Uganda: Museveni to make first visit to Washington in five years

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Monday, 28 November 2022 11:16

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni speaks during an interview at his farm in Kisozi settlement of Gomba district, in the Central Region of Uganda, January 16, 2022. Picture taken January 16, 2022. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will be making his first visit to Washington in five years next month for the US-Africa Leaders Summit amid lingering tensions over his authoritarian bent.

The Uganda leader has outlasted six US presidents during his 37 years in power. Museveni is expected to meet with President Joe Biden during the Leaders Summit dinner on 14 December, his first encounter with a US president in Washington in eight years.

A State Department official could not confirm whether the two leaders would have a personal tête-à-tête during the three-day summit.

“We extended an invitation to Uganda, although we cannot confirm any individual meetings at this time,” the official tells The Africa Report.

Museveni last visited the White House in August 2014 for the US-Africa Leaders Summit hosted by then-President Barack Obama. He later met Obama in 2015 with other heads of state in Ethiopia to discuss the war in South Sudan pitting President Salva Kiir against his deputy Riek Machar.

Like most African heads of state, Museveni did not have an audience with President Donald Trump despite showering him with praise.

“America has got one of the best presidents ever, Mr. Trump. I love Trump,” Museveni said in 2018, praising the US president for being frank when addressing Africans. Trump had famously labelled Africa as “shithole countries” from which the US should not be accepting immigrants.

Frosty relationship

In power since 1986, Museveni has seen his relationship with the US deteriorate over the past decade, giving hope to pro-democracy groups that Washington is slowly abandoning one of its longtime allies in the region.

But the US has continued to invest heavily in Uganda, spending almost $1bn annually, much of which goes to the health sector through international organisations and local NGOs.

Uganda is currently handling an Ebola outbreak. The US government has committed more than $30m in aid, more than 75% of the mobilised funds, but not a single dollar has been given directly to the government, to the furor of Museveni’s health ministry.

Controversial guest

Every African government except those that don’t have diplomatic relations with the US (Eritrea, Western Sahara) or have been suspended by the African Union (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan) was invited.

Democracy crusaders however argued that authoritarian leaders such as Museveni didn’t deserve an invitation either.

“Our goal is to host a broadly inclusive Summit,” State Department press officer Li Ping Lo tells The Africa Report. “President Biden extended invitations to leaders of African Union member states who are currently in good standing with the AU, and did not invite countries that the US government does not recognise nor with which we do not exchange ambassadors.”

“We took an approach to invitations that will enable wide participation in a dialogue on regional priorities, including opportunities for promoting human rights and strengthening democratic institutions,” she added.

US foreign policy

Li Ping said the Biden administration has elevated its commitment to democracy, combating corruption, supporting citizen-centred governance and human rights for all people as essential elements of US foreign policy.

Many African countries, she said, share the US priority of strong democratic institutions and democratic governance.

The leading opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) of Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, has led the lobbying charge for sanctioning Ugandan government officials and cutting aid.

Despite Museveni’s invitation, Daniel Kawuma, who heads the NUP diaspora chapter in the US, insists that “we do not see improved US-Museveni relations at this summit.”

Kawuma tells The Africa Report he and other NUP diaspora leaders plan to attend some of the events surrounding the US-Africa summit to “continue unmasking the [Museveni] dictatorship by shining a light on the atrocities and holding the Biden administration accountable for their foreign policy objectives.”

He adds there will also be protests in Washington DC organised by NUP diaspora teams in the days  before the summit to continue “highlighting atrocities and human rights violations in Uganda.”

Democratic decline

Human Rights Watch is urging Biden to raise concerns regarding the erosion of basic freedoms and the increase in human rights violations with the Uganda delegation during the summit.

The NGO is also asking the administration to examine whether security cooperation with Uganda is undermining respect for human rights, which would clash with Biden’s expressed commitment to put human rights at the core of US foreign policy.

The US government has in several reports shed light on rights violations and backsliding in Uganda’s democratisation process.

In its 2021 report on the state of human rights around the world, the State Department said significant human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings by government forces, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance and torture.

“The government was reluctant to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses,” the report said in its section on Uganda.

Deborah Malac, who served as US ambassador to Uganda until January 2020, last year predicted that Washington’s concern over Museveni’s increasing authoritarianism, especially over the past 10 years, weighs heavily against a meeting with Biden. The remarks followed the US president’s December 2021 summit on democracy, to which only 17 African leaders scored invitations.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine however has forced the Biden administration to adapt its foreign policy. With the US seeking to mobilise the world against Moscow, Museveni has sought to leverage its clout by withholding cooperation.

The Ugandan president has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion despite public and private diplomatic pressure from Washington.

Museveni in July welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the first high-ranking Moscow official to ever visit Kampala. The US in turn dispatched Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Washington’s top diplomat at the United Nations, to Kampala to meet Museveni.

Flailing friendship

Two events illustrate how the Museveni-US relationship has deteriorated in recent years.

The last time Museveni spoke to a US secretary of State was in 2016. Days after the presidential election, Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned to express Washington’s disapproval of how the process was going.

The government was reluctant to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

Kerry expressed concerns over the detention of opposition candidate Kizza Besigye, the harassment of opposition party members, and the blockage of social media and mobile money.

The US diplomat urged Museveni to rein in the police and security forces, which were at the forefront of harassing opposition politicians.

A decade earlier, in December 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was in Kampala following earlier visits by First Lady Hillary Clinton and US lawmakers.

At a press briefing, Museveni called it “very important that President Clinton has decided to send such a high-powered delegation to Africa, and to Uganda in particular.”

At the time, delegations of US high-ranking officials visiting the continent made it a point to stop by Kampala. That doesn’t happen anymore. Most of the delegations now visit Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, which has gained prominence as the region’s diplomacy capital.

Somali trump card

Analysts argue that Somalia, where Ugandan soldiers have battled jihadists as part of the African Union mission since 2007, is Museveni’s last leverage in the region.

As of 2019, Uganda was the largest recipient of US support for AMISOM, which totals about $2bn for all troop-contributing countries, according to the Congressional Research Service in Washington. The figure includes more than $280m in equipment and training for Uganda since 2011.

The Somalia mission underwent an overhaul earlier this year and is expected to come to an end in 2024. A former US diplomat believes this will cause a rethink in US security funding that has benefitted the Museveni regime for decades.

Despite the feeling of betrayal in Kampala, US diplomats remain the most influential in Uganda, with unfettered access to Museveni and other high-ranking officials.

Kampala does not imagine life without US funding, especially in the health sector, which often accounts for close to half of the government budget.

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