Is Uganda Returning to the “Dark Days”?
As protesters disappear, Bobi Wine’s opposition is demanding answers from the Museveni regime.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
This week’s highlights: Hundreds of Ugandans have disappeared in the aftermath of the country’s most violent election in a generation, Mozambique’s insurgency reaches a turning point, and Huawei holds on to an African customer despite the United States lobbying over cybersecurity concerns.
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Facing Opposition, Uganda Opts for Repression
When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni claimed victory for the sixth time since 1986 earlier this year, the worst election violence in a generation rocked Uganda as young people rejected his win. When the army officer-turned-politician could not quell the growing discontent, he returned to old tactics—detentions, disappearances, and torture.
Accounting for the missing. The National Unity Platform (NUP), now the formal opposition, presented a list of 243 Ugandans who have gone missing, but said their registry of disappeared was nearly double that, at 458.
The NUP is using its position as the official opposition to challenge Museveni’s National Resistance Movement on political terrain he has dominated for decades. While the ruling party still dominates parliament, the opposition was able to present its arguments to a national audience.
The minister of internal affairs countered the figure, claiming only 177 people were still in detention following the January uprising, and depicted them as criminals. Still, by linking the government’s own findings with names, locations, and worried relatives, opposition lawmakers forced the ruling party to respond publicly, vowing to look into the matter.
This promise may not come to much, but it maintains a public conversation on Ugandans’ narrowing democratic rights. For his part, Museveni has publicly stated that only 50 people are being held.
A political platform. When Bobi Wine became Uganda’s official opposition leader in the aftermath of the January demonstrations, he had to prepare for a career marked by violence and protest. After his release from days of house arrest, Wine’s first weeks on the job were marked by harassment from security forces and another round of detention. His supporters have fared far worse, and even his bodyguard and best friend were arrested and beaten.
When Wine gave up trying to challenge the election results in court, conceding in late February that he would lose in a judicial system that had little independence under Museveni, it seemed a blow for the opposition. Still, 39-year-old Wine has managed to find other ways to oppose the ageing leader.
Wine, who is popular among Uganda’s youthful population, has consistently used social media to bring local and international attention to his own plight and the more brutal treatment his supporters have endured. Now, the musician-turned-politician is using his political platform to document Uganda’s enforced disappearances.
Return to “Dark Days.” The ruling party has long argued that it brings peace and stability to Uganda. Yet, while the authoritarian Museveni regime has maintained a grip on Ugandan society thus far by jailing several critics, including academic and human rights activist Stella Nyanzi, the sheer scale of arrests in the last 12 weeks have led influential Kampala Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga to warn of a return to the “dark days” of previous regimes.
Under the brutal dictator Idi Amin, thousands of Ugandans were detained, tortured, and extrajudicially executed between 1971 and 1979 by security forces.
Once again, Ugandans are fearfully whispering about the long arm of a military intelligence unit. The unit, known as the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, has enforced Museveni’s rule for years and seems to have ramped up its operations, according to a report in the Mail and Guardian.
Amnesty International has also raised the alarm about the increasing number of people who have gone missing since January’s election violence. The human rights group spoke to survivors who said they were picked up in unmarked police cars and taken to undisclosed locations where they were beaten and questioned about their political affiliations and their participation in January’s protests.
It is now clear that violence once dismissed as electoral unrest was part of a growing pattern of repression.
The Week Ahead
Tuesday, March 30: In the Central African Republic, Faustin Touadéra is sworn in for a second term.
Wednesday, March 31: The International Criminal Court will rule on a prosecutor’s appeal against former Ivory Coast leaders Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé.
What We’re Watching
A turning point in Mozambique. Insurgents in Mozambique executed their most ambitious attack to date, seizing control of Palma—an economic hub in the northern Cabo Delgado region. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds more fled by boat and by foot.
The siege, which began last Wednesday (and by some accounts is still continuing), made international headlines over the weekend after foreigners were trapped in a hotel reportedly surrounded by insurgents. With no sign of help, they braved an escape in a 17-vehicle convoy, but it turned into tragedy after insurgents spotted them. At least one South African was killed. The insurgents also killed a still unconfirmed number of Mozambicans and took over at least three quarters of the strategic town.
Palma is home to dozens of foreign contractors working in and around gas developments like the now halted $20 billion Total Liquified Natural Gas project. The attack coincided with Total’s announcement on March 24 that it would only resume working in Cabo Delgado after additional security measures were put in place.
On the same day, insurgents began overrunning the town in a coordinated attack that showed increased sophistication and raised alarms in Maputo and beyond. On Monday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which will have ramifications for the whole region’s security.
The Mozambican government is now under increased scrutiny for its failure to contain a conflict that began in October 2017 and has killed more than 2,600 people and displaced 670,000 people.
Are Eritrean troops leaving Ethiopia? After months of denying the presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopian soil, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged foreign fighters on March 23 and then announced their withdrawal on March 26. Abiy’s rhetorical about-face is seen as a signal that he is buckling to international pressure amid reports of atrocities in the Tigray region.
Just days after a U.S. delegation visited Addis Ababa, Abiy flew to Asmara where he met with Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki—a leader long seen as a pariah who has now, in some ways, become a regional kingmaker, as Alex de Waal wrote in Foreign Policy recently. A statement outlining the leaders’ “common strategic partnership” did not specifically mention Tigray, the region at the center of the conflict.
Official statements aside, it is unclear whether Abiy has the power to remove Eritrean soldiers or if they will leave anytime soon—raising the question of whether the Ethiopian army can control the region without Eritrean assistance. The Belgium-based Europe External Programme with Africa reports that Eritrean forces could be redeployed and that significant numbers of Eritrean troops could be integrated into the Ethiopian National Defense Force.
Massacre in Niger. Gunmen killed 137 people in Niger last week, just days after an earlier massacre of at least 58 people. The attacks in the restive country have all included armed men riding into villages on motorcycles and firing indiscriminately.
The increased targeting of civilians in one of the world’s poorest nations is attributed to jihadist efforts to subdue remote villages where residents have tried to protect themselves. The increasing death toll shows that military interventions in the Sahel have struggled to protect the most vulnerable.
France and the Rwandan genocide. A 1,200-page report that took two years to prepare has cleared France of any complicity in the Rwandan genocide, but the European power still bears some responsibility for the 1994 bloodshed, according to the report.
“Nevertheless, for a long time, France was involved with a regime that encouraged racist massacres. It remained blind to the preparation of a genocide by the most radical elements of this regime,” wrote the report’s authors. In 2014, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame accused France of playing a more direct role in the genocide.
Chart of the Week
Africa’s most populous country now has the second highest unemployment rate on a global Bloomberg list. A third of Nigeria’s workforce of nearly 70 million people either had no work or only worked for 20 hours a week. Of the countries tracked by a Bloomberg survey, Nigeria overtook South Africa in joblessness. Only Namibia, with a 33.4 percent unemployment rate, was higher.
This Week In Tech
Network diplomacy. Safaricom, the largest telecoms operator in East Africa, announced it will begin rolling out 5G high-speed internet in Kenya. Safaricom will begin with four cities—Nairobi, Kisumu, Kisii, and Kakamega—and expand to 150 sites in urban areas over the next year. The infrastructure upgrade will no doubt be a boost to the tech hub and to a country that has led the world in mobile payment technology.
This rollout also has geopolitical ramifications: Finland’s Nokia and China’s Huawei will be building the network. It’s a shift from a January Safaricom announcement to halt the rollout that coincided with a U.S. lobbying effort against the Chinese company, citing security concerns of espionage and sabotage (though Safaricom was silent on its reasons at the time). Losing the deal could have cost Huawei a valuable client in the region.
Boko Haram won’t stop kidnappings. While so-called bandits have been blamed for recent school kidnappings in Nigeria, Philip Obaji Jr. argued in Foreign Policy that the crimes have all the hallmarks of Boko Haram and the group won’t give up this lucrative practice anytime soon.
Paying attention to Benin. “We’re mere days from the most consequential election in our country’s democratic history and the brazen arrest of an opposition candidate barely registered in the international press,” Rogatien Biaou, also an opposition politician in Benin, wrote in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, arguing the lack of attention works to President Patrice Talon’s advantage ahead of next month’s election in the West African country.
Burkina Faso’s revolutionary classrooms. Across campuses, students in Burkina Faso have held two-hour, near daily meetings to discuss political and social ideas, harking back to the tradition of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. Lassane Ouedraogo attended these meetings for the Elephant.
Correction, March 31, 2021: Although election officials formally declared Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni the winner of the January election, he is scheduled to be inaugurated in May. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Museveni was already sworn in for his sixth term.
That’s it for this week.