Is the U.S. Military Propping Up Uganda’s ‘Elected’ Autocrat?

Is the U.S. Military Propping Up Uganda’s ‘Elected’ Autocrat?

KAMPALA, Uganda — The chief of police warns anti-government demonstrators to prepare for “war.” A top official in the ruling party says the state will “kill your children” if they protest the results of the upcoming presidential poll. And the chairman of the election commission tells participants in a human-rights forum that he would authorize a military deployment against supporters of a leading opposition candidate.

Welcome to Uganda, where security forces routinely disregard human rights and democratic rules. Welcome also to one of America’s most important military allies in Africa.

Under President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda has become a key counterterrorism partner of the United States, working hand-in-glove with U.S. forces to defeat al-Shabab in Somalia and to hunt down the notorious warlord Joseph Kony in neighboring Central African Republic. The country is now among the top recipients of U.S. security assistance on the continent. But as Museveni seeks to extend his 30-year rule in presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 18, there are fears that Ugandan security forces will intimidate voters or crack down on opposition protesters. That is raising questions about whether Washington is capable of balancing its security objectives in the region with its stated goals for democratization and good governance.

We are very concerned about the deployment of security agencies, whether it can deter the turnout of the voters,” said Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Uganda. “If the army is implicated in abuses, will it affect relations with the Americans? I don’t think it has in the past.”

The U.S. military has trained more troops from Uganda in the last 10 years than from any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa except Burundi. The Ugandan military has also received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of hardware from the United States. Its soldiers now have sophisticated communications equipment, night-vision goggles, and small surveillance drones — all from U.S. companies. Ugandan troops deployed to Somalia travel in mine-resistant vehicles that once ferried American soldiers around Afghanistan, while Ugandan choppers engaged in anti-Kony operations are powered by fuel paid for by the United States.

Compared to the billions of dollars Washington lavishes on its Middle Eastern allies, the Ugandan partnership comes with a bargain price tag of roughly $170 million per year in military cooperation and assistance, according to Ugandan military officials. Some argue it has also advanced important U.S. interests, including the degradation of al-Shabab in Somalia and the cheap bolstering of the continent’s peacekeeping capabilities. (Uganda has committed troops to the Eastern Africa Standby Force, a new regional force designed for rapid intervention.)

“The U.S. has gotten its money’s worth in the short term at least,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. “We’ve got boots on the ground, literally, in Somalia that have reversed a bad situation. It’s still bad, but it’s a lot better than it was. And the peacekeeping capabilities have come a long way. So it’s benefited in the short term, but I’d say the jury is still out on the behavior of Uganda’s military in the domestic political process.”

That’s a big question going into the election, according to Pham: Will the military remain professionally neutral or will it play a role in regime protection?

Almost no one expects Museveni to lose at the ballot box, but there are reasons to worry that elements within the military could interfere to ensure he comes out on top — or to suppress opposition protests after the fact. While U.S. military assistance has boosted Ugandan peacekeeping and counterterrorism capabilities, it has also become a major source of patronage for Museveni, who has made sure the money flows toward supporters and family members. Experts say that this has undermined the military’s professionalism, resulting in bloated units and a lack of respect for the chain-of-command.

“It all boils down to loyalty to the president,” said Raymond Qatahar, a military reporter at the Nation Media Group in Kampala. “If you look at who is benefiting from the training, it is people who are loyal to Museveni.”

For example, the United States is effectively footing part of the bill for keeping the Ugandan president safe. Although Uganda’s elite special forces — which get first pick of the training and equipment on offer from the U.S. — have deployed to Somalia, they have also been assigned to staff the presidential guard unit that protects Museveni around the clock. The special forces division is lead by Museveni’s eldest son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who received training at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas prior to being elevated to his current post.

“The most obvious outcome of U.S. cooperation is the privatization of the Ugandan army. It has become a lot more a tool of Museveni,” said Ken Opalo, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, who has written extensively about the Ugandan military. “But Museveni is trying to stay in power, so he’s doing what he can to meet U.S. security needs while also maximizing his opportunity to invest in his longevity.”

The U.S.-Ugandan military partnership dates back to the administration of Bill Clinton, which used Uganda as a conduit for military aid to rebels in southern Sudan battling the brutal Islamist government in Khartoum. Museveni positioned himself as a bulwark against militant Islam, a move that paid additional dividends when the United States became concerned about the rise of al Qaeda in eastern Africa after the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the African Union’s authorization in 2007 of a peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which has partially rolled back the al-Shabab threat with the help of generous U.S. assistance, further solidified the alliance.

“This partnership really grew post-9/11. We were identified as one of the partners who had common interest in combatting this terrorism,” Brig. Gen. Matthew Gureme, chief of staff of Uganda’s Rapid Deployment Capability Centre, told Foreign Policy. “If it wasn’t for this partnership, I think the threat would be substantial enough that we would even feel it here at home.”

But at the same time that it was drawing closer to the United States on the counterterrorism front, the Ugandan military became embroiled in conflicts in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan that put it at odds with its American partners. In Congo, the Ugandans were accused of looting the country’s natural resources while in South Sudan they fought on behalf of President Salva Kiir in the country’s civil war even after the United States called on them to withdraw. Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia have also been accused of serious human rights violations, including sexual violence and torture.

The Obama administration claims to vet troops that participate in its so-called “train-and-equip” programs in accordance with the Leahy Laws, which theoretically require the United States to terminate security assistance to suspected human rights violators.

“Should a Ugandan military unit or individual be credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights in the mission area, that individual and their unit will be denied further assistance, until such time that the Government of Uganda and the [Ugandan military] have taken sufficient corrective actions,” Jeffrey Loree, a spokesperson for the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, said in an emailed statement. “We rely on a range of reporting to monitor the performance of our partners once they are deployed, including U.S. personnel in the mission area, international organizations, NGOs, and media reports.”

But given the remote and lawless environments in which Ugandan troops routinely operate — South Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo — it’s virtually impossible to know whether human rights violations have been committed. “You assess it as best you can,” said a former U.S. diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There are times that you’re never going to get the facts.”

It’s also not clear that punitive measures are always taken, even when there is convincing evidence of abuse. The United States does not make public when it sanctions individuals for violations under the Leahy Laws, so it’s difficult to assess whether they are applied consistently across countries. Local media reports as well as diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks suggest that the U.S. Embassy in Kampala does investigate suspected human-rights abuses in an effort to comply with Leahy. But how often those investigations result in the blacklisting of Ugandan officials is anybody’s guess. Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the Ugandan military, told Foreign Policy that he “could not recall any case” in which U.S. training or assistance had been terminated because of human rights violations.

The United States cut a small portion of its annual aid package and cancelled military exercises in 2014, after Uganda enacted a harsh anti-gay law, but it has never taken a similarly public stand as a result of human rights violations by the military. A Human Rights Watch report published that same year documenting sexual abuse by Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia, for instance, did not result in a reduction of military assistance, despite the fact that the Ugandan military found it credible enough to suspend 15 of its soldiers, including two generals.

The spirit of Leahy is certainly laudable, but I think the application has been politicized. In places like Nigeria where there’s a political will to enforce it they do place a role,” said Pham of the Atlantic Council. “But the same rigor perhaps has not been applied to Uganda, precisely because of our own strategic needs — or perceived needs — in Somalia and elsewhere.”

The worry now is that a military that feels like it has leverage over the United States because of its importance in counterterrorism operations could feel emboldened to intervene if necessary to keep Museveni in power. According to Ankunda, the military is legally allowed to assume domestic policing duties, and it has conducted joint exercises with the police in recent months. In the week before the election, both police and military forces have been deployed throughout the country in force — some say as a show of strength by the regime.

The police would almost certainly form the first line of defense for the regime, having routinely engaged in violence and intimidation in the past. After the last presidential election in 2011, when Museveni won 68 percent of the vote, police killed at least nine people when they cracked down on so-called “Walk-to-Work” protests led by losing opposition candidate Kizza Besigye. But the lines between the police and the military are blurred; some top police officials hold simultaneous posts in the military, and infantrymen have been accused of donning police uniforms before engaging in crowd control activities.

“The military sometimes disguises themselves during such periods,” said Sewanyana of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative. “You think it is the police but it is the military.”

Besigye is running again this year, and he has already provoked violent confrontations with security forces: Earlier this week, one person was killed when police attempted to break up one of his campaign rallies in the capital, Kampala. Besigye was briefly detained as well.

“It’s impunity at work,” said Sewanyana, adding that the greater assertiveness of opposition supporters this year “is creating panic” within the regime.

“So they are bound to use their powers to crush them,” he said.

Siobhán O’Grady contributed reporting from Washington.

Image credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Feb. 18, 2016: The U.S. military has trained more troops from Uganda in the last 10 years than from any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa except Burundi. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the U.S. military has trained more troops from Uganda in the last 10 years than from any other sub-Saharan nation.