Transitions

Americans behaving badly in Uganda

It was in a piece for The East African newspaper by the distinguished Ugandan journalist Joachim Buwembo that first brought to my attention the details of an unfortunate incident that occurred three weeks ago in Kampala. The story goes like this: A U.S. Embassy car rammed into the car of Major General Pecos Kuteesa, a ...

Photo still from NTV Uganda
Photo still from NTV Uganda

It was in a piece for The East African newspaper by the distinguished Ugandan journalist Joachim Buwembo that first brought to my attention the details of an unfortunate incident that occurred three weeks ago in Kampala. The story goes like this: A U.S. Embassy car rammed into the car of Major General Pecos Kuteesa, a respected Ugandan army general. In real Hollywood gangster style, two U.S. security personnel emerged from their vehicle, beat up the general’s driver, and slashed the car’s tires.

The general’s driver, also an army man, was armed, and could have used his gun in defense, but refrained. A group of onlookers quickly gathered at the scene. You see, the thing about Uganda is that mobs form quickly, especially when there’s an accident. They come together like a sudden dust devil and whirl around. So it was only the driver’s restraint that prevented the situation from deteriorating into something bloody.

I later watched a report about the incident on YouTube. It might have been funny if it were a Hollywood movie. But this isn’t Hollywood. It happened on the streets of a sovereign country. Apart from a report on NTV Uganda, a private TV station, I didn’t see any other news about the incident until I stumbled across Buwembo’s op-ed last week.

The article clearly conveys the sense of Americans behaving badly overseas. Imagine such a scene happening in Washington, DC, with the tables turned: Ugandan diplomats ram into a U.S. army general’s vehicle and then rough up his driver. I can’t even imagine the diplomatic disaster that would ensue.

Let us imagine that perhaps the passengers in the U.S. vehicle who rammed the Ugandan general were exhausted at the end of a long day, and were rushing back to the confines of the U.S. Embassy. I really could only excuse the incident if they were the military advisors that President Obama sent last fall to assist in the hunt for Joseph Kony. If that were the case, I could excuse them as a tired lot that meant no harm in this unsavory incident. By the way — the army they are meant to be assisting is most recently engaged in poaching elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as reported in The New York Times; an allegation the Ugandan Army has profusely denied.

Buwembo says that he would protest against the incident — if only he didn’t need a U.S. visa. Come now, I am from Uganda, the land of ghosts. Here we have ghost teachers, ghost soldiers, ghost pensioners. And now it seems that the "offending" article was written by a ghostwriter.

Today, in response to my query, the U.S. Embassy in Kampala broke its three-week silence and issued its first official comment on the incident. Daniel Travis, U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Uganda, admitted that the accident, which he referred to as "minor," did indeed take place on September 10. He says the Ugandan authorities found the U.S. Embassy driver at fault and that the embassy has paid for repairs to the general’s vehicle. Here’s the main part of the statement:

As he states in the NTV report, after the collision, the Ugandan driver exited his vehicle and opened the door of the diplomatic vehicle. At that time the driver of the Ugandan vehicle tried to force his way into the diplomatic vehicle, grabbing the driver of the diplomatic vehicle. The U.S. personnel in the diplomatic vehicle exited the vehicle and rescued the driver before returning to the vehicle. The diplomatic driver was given orders to return to the U.S. Embassy for security reasons and was instructed by his superiors to give his report to police there. The Ugandan official attempted to impede the movement of the diplomatic vehicle, at which time the Ugandan official aggressively drove over a curb, damaging his vehicle’s tire. This was reported by passengers of the diplomatic vehicle, who witnessed the incident, and further corroborated by technical analysis of the tire, the damage to which is consistent with an impact rupture and clearly not any sort of sharp instrument.

In my view, this response doesn’t make the Americans look very good. Why did they need so long to issue a statement on an incident that had already inspired a considerable uproar among Ugandans? Why couldn’t they have sorted things out at the scene of the accident? So they don’t really trust the Ugandan military even though they are supposed to be collaborating with them? And if the Ugandan police were informed of the accident, why haven’t we heard from them? None of this suggests that the U.S. feels especially accountable to the Ugandan public. And it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.

It is this sort of high-handed behavior, I suspect, that tends to blot America’s image overseas — not only in Uganda.

Jackee’s Twitter handle is @jackeebatanda

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