Uganda's Decades-Long Dictatorship Becomes Increasingly Brazen

Smart dictators understand the power of music.  On Monday, August 13, the immensely popular Ugandan MP Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Afro-beat musician Bobi Wine, was arrested, along with 35 others in the northern Ugandan town of Arua after a scuffle involving the convoy of President Yoweri Museveni. Police shot dead Kyaluganyi’s driver, Yasin Kawooya, the same evening.  For three days Ugandan authorities declined to inform Kyagulanyi’s family or his lawyers of his whereabouts.  On Thursday, he was finally produced at a military court martial. His two lawyers say they wept when they saw him. He’d been beaten so badly, he couldn’t see, speak or stand.  “I believe he didn’t know what was going on or understand the charges read to him,” MP Medard Seggona, one of the lawyers, told journalists. Several others arrested at the same time have also been hospitalized for injuries sustained while in detention. Kyagulanyi has been officially charged with "illegal possession of firearms," but many Ugandans have expressed the opinion on social media that he’s being targeted because he poses a political threat to Museveni, and to the presidential prospects of Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who is a high-ranking brigadier in the army.

Since Museveni seized power in 1986, many of his critics have been detained in unknown locations, beaten within an inch of their lives or died under suspicious circumstances. In December 2012, 24 year-old MP Cerinah Nebanda was poisoned. Like Kyagulanyi, she was a young, charismatic and outspoken critic of Museveni’s repression and corruption, and her parliamentary colleagues called for an independent inquiry. Museveni called them “fools” and had them jailed on trumped-up charges. In September 2017, Special Forces troops raided Parliament to stop the filibuster of a bill that would entrench Museveni in power indefinitely. During this operation, security forces crippled MP Betty Nambooze, who required a six-hour operation to repair her damaged spine.  

I'm an American, but the torture of these heroic Ugandans is harrowing to me. For years, I was a humanitarian aid worker in Uganda. About ten years ago, I noticed that the nation's health indicators were lagging, even though US taxpayers were spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually on programs there. The reason was simple: billions of dollars from Uganda's treasury and foreign aid programs had been siphoned into Museveni's personal coffers, enabling him to cement his grip on power through bribery and terror, while citizens languish in poverty. I soon realized that Uganda's health challenges - as well as other development issues - will not see meaningful improvement so long as a tyrant like Museveni holds sway, and leaders with a heart, like Kyagulanyi, Nambooze and Nebanda, are brutally silenced. 

Kyagulanyi’s most recent ordeal has been unfolding under the horrified gaze of thousands of fans on social media. Youths in Kyaluganyi’s neighborhood rioted on Thursday and Friday, and Ugandans in the diaspora are being urged to ask their elected officials to sanction the Museveni regime. But so far, the donor community has said little. On Friday, the US Embassy and European Union finally issued a statement expressing concern about the events and urging the Ugandan government to respect its own constitution, but neither suggested that Museveni's government would suffer any consequences for their actions. 

In order to understand the muted tone of these statements - and, no doubt, the others to come - it is important to know that Museveni is probably the West’s strongest military partner in Africa. Ugandan troops are fighting on behalf of the US, UK and EU in Somalia, as well as serving as guards alongside US troops in Iraq.  What is more, France is training Uganda’s army along the border with Congo, and Ugandan troops are also reportedly preparing to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Given that Museveni has successfully entangled himself with western military interests, the regime's increasingly brazen and outright brutal behavior is likely to continue. 

Helen Epstein teaches public health and human rights at Bard College and is the author of Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror. You can follow her on Twitter at @epsteinova.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of Vanguard Africa or the Vanguard Africa Foundation.