Political pressure keeps President away from annual gathering since 2017
Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | On the week beginning Sept. 19, world leaders will descend on the United Nations headquarters in New York, U.S. for the 77th General Assembly. But President Yoweri Museveni will not be part of them. Vice President Jessica Alupo will lead the Ugandan delegation, Okello Oryem, minister of state for foreign affairs, told The Independent.
The decision means Museveni has stayed away from the annual event since 2017. In 2018, it was speculated that Museveni skipped the event after the torture of opposition star Bobi Wine by security forces sparked an international outcry in global capitals and on social media.
The detention and torture of Bobi Wine after a hotly contested by-election in Arua in August 2018 culminated in widespread condemnation of the Ugandan government and for Museveni personally. Bobi was arrested alongside 33 other opposition politicians and supporters and charged with treason.
Perhaps wary of a hostile reception at an event with many sympathetic to the youthful and budding opposition politician who had only clocked a year as MP representing Kyadondo East, Museveni dispatched then Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda to represent the country at the 73rd UN General Assembly.
Just days before the UN gathering, Bobi Wine was making news in the U.S. where he had gone for medical treatment following the beating and torture he went through while in the custody of Ugandan authorities.
With his US-based Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam, Bobi Wine addressed a press conference in Washington D.C. that was aired on networks like Al Jazeera further bolstering the frenzy he was creating in the West as the new poster boy of opposition to Museveni’s long reign. In contrast while speaking about the torture incident, Museveni said Bobi Wine had been “beaten properly in the right way.”
For Museveni, it was sending a message that he was not about to back down in the fight against a new opponent while for Bobi Wine and his backers. It was a testament of what they were up against. The latter were also not relenting.
“The military equipment we (referring to the U.S.) are supplying to Uganda is being used in a war of terror against Uganda’s citizens,” Amsterdam told journalists. He warned those involved in torture of opposition politicians saying they could be barred from travelling abroad or holding property outside Uganda under the provisions of the Global Magnitsky Act, an American law, aimed at those who violate human rights across the world.
The events of 2018 appeared to have shaped Museveni’s decision on future attendances. In 2019, Prime Minister Rugunda reprised his role at the annual event while Uganda hosted the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference.
Impact of sanctions
At the time, Oryem, state minister for foreign affairs told The Independent that Museveni could not travel to New York for the UN General Assembly because of the Commonwealth conference but the President was also dealing with a diplomatic crisis that had just landed on his desk: the U.S. sanctioning of Gen. Kale Kayihura, the former Inspector General of Police (IGP), and an erstwhile close ally of Museveni.
The former police chief was sanctioned weeks to the UN General Assembly. He was sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for his role in various human rights abuses including torture of opposition actors.
In his response to the sanctions, Museveni displayed his not so subtle disdain for visiting the U.S. “Why do they (elements of the opposition) think that going to the USA or, indeed, any non-African country is so important that if you are not allowed there, it will amount to a painful punishment?” he asked.
Museveni hit out at the sanctions directly. “For Kale (Kayihura) or other Ugandans who are suspected to have made mistakes, they will always be handled in Uganda. That is why we shall never hand any Ugandan to, for instance, the Court in The Hague – the ICC,” he said.
Museveni stressed that Kayihura was already facing charges in Uganda and the country did not need pressure from “external actors”. In his speech to the delegates attending the Commonwealth conference, Museveni pressed the same message on non-interference in domestic issues. “It is wiser for the World leaders to respect the internal systems of each country and influence others by example,” he said using a mixture of Runyankore sayings and biblical verses to drive the point home.
“If our practices are correct, they will thrive and spread. If they are wrong, they will collapse. It is not necessary to generate crisis on account of differences in ideology. Let there be peaceful competition among different ideas.”
Unfortunately for Museveni, more trouble was on the way. The killings of hundreds of protestors in November 2020 in Kampala also brought enormous diplomatic pressure for the government. The U.S. Congress advocated for sanctions on those implicated in the killings of more than a hundred Ugandans who were protesting the arrest of Bobi Wine during the presidential campaign.
In April 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, announced travel restrictions on “those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda, including during the country’s January 14 general elections and the campaign period that preceded it.”
Then in December 2021, former CMI chief, Maj. Gen. Kandiho was sanctioned by the U.S. for his role in the kidnap and torture of Museveni opponents before and after the 2021 presidential elections. He is currently Joint Chief of Staff in the Uganda Police Force. The loop of sanctions has left Ugandan officials including Museveni in a pickle.
This year’s UN General Assembly is the first fully in-person event since the pandemic broke out two years ago. And for Museveni who just turned 78, Covid-19 is not the reason he is staying away. In 2020 and 2021, Museveni addressed the UN General Assembly virtually.
At the 2021 edition which was a hybrid event, supporters of the National Unity Platform (NUP), Bobi Wine’s party, turned up in crowds outside the UN headquarters in New York to demonstrate against President Museveni and the Ugandan government for the arrests, kidnaps and torture happening in the country since 2020.
Dressed in their red party colours, the protestors blew horns and held placards inscribed on ‘Uganda is bleeding’ while also displaying images of the Ugandans who have been injured and killed by security forces in the protests in recent years.
Some of the NUP figures who attended the 2021 protests outside the UN headquarters include Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake, Fred Nyanzi Ssentamu, a brother to Bobi Wine and a Kampala Central MP aspirant, and Herman Ainebyona, NUP diaspora leader.
The protests made headlines as the NUP movement scored another point in its campaign on the state of injustice back home where kidnaps and torture have relented 21 months after the January 2021 election where Bobi Wine challenged President Museveni in arguably the most violent election held in Uganda.
In the past two years, the relationship between the U.S. and the Ugandan government has been further strained. The U.S. dominates UN affairs by virtue of being its largest funder. Because the country hosts the headquarters of the 193-member state body, it can determine who attends the highly billed event. Although the UN headquarters is often classified as “international territory” it is on U.S. soil, giving it leverage over who attends.
Reuters reported that the U.S. granted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a visa to travel to New York for the meeting of world leaders. Russia had asked for 56 visas but only 24 were granted for the Russian delegation. Relations between the two countries have been at the lowest since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Museveni however has had UN baggage to deal even from his own camp. The stay of former foreign affairs minister Sam Kutesa in cabinet seemed to be untenable after he was implicated in a U.S. bribery case in 2017. Kutesa was an associate of Patrick Ho, a Chinese government official, who was convicted by a U.S. court in 2018 for international bribery and money laundering offences.
Ho was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail for his role in a “multi-year, multimillion-dollar scheme” to bribe top officials of Chad and Uganda in exchange for business advantages for CEFC China Energy Company Limited (“CEFC China”).
Ho was convicted of violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), money laundering, and conspiracy to commit the same. The bribe was $500,000 and court documents revealed that Ho, who was a top Hong Kong official, used the cover of a U.S. based NGO to wire the cash.
At the time of the bribery scandal, Kutesa was the President of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly for 2014/2015. The scandal dented Uganda and Museveni’s standing in the UN community.
After initially defending his longtime minister against the act, Museveni bit the bullet and dropped Kutesa when he named a new cabinet in 2021. Kutesa never went back to the UN since the infamous case.
Pressure in Uganda
For Museveni, political pressure at home and a narrowing circle of allies in the West have kept him away from the annual gathering of heads of state since 2017.
A bloody crackdown on the opposition, the sanctioning of Uganda’s security top brass, and an aggressive lobbying machine by the opposition in Uganda and in the diaspora– all related factors–have weakened Museveni’s hand on the diplomatic front. Relations between the U.S. and Uganda remain steady- not warm but not too distant either, creating a paradox where Museveni weighs his options carefully so as not to rock the boat.
It is not unusual for Museveni to lambast the West for attempting to lecture him on democracy and governance only for him to meet U.S. envoys in private to offer his reassurances. At his swearing-in ceremony for his seventh term in May 2021, Museveni castigated the U.S. and Europe for the constant lectures in a strongly worded speech where he also said the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhaffi should not have given up easily in the 2011 uprising that toppled him.
Six days later, Museveni met the American ambassador and appeared to make amends. “I had a meeting with the US Ambassador to Uganda, H.E Natalie Brown, accompanied by Amb. Adonia Ayebare. We discussed issues of mutual interest. She also delivered to me a special message from H.E Joe Biden, the President of the United States of America,” Museveni’s Twitter account tweeted on May 18, 2021.
As the UN prepares for its 77th General Assembly, the Ugandan delegation led by Vice President Jessica Alupo is likely to be met with more protests as the country experiences a new spate of kidnaps and arrest of NUP supporters.
On Sept. 2, Bobi Wine announced that Teddy Nalubowa, who “unapologetically supports NUP” was kidnapped by armed operatives from her home in Nansana, Wakiso district. “In the past, many female supporters have been subjected to torture and sexual assault,” Bobi Wine said in a Twitter post.
According to Bobi Wine and other NUP leaders like Lewis Rubongoya, the party secretary general, Nalubowa was held incommunicado for thirteen days. Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) was believed to be behind the kidnapping of Nalubowa aka Tracy Bobiholic as it was behind kidnaps in the last two years.
Nalubowa, a TikToker, was hauled in court without lawyers and charged with offensive communication. Nalubowa is a statistic of a new spate of kidnaps but with same modus operandi that has terrified the nation. A fast moving minibus with armed men infamously known as a ‘drone’ swooping in on an unsuspecting target who is whisked away and held incommunicado for days leaving their next of kin in distress.
Others allegedly kidnapped this September include Motiv Kasagga, Jakaana Nadduli. Others said to be victims of state kidnaps in the recent past include Moses Kibirango (Seguku Market), Emmanuel Mukasa (Entebbe), Dickens Omulongo (Bwebajja), Edward Serukenya (Bweyogerere), Davis Walugembe(Kyebando), Gordon Byenkya (Kyanja), Stephen Mukasa (Busega), Dan Kibuuka (Makindye), Vincent Kawuki (Kapeeka), Sula Muguluma (Mukono).
Prominent NUP legislators have not been spared in the onslaught. On Sept. 7, MPS; Muhammad Ssegirinya and Allan Ssewanyana marked a year in jail on charges of murder and terrorism. The two MPs were jailed in connection with the gruesome Masaka killings that shocked the nation last year. The two have been repeatedly denied bail and in court sessions, their co- accused have said they were tortured to pin the two MPs whose constituents have been left to the mercy of higher authorities.
A vibrant opposition and the subsequent crackdown by the state has created a vicious cycle where more top Ugandan officials are targeted by U.S. sanctions which in turn leads to more state violence.
With a NUP dominated diaspora and formidable opposition at home, the jury is out on whether Museveni, a former darling of the West, can make a comeback to the UN General Assembly both literally and figuratively.