• Uganda
    The World Should Not Look Away From Uganda's Undemocratic Elections
    On January 14, Uganda will hold national elections, an exercise that is shaping up to be more of an opportunity for incumbent President Yoweri Museveni to demonstrate the repressive power of the state than a chance for Uganda’s population to express its political will. Museveni, in power since 1986, has taken no chances. Several of his challengers, including the most prominent opposition leader, Bobi Wine, have been threatened, arrested, and assaulted over the course of the campaign; dozens of opposition supporters have been killed. Laws ostensibly aimed at controlling COVID-19 have been used to curtail campaigning, tanks have paraded ominously though downtown Kampala, and just before the polling, authorities imposed an internet blackout throughout the country. On January 13, Natalie E. Brown, the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, announced that there would be no U.S. diplomatic observation mission deployed on election day because the vast majority of accreditation requests were denied by Uganda’s Electoral Commission. These constraints only further erode confidence in this electoral exercise. Given the oppressive pre-election conditions, the advantages of incumbency, and the fact that ten different opposition candidates are on the ballot, Museveni is highly likely to be declared the winner. But such a result will not resolve the simmering tensions in Uganda, or give voice to the aspirations of its citizens. That raises real challenges for the United States, which has worked closely with Uganda on African security issues, development initiatives, and refugee policies, and has no desire to see more instability take hold in an already fragile region. There can be no evading the problematic realities of this election or its aftermath. In Foreign Affairs, Bobi Wine himself wrote that “My sincere hope is that the international community will watch this week’s elections in Uganda closely. International attention matters now more than ever.” Yet others, from Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka to the editorial board of the Financial Times, have expressed concern that the crisis of democracy in the United States itself could hinder an effective and direct response to the repression in Uganda. This needn’t be the case. Lecturing from a position of imagined moral superiority was never a terribly effective foreign policy tool. However, conviction about our own democratic values, and our interest in a world made more stable and just by respect for the rule of law, human rights, and accountable governance, are essential to both resolving our domestic crisis and pursuing effective and farsighted foreign policy. We need not pretend to be perfect to keep working toward that future, at home or abroad.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
    The Politics of Food in the Time of COVID-19
    In many African states, food insecurity is a serious problem getting worse by the day. This week, international experts sounded the alarm about acute food shortages affecting some 135 million people, more than half of them Africans. The coronavirus crisis, with its effect on livelihoods, productivity, and agricultural supply chains, could nearly double that already staggering number of people threatened with starvation. In East Africa, a plague of locusts is adding to the misery, decimating crops at a shocking pace. In the Sahel, insecurity and displacement contribute to the problem.  The intersection of the pandemic and hunger sets the stage for the politicization of urgent humanitarian assistance, particularly food. Around the world, leaders who are insecure about their own popularity and legitimacy often compensate by placing a high priority on projecting strength and control. These leaders may be particularly anxious about responding to COVID-19. The threat is difficult to counter and it resists permanent solutions, foreclosing opportunities to bask in the glow of victory. Worse still, the devastating economic fallout is inescapable. The temptation to project and consolidate power by controlling the very means of survival, access to food, may well be too powerful to resist. Already, NGOs on the ground in Zimbabwe have brought attention to food aid distribution being controlled by the ruling ZANU-PF party, which has a history of using food to shore up support. The past week also saw the arrest of a member of Parliament from the country’s main opposition party for violating the lockdown to distribute food. Zimbabweans were already struggling with negative growth and hyperinflation. Nearly 90% of Zimbabweans work in the informal economy, and they are now being cut off from their means of survival by lockdown policies intended to stop the spread of the virus. In this context of desperation, the ruling party may well be able to strengthen its hand, despite the ample evidence of its mismanagement and internal disarray, simply by positioning itself as a gatekeeper to food. Similarly in Uganda, an independent member of Parliament was recently arrested for distributing food to his constituents in contravention of presidential directives to channel all food aid through a national taskforce formed by President Museveni. While it is easy to see how uncoordinated distribution of critical supplies can lead to risky social proximity and undermine efforts to tamp down disease transmission, it is equally easy to see the political upside to President Museveni and his party of ensuring that no one associated with the growing opposition can help Ugandans cope with hunger. Of course, the politicization of assistance is not a new phenomenon. But the combination of draconian social controls associated with the COVID-19 response and the urgency of food insecurity in the region may foster particularly egregious examples going forward.
  • Uganda
    Troubling Trends for Youth in Uganda’s Democracy
    Ugandans are scheduled to head to the polls early next year to select a president, parliamentarians, and local officials. But recent reports suggest that a shockingly large number of young Ugandans will simply not be able to participate in the election—a notable irony in one of the world’s youngest countries, where some 77 percent of the population is under the age of twenty-five. Uganda’s Electoral Commission has declined to pursue an extended voter registration period aimed at first-time voters, which was requested by some members of parliament. That means that well over a million Ugandans who will have reached the age of enfranchisement when the election occurs will not be able to express their will at the ballot box. Apparently the largest voting block in the country is not a sufficient priority for election officials.  Young Ugandans may well see this as another element in the government’s often violent campaign to neutralize the political threat represented by MP Robert Kyagulanyi—better known as Bobi Wine—and his People Power movement, which has a large youth following. While harassing opposition politicians has become something of a tradition in Uganda, Wine represents a new, generational challenge to seventy-five-year-old President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in office since 1986. Authorities have repeatedly arrested Wine and his supporters, prevented him from holding public meetings, and intervened to stop journalists from covering him. But this issue also points to a larger problem throughout the region. Africa is astonishingly young, but its young adults are voting less than other citizens. The future is not being charted by those who will actually live with the consequences of today’s decisions. Lines of accountability between voters and political leaders, along with the rule of law and access to independent media, are crucial elements in making democracy work. Africa is not immune to global dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working. Those who wish to see democracy thrive on the continent must work urgently to reduce the barriers to young people’s participation and tackle the complex issues of mistrust and exclusion so corrosive to peace and development. 
  • Uganda
    Uganda Renews Clampdown on the LGBT Community
    Neil Edwards is the volunteer intern for CFR's Africa Program in Washington, DC. He is a master's candidate at the School of International Service at American University and a returned Peace Corps Rwanda volunteer. On November 11, police in Uganda arrested 125 members of the LGBT community. The Kampala police assert that the Ram Bar, which is frequented by the LGBT community, is a hot spot for smoking opium and shisha. Although reports suggest that only a few were smoking, those arrested were charged with violating the Tobacco Control Act, which outlaws smoking with a shisha water pipe, among other things. They face imprisonment for up to six months. Those arrested deny the charges, claiming that they were distributing condoms and anti-retroviral drugs to prevent the spread of HIV. The raid is the second of this month—part of a renewed crackdown on the LGBT community. In February 2014, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Under the law, those convicted of “homosexual acts” faced seven years to life in prison. The law also included provisions that extradite Ugandan nationals living outside of the country and extradite them back to Uganda to receive sentencing. The law elicited international outrage and governments withheld aid to Uganda. In part due to this international pressure, in August 2014, the Constitutional Court of Uganda ruled the act invalid on procedural grounds.   Even without the draconian legislation, homosexuality is still illegal in Uganda under the penal code established by the British during colonial rule. According to that law, “whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment…for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall be liable to fine.” The current penal code, established in 1990, punishes intercourse with “any person against the order of nature.”    In 2007, the Ugandan LGBT community was estimated to be 500,000 people, about 1.6 percent of the population. More recent data are difficult to gather because many Ugandans are scared to identify as a member of the LGBT community. Members face frequent harassment, sometimes violent and often by state officials. This makes it difficult for them to make use of government services, find employment, and access healthcare. In politically repressive and authoritarian Uganda, citizens face limitations to their freedom of speech, making it difficult to educate the LGBT community about health, let alone host a gay pride parade.  Reports indicate that there have been recent increased levels of violence and discrimination against the LGBT community. Human Rights Watch reported that sixteen detainees were forced to undergo anal examinations following a raid in October. Police have also searched the houses of suspected members of the LGBT community, confiscating condoms, lubricant, and anti-retroviral medicine, and charged them with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.”  Weeks before this latest crackdown, MPs introduced new legislation similar to the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act. In this newer version, the death penalty was reintroduced (it had been scrapped from earlier versions) and extended to those supporting the LGBT community. International pressure is again needed to protect the legal and social rights of the LGBT community and stop this bill from becoming law.   
  • Rwanda
    Kagame’s Spat With Museveni Is Costing Rwandans
    Neil Edwards is the volunteer intern for CFR's Africa Program in Washington, DC. He is a master's candidate at the School of International Service at American University and a returned Peace Corps Rwanda volunteer. On November 10, Rwandan security forces shot dead two Ugandan nationals accused of smuggling tobacco across the border. Smuggling has become more common after Rwanda closed its border with Uganda in late February amid a dispute between Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. The deterioration of Kagame’s and Museveni’s relationship has led to job losses among traders, higher commodity prices, and has left communities with few option other than to turn to the risky business of smuggling. For decades, Kagame and Museveni fought side by side, toppling Ugandan dictator Milton Obote via military coup in 1986 and overthrowing Mobutu Seko in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997. Kagame, who trained in Tanzania as a spy, became Museveni’s head of military intelligence and close confidant. In return, Museveni aided Kagame’s rise to power, incubating Rwandan refugees that eventually formed the Rwanda Patriotic Front. With the backing of Museveni, Kagame invaded Rwanda, ending the 1994 genocide.  A quarter century later, the relationship between these erstwhile allies has deteriorated. In October 2017, the Ugandan government initiated a crackdown on Ugandan police officials, accusing them of being Rwandan spies. The latest spat is driven by Kagame, who has accused Uganda of arresting and torturing Rwandan nationals. Kagame also asserts that Museveni is supporting the Rwandan National Congress and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, whom Kagame perceives are intent on overthrowing his regime. If the relationship does not improve, analysts fear that this feud could result in proxy conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has sprung up previously as a result of private disagreements.  Though the two leaders agreed to reopen their borders in August, Rwanda has effectively kept it closed, citing construction work. Further, the Rwandan government has issued a travel advisory strongly recommended that Rwandan nations not travel to Uganda. Reports suggest that that licit trade is nearly non-existent, and Uganda has accused Rwanda of implementing a trade embargo.  The border closure has compromised tens of millions of dollars in trade between the two countries. The immediate victims are small-scale and wholesale traders, who rely on buying items at cheaper prices on one side of the border and making a profit by selling them at a higher price on the other. Without these intermediaries, the comparative advantage of each country’s product pricing is lost, hurting both the national economies and the consumers who rely on those price points.  According to each country’s Consumer Price Index reports, prices in Rwanda, especially in rural areas, have risen more than in Uganda. They have risen about 1.5 percent each month in Rwanda, totaling over seven percent since February, when the border was closed. In rural areas, prices have risen ten percent over that period. These rising prices have taken a toll, especially for those living in rural poverty. In contrast, food prices in Uganda have only increased by four percent and overall prices by only two percent. Rwanda’s decision to close its border has hurt its own people more than Ugandans. Kagame’s leadership has resulted in remarkable development feats since the 1994 genocide. However, his current decision to keep the borders closed is a blemish on his development record—costing the country jobs and inflating prices. If Kagame’s and Museveni’s relationship continues to deteriorate, prices will continue to rise, further hurting the purchasing power of Rwandans. 
  • Uganda
    How Will China React to Uganda’s Looming Debt Crisis?
    Neil Edwards is the volunteer intern for CFR's Africa Program in Washington, DC. He is a master's candidate at the School of International Service at American University and is a returned Peace Corps Rwanda volunteer. Uganda is heading toward a debt crisis. According to a senior official at the Bank of Uganda, unless the country is able to sustain a growth rate of at least 7 percent—which economic projections show Uganda will not do—the country will default on its payments. As is the case for many African countries, China is Uganda’s largest creditor, making up 39 percent of total debt this past fiscal year. If Uganda defaults, it is unclear how China will react. Will China flex its muscles and negotiate for the rights to Uganda’s sovereign assets like it did in Sri Lanka, or ease the debt pressure, by restructuring Uganda’s loans over a longer time period as it did in Ethiopia?   Generally speaking, foreign governments and international financial institutions are hesitant to make loans to Uganda. They remain skeptical that Uganda will be able to honor them—except, apparently, China. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni recently admitted that China is the only partner that would agree to lend Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya $3.5 billion to construct a series of railways and roads. In addition, China is financing a $4 billion oil pipeline, currently under construction, that will connect the western region of Uganda to the port in Tanga, Tanzania—giving the landlocked country access to the Indian Ocean. Many of China’s loans to Sub-Saharan Africa can be seen in the context of China’s belt and road initiative.  China has reacted differently to each country’s individual debt crisis. At one end of the spectrum, China allegedly uses its leverage to gain strategic and material concessions if a debtor country is unable to pay their debts, exemplified by Sri Lanka handing over control of the Hambantota Port to China for ninety-nine years. China's alleged practice of debt-trap diplomacy, as it has been dubbed, has been hotly debated, though there seems to be a consensus that their lending practices are problematic. At the other end, China works with governments to restructure loans over a longer time period—often forgiving past interest payments—as illustrated by China’s twenty-year-loan extension to Ethiopia.  Completed in 2010, the Hambantota port did not draw enough ships to make the operations economically feasible. By July 2015, Sri Lanka could not service its payments. Consequently, in order to avoid defaulting on its debt, the government relinquished control of the port to China for nearly a century. Uganda’s auditor general report warns that the conditions of their loans similarly threaten the country’s sovereign assets. If the economic predictions hold and the country defaults on its payments to China, Uganda’s infrastructure projects might face a similar fate.  Ethiopia faces a similar debt crisis, linked in large part to the Chinese-financed, $4 billion Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway. Opened in January 2018, the railway intended to expand Ethiopia’s export market by connecting its capital to the sea via Djibouti. But Ethiopia is importing more than it is exporting via the railway, not generating the revenue needed to service its debt to China. In response, China renegotiated the terms of the loan with Ethiopia to extend the payments over a longer period of time.  Based on China’s approach to Ethiopia and the similarity of its infrastructure projects connecting Uganda to the sea, it is more likely that China will work with Uganda to extend the repayment terms of the loans. There is speculation that China sought control of the Hambantota port because it is strategically important. According to some analysts, the port should be thought of as part of a string of pearls—China’s plan to have a line of ports stretching from Beijing to the Persian Gulf. Viewed this way, the Hambantota port is of much more strategic significance to China than Ethiopia’s and Uganda’s railways. Finally, internal and external criticism of China's lending practices are likely to encourage a more constructive approach to debtor countries.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
    Keeping an Eye on Uganda’s Stability
    Recently, Ugandan civil society organizations warned about the likelihood of increasing political violence leading up to the country’s 2021 general elections. Disturbing incidents of opposition figures like Bobi Wine being arrested and beaten, journalists being punished for covering those who challenge the state, and people associated with the new political opposition, like Michael Kalinda, being abducted, tortured, and even killed certainly support the case for sounding the alarm.  Uganda is not doomed; it’s an impressive country in many respects and countless Ugandans are interested in working together to build a peaceful, more democratic, and prosperous future. But over the course of Museveni’s 33-year governing tenure, clientelism and intolerance for political challenges that resist co-option have become prominent features of the state. Realistic plans for the future have to grapple with the possibility that instability will grow, and that the end of 75-year-old President Museveni’s tenure, however it comes, will be a catalyst for violent competition as entrenched interests resist change. It is not at all clear that the United States is prepared for the possibility of a Ugandan unraveling. As the largest troop contributing country to the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, Uganda has been a critically important partner in combating al-Shabab and supporting the fragile government in Mogadishu. Uganda also currently hosts over a million refugees, more than any other African state. If Uganda is destabilized, the potential for contagion in an already volatile region is substantial, particularly for neighbors like South Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One hopes a range of contingencies are being thought out, and that energetic diplomacy is working to tip the scales towards peaceful, positive outcomes for Uganda and the region. The worst thing the United States could do would be to assume the status quo will persist.
  • Uganda
    Uganda's Bobi Wine Brings Attention to Museveni's Repressive Politics
    Recent events have shone an international spotlight on Uganda, where the government’s treatment of parliamentarian and musician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, is bringing new attention to the repressive nature of Ugandan politics, and new energy to those resisting the status quo. He recently arrived in the United States to seek medical treatment for injuries allegedly sustained while in government custody. A by-election held on August 15 in volatile northwestern Uganda to replace a member of parliament who had been assassinated in June triggered the current crisis. Campaigning had been contentious, and Ugandan authorities deployed a heavy security presence to the area in the immediate preelection period. President Museveni traveled to the region to support the ruling party candidate, while Kyagulanyi and others were in the area to stump for their preferred choices. On August 13, rock-throwing demonstrators triggered a violent reaction from security forces, leading to beatings, the fatal shooting of Kyagulanyi’s driver, and the arrest of Kyagulanyi and other opposition figures. Thus far, the case does not inspire great confidence in the Ugandan judicial system. First, Kyagulanyi and others were charged by a military tribunal with illegal possession of weapons. Their court appearances have been harrowing, as many appear to have been mistreated in detention, a charge the government denies. When the military charges were dropped, they were immediately replaced by charges of treason in civilian court. Within Uganda, demonstrations and riots erupted in protest, and journalists covering them have been beaten along with participants. While Kyagulanyi and others were granted bail on August 27, they remain in legal jeopardy.  Kyagulanyi’s treatment once again exposes the Ugandan government’s intolerance of dissent and its tendency to conflate political opposition and challenges to the status quo with threats to state security. Of course, this is not a new development; opposition politicians in Uganda have routinely been arrested on highly questionable charges, as the many legal trials of opposition leader Kizza Besigye demonstrate.  But two factors make the Bobi Wine crisis different from what Uganda has seen before. First, Kyagulanyi’s relatively youthful thirty-six-years of age make for a pointed contrast with Museveni, who, at seventy-four, has been leading Uganda since Kyagulanyi was about four. The frustrations of Uganda’s tremendously youthful population are easily channeled into anger over the persecution of the young MP. Moreover, his status as a pop culture influencer and artist brings the realities of Uganda’s authoritarian politics to a much wider and different domestic and international constituency than those who have traditionally followed Ugandan politics. He has triggered interest and activism from other musicians and creative professionals beyond Uganda’s borders, not least through the #freebobiwine social media campaign.  In Uganda, new influencers are emerging and inserting themselves into a previously predictable political dynamic. President Museveni seems to be betting he can maintain control until oil revenues come online and make it easier for the government to deliver more to its frustrated young people. Whether or not he is right bears close watching.