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Obama’s Kenya visit raises questions about US-Uganda relations

By Haggai Matsiko

Govt, U.S. Mission say two countries maintain strong relations

Even before U.S. President Barack Obama concluded his visit to the Ethiopian Capital, Addis Ababa, after his grand visit to Kenya, youth supporters of Presidential contender, Amama Mbabazi, chose the U.S. Mission headquarters in Kampala on July 27 to demonstrate against President Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year reign.  In the ensuing melee, Uganda Police agents got engaged in running battles with them and dragged some of them from the gate of the mission. If the youths wanted to expose the police over human rights abuses with Obama still in Africa, as their leader claimed, they could not have put up a better show before the cameras.

Apart from corruption, human rights concerns are what has tended to strain U.S.-Uganda relations. For some now, the relationship between the two countries has weakened and that might explain why President Obama did not consider visiting Uganda during his presidency.


Obama had previously snubbed Kenya because President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his Vice President, William Ruto were facing war crimes charges before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Although Ruto still faces the charges, Kenyatta’s were dropped, for many, clearing way for Obama to visit the land where his father was born.

Obama was in Kenya to attend the U.S. sponsored Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), which brought hundreds of U.S. investors to Kenya but he also used the opportunity to reconnect with his father’s extended family and Kenyans, who see him as a son of the soil. From Kenya, Obama went to Ethiopia for more bilateral meetings and to visit the African Union.

Given that Uganda is a key U.S. strategic partner, particularly through its contribution to the African Union Mission in Somalia and other security regional interventions, many had hoped that Obama would follow in the footsteps of the previous two U.S. Presidents—George  W. Bush and Bill Clinton—to visit Uganda.

Obama didn’t. Although he spoke severally about the U.S’s determination to continue support to AMISOM, he did not mention Uganda as a strategic ally in Somalia or South Sudan which is another area of interest to the U.S. in which Uganda is playing a leading pacification role.

Instead, Kenya which is East Africa’s largest economy was feted. It is the third country Obama was visiting after his trip to Ghana and neighboring Tanzania, which is also the region’s second largest economy.

Both Kenya and Tanzania have attracted a lot of interest from China because of their economic potential. Tanzania has recently discovered huge gas deposits and Kenya on top of oil, has made huge technological and infrastructural investments opening itself up for the international investor. Some claim, the U.S. wanted a piece of the action.

However, given that Uganda has also discovered about 6.5 billion barrels of oil and remains the most significant security regional partner, it appears to some as if Obama just  snubbed East Africa’s third largest economy.

It is not hard to understand why some people would feel that way. Both President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, said at the beginning of last year that the U.S. would review relations with Uganda following the passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February the same year.

Even when the Constitutional Court nullified the law on the basis of the fact that it had been passed without quorum, the Uganda Police operatives did not help matters by raiding the Makerere University Walter Reed Project (MUWRP)—a U.S. funded research facility based at Makerere University sparking a diplomatic standoff.

Matters were not helped by the fact that President Museveni was busy praising North Korea, getting North Koreans to train police here and promising Russia business.

Early this year, the government awarded the contract to construct the oil refinery to the consortium led by Russia’s Rostec—whose head has been sanctioned by the U.S.

U.S. Ambassador, Scott DeLisi, in a response to a question by this reporter, said that all these things “have not affected the relationship with Uganda over all”.

“We recognise that Uganda as a sovereign nation has dealings with many countries around the world, these are choices that every nation has to make,” he said. Then he added “it is not my job to tell the government of Uganda with whom they can engage and cannot but it is my job to share with the government U.S. policy, U.S. concerns if there are any and to define the nature of our partnership, so that is what we focus on.”

In the same breath, responding to a question about Obama’s recent visit, Lisa Larson, the acting spokesperson of the U.S. Mission in Kampala, explained to The Independent in an email response that this was President Obama’s fourth trip to sub-Saharan Africa – the most of any sitting U.S. president – and the first time a sitting U.S. president was visiting Kenya, Ethiopia, or the AU.

“The President and the American people have a broad and deep relationship with many African countries,” Larson explained, “We regret that the President cannot travel to every country in Africa; but our longstanding commitment remains to all of our African partners, and to the people of Africa, as we look to deepen our partnership with nations across the region.”

Larson added:

“The U.S. and Uganda have a strong partnership, we maintain a vibrant relationship with the people of Uganda, and our mutual commitments are cemented in many areas of cooperation and understanding, including health, security, governance, and economic growth.”

Indeed, in the fiscal year 2013, total U.S. government assistance to Uganda was approximately $723 million.  This includes $323 million for PEPFAR programs, $116 million for other (non-PEPFAR) health programs, $153 million for other foreign assistance (including, but not limited to, USAID’s Feed the Future program, environmental programs, and educational programs), $129 million in military assistance, and $1 million in assistance through Peace Corps programs.

U.S. records show that over 400,000 Ugandans receive life-saving antiretroviral treatment funded by U.S. assistance and Uganda is also eligible for preferential trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Early this year, the White House announced the deployment of CV-22 Osprey vertical lift aircraft, refueling planes, and 150 Air Force personnel to Uganda. Already, 100 US special operations troops have been advising African forces in the hunt for LRA rebel leader Joseph Kony since 2011.

It is these that Okuonzi Sam Agatre, the chairman, parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, bases on to insist that the U.S. maintains strong bilateral relations with Uganda although Obama did not visit.

“Obama has not gone to many African countries,” the legislator said, “that does not mean that he U.S. does not have good relations with them. He cannot visit all of them.”

Okuonzi added that President Obama recognises the role President Museveni plays in the region and that this was clear in the meetings and the audience President Museveni was given during the U.S.- Africa leader’s summit last year.

Indeed, while in Addis Ababa on July 27, Obama met with Museveni for a round table discussion with other regional leaders.

Ambassador Adam Mugume, Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary also said that government does not see Obama’s failure to visit Uganda as a snub.

“We have strong relations with the U.S.,” Ambassador Mugume said, “We have strong partnerships on security and development.”

Mugume explained that Uganda plays a major role in regional security, which was discussed in Ethiopia and that it is good that these issues were discussed at that level where the AU have established the African Peace architecture.

Over all, Mugume said, Africans should all be happy about Obama’s home coming and not begrudging Kenya.

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