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US visa ban: Museveni stuck with diplomatically damaged goods

Sam Kutesa and Gen. Kale Kayihura

Museveni stuck with ‘diplomatically damaged goods’

Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | Since the U.S. government announced visa restrictions on unnamed top Ugandan officials on April 16, the main question among Uganda’s ruling class has been “who is on the unwanted list?”.

Political commentator and outspoken Makerere University Kampala don, Mwambutysa Ndebesa, says the visa restriction could have an influence on who gets on President Yoweri Museveni’s next cabinet to be announced in May.

Ndebesa says the visa bans could mean that Museveni, who often uses cabinet appointments to reward those loyal to him, might this time not appoint them for fear of being snubbed at the American visa office.

According to Ndebesa, Museveni might appoint those under or suspected to be under sanctions to obscure ministries of local political mobilisation or relegate them to remote roles of presidential advisors.

“He may have to think twice about it, you need people to lobby for aid and those who would be acceptable in partnerships,” he adds, “he needs to deal with it because you need foreign contacts and people to deal with investors but he also wants to show that he is a sovereign.”

Ndebesa also argues Museveni might swing the other way.

“The president may try to find out those who are on notice but he may also appoint people regardless to reward them for defending the system at all costs.”

The failure by Museveni to use his influence to find out who is under a travel restriction based on the move by the U.S. State department is already causing headaches for those working for the government. The visa ban has left the president in a situation where he is stuck with diplomatically damaged goods.

Okello Oryem, the minister of state for International Affairs, while appearing on a talk show on April 21 said the U.S. should come clean on those affected.

“Up to now, they have not named those who are affected by these visa restrictions which means they are not sure. They rushed into making a decision they have not thought through.”

Opondo shared Oryem’s sentiments while responding to a Twitter query on the issue. “No.  @GovUganda hasn’t been formally notified. @usmissionuganda @StateDept hasn’t disclosed the identities of the officials or specific incidents or offences. It would be helpful if they so, assuming they have their facts rights.”

The American visa ban decision was based on recent political convulsions in Uganda where an estimated 54 people were killed by security forces during protests triggered by the arrest of presidential candidate Bobi Wine in November 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced the 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.”

And since the visa restrictions named no one in particular but “top Ugandan officials”, it already left Museveni’s top aides second guessing who among them is being targeted by the U.S.

The announced visa restrictions came less than a month to Museveni’s swearing in ceremony and they could mean trouble for Museveni’s new cabinet.

Commentators say Museveni could be in a spot of bother regarding the country’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa, a close relative who has held that spot in the cabinet for the last 16 years. The 72-year old diplomat is viewed by some as a pariah internationally but Museveni has clung to him.

Meanwhile the government of Uganda has been doing a lot of firefighting for its reputation internationally and there is unease in some sections of government on keeping Kutesa at the helm of foreign affairs with his baggage.

But Ibrahim Semujju Nganda, MP for Kira Municipality and opposition firebrand, told The Independent that Museveni, not Kutesa, is the liability.

“The cabinet does not bother me as a person. Whether Museveni works with Kutesa or anybody else, it does not matter. Who is clean in Museveni’s cabinet?”

The blanket visa ban means a number of Ugandan officials could suffer the same fate as Pius Bigirimana, Secretary of the Judiciary, who was denied a U.S. visa together with apparatchiks of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) in 2019.

This means anyone ranging from UPDF Generals and the coterie of Museveni aides influential in decision making could be in the dragnet.

At the time, Opondo had a similar request to the U.S.  “If there are people being squeezed because they stole money and stashed it there (outside Uganda), that is good, but the problem is, they (US) are not telling us who the blacklisted officials are.” He was quoted by The Observer.

“The suspected criminals whether corrupt or facing human rights violations should be availed to us, they (US) should provide us with reasons and evidence so that we can deal with them here. We want them to name and shame these officials,” Opondo added.

Around the same time in 2019, then U.S. embassy spokesperson Phil Dimon told The Independent that the American government does not make decisions based on “political ebbs and flows” but rather on U.S. law. “Visa records are confidential under U.S. law; therefore, for privacy reasons the U.S. government does not comment on individual visa cases,” Dimon said.

As government officials like Okello Oryem and Opondo continue rapping the U.S. for failing to name the affected individuals, the U.S. state department is instead promising to add more names to the list.

“The U.S. Government will continue to evaluate additional actions against individuals complicit in undermining democracy and human rights in Uganda, as well as their immediate family members.” Blinken said in his statement.

And the ping pong between the government of Uganda and the U.S. state department picked up from where it left two months ago.

Unlike in the recent past when Kutesa’s deputy, Okello Oryem or Opondo issued rounds of statements responding to diplomats, Kutesa in the last few days has taken on an active responsibility of handling tiffs with Western diplomats particularly the U.S.

The move by Kutesa, who is believed to be under a U.S. visa restriction himself, has raised eyebrows.

Just a few days earlier on April 13, Kutesa convened heads of missions in Uganda of the permanent members of the UN security council (P5); US, UK, Russia, China, France and told them explicitly that there were no abductions going on in the country as widely reported. The Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and the European Union Head of Mission in Uganda were part of the meeting.

In his response, Kutesa also targeted the recently released U.S. human rights report on Uganda titled ‘2020 Country Reports on Human Rights practices: Uganda’ that was released on March 30.

In a quick rebuttal Kutesa fired back, “The government objects to the false impression in this report that Ugandan security officers are a law unto themselves and whenever they make mistakes in their line of duty, they are never apprehended.” Kutesa was reacting to a statement by the US after a couple of years of staying away from any official response to the US on diplomatic affairs.

Kutesa sent the strongly worded statement to the Ugandan Ambassador to the U.S. according to Ofwono Opondo, the government spokesperson.

Kutesa said: “We therefore take exception to the characterisation of ordinary security arrests in this report as kidnaps and forced disappearances. It is important to underline that anyone suspected of wrongdoing in Uganda is guaranteed due process.”

Kutesa declined calls for comment on the re-emergence in his role after a few lukewarm years.  Some speculate that Kutesa’s firm stance could be an attempt to keep his prized spot in Museveni’s cabinet. Kutesa did not contest again for his seat in Mawogola North, fronting his daughter Shartsi Kutesa. This also left observers wondering what his next move could be.

Kutesa had been remarkably silent on that front since December 2018, when a U.S. court convicted Patrick Ho, a Chinese government official who Kutesa was associated with, 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 from Ho to Kutesa 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 Kutesa received the bribe from Ho, he was the President of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly for 2014/2015. As a longtime confidante of Museveni and his right hand man on the international scene, Kutesa’s power had reached a crescendo.

“They can easily embarrass him,” a highly placed diplomatic source told The Independent about Kutesa, a few months before the conviction of Ho. The source was reacting to questions of Kutesa’s diplomatic stumbles with the US and if he can step on U.S. soil in the wake of the bribery scandal.

Matters got worse for Kutesa when in September 2019, the U.S. placed sanctions on Gen. Kale Kayihura, former Inspector General of Police, for alleged torture and corrupt practices. Kutesa kept mum and the damage control was left to the likes of Oryem, Opondo and their sidekicks.

The situation was not any different when American officials mooted similar courses of action against security commanders during the turbulent presidential election campaign in 2020 when the state shot dead at those protesting the arrest of Bobi Wine, President Yoweri Museveni’s main rival for State House.

Even on the Uganda-Rwanda row which has festered for three years now, Adonia Ayebare, Uganda’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., has appeared to take on a more prominent role than Kutesa where in hierarchy, Ayebare reports to Kutesa the minister.


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