enforcement.

"The U.S. is depending on Uganda to play a role in Somalia to rein in extremist forces," says James Tumusiime, managing editor of the opposition-leaning Observer weekly. "And in light of the attacks, the U.S. is probably beginning to think they're better off with a stable, functioning style of leadership in Uganda — someone who's not necessarily a democrat but a guy in control — rather than support change for democracy's sake."

U.S. diplomats in Kampala say much of their democracy-promotion work is low-key. One example is their success in persuading Uganda to put voter-registration lists online to allow the validation of voter identities. USAID invested around $2 million on democracy and governance programs last year, and that figure is expected to hit $10 million this year. Officials argue that security and democracy are mutually reinforcing.

But support for the key opposition demand of an independent election commission appears to be waning, says Wafula Oguttu, spokesperson for the leading opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Recalling Washington's silence after the recent suppression of demonstrations — in which 80 people were arrested and some claimed to have been tortured — Oguttu says, "The U.S. likely would have spoken out against that prior to al-Shabab." Now the opposition is anxiously awaiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's quarterly report on Uganda, due late this month, after Congress ordered the State Department to tightly monitor Uganda's election process. "A lot of bad things have happened since May," says Oguttu, and he expects the report to reflect that fact.

The last such report, issued in May, irritated NRM leaders, but prompted no constructive action. Indeed the party's primary polls on Monday were marred by confusion and allegations of ballot-stuffing. Opposition groups hope that Washington will use its leverage as one of Uganda's leading aid donors to press for change. But they fear the U.S. lacks the resolve to press the issue, leaving Uganda's election process heavily skewed toward the ruling party.

Challenges to the legitimacy of the electoral process raise the danger of large-scale political violence, analysts warn. Last September, riots in Kampala left 17 people dead after the king of Buganda kingdom was prevented by Museveni from visiting a nearby district.

"We have shown restraint so far," says the FDC's Oguttu. But if the mechanisms for free and fair elections fail to materialize, he says, "we're going to have a little bit of trouble." He predicts the youth will grow more vocal and could target the destruction of election-commission offices. Meanwhile, the opposition is mulling the option of boycotting February's elections. Whatever the case may be, he says, "expect fireworks." And a new round of political turmoil, of course, is unlikely to help promote either democracy or security.