By Helen Epstein

Visiting Professor of Human Rights and Global Public Health at Bard College, the author of, “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror (2017)”.

As an election approaches, opposition to the strongman’s long, brutal rule is gathering–but it has to recon with his security state and its international enablers.

When the popular Ugandan singer and opposition politician, Bobi Wine, was arrested last week, his nation erupted with violence. A huge crowd had gathered in Luuka, just east of the capital Kampala, to hear him speak, when security forces suddenly began firing not only tear gas canisters but also live bullets into the crowd and chasing away Bobi Wine’s bodyguards with batons and pepper spray.

Wine was driven off in a police van and detained for two days without access to his family, doctors, or lawyers. The charge? Holding a rally of more than two hundred people, in violation of COVID-19 social-distancing regulations—something that the ruling party politicians, including Uganda’s strongman leader Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, have been doing with impunity.

Uganda’s next election is on January 14, 2021, and no one expects it to be free or fair. But Wine and his party, the National Unity Platform, had hoped that by rallying support across the country, they could bring about their own “Velvet Revolution,” ultimately forcing Museveni to confront his unpopularity and concede, as have aging leaders in Burkina Faso, Gambia, and Sudan in recent years.

That hope seems distant now. As news of Wine’s arrest spread, demonstrators organized protests in major towns across the country. Some set fires in the streets; others attempted to tear down Museveni’s huge campaign posters that loom over traffic circles countrywide. Security forces again responded by hurling tear gas canisters at people in the streets and even inside buildings, and by shooting wildly at demonstrators and ordinary pedestrians alike, killing at least forty-nine people and severely injuring scores of others.

Museveni is one of the America’s closest African security partners. Since 2007, Uganda has been the largest troop contributor to the US-supported African Union Mission in Somalia, and Ugandans have also been serving under US command in Iraq, almost since that war began in the 1990s. Furthermore, Museveni helped funnel weapons from the US to rebels in neighboring Sudan.

In exchange for putting his forces at America’s disposal, Museveni receives hundreds of millions of US taxpayer dollars annually in foreign assistance. Some of this money goes to reputable humanitarian groups and nongovernmental organizations which do good work, and this funding is generally well-audited. But hundreds of millions more flow into the World Bank, which sends the money directly to the Ugandan Treasury, where it is easily diverted to the pockets of Museveni’s henchmen and to spending on his brutal security forces.

As recently as May, the World Bank announced a $300 million assistance package in the form of budget support to Uganda, ostensibly for COVID-19 relief. One month earlier, Museveni’s government had allocated the very same amount to a “classified expenditure” budget for the security forces and the Office of the President. In Uganda, classified expenditures are not subject to detailed oversight by parliament or by aid donors, but there’s reason to fear that this money is being used to finance the latest round of human rights abuses and the militarization of next year’s election.

This could have been a coincidence, but at the very least, the World Bank appears to have rewarded behavior by contravening its own standards of what it calls “good governance.” Since Uganda’s last general election in 2016, spending on such classified expenditures has increased nearly fivefold.

The Museveni regime routinely bribes or tortures members of Parliament who try to obstruct its aims. In 2017, Museveni’s Special Forces raided Parliament to halt a filibuster campaign against a bill designed to enable Museveni to rule for life. One member of Parliament, Betty Nambooze, was escorted to a room from which she emerged with two broken vertebrae.

In 2018, a year after he had been elected to Parliament, Bobi Wine was himself arrested, along with four other MPs and dozens of their supporters. All were falsely accused of stoning one of Museveni’s vehicles during a by-election campaign rally. When Wine and his associates appeared in court, after a week they were on crutches. 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been mild in Uganda, with fewer than two hundred confirmed deaths, the economic effects have been devastating for Uganda’s poor. Yet, when opposition MP Francis Zaake attempted to distribute relief food to his hungry constituents last spring, he was arrested and tortured for three days. Now he walks with a cane. 

Museveni’s abuses are not new; they are part of a pattern dating back thirty-four years, and Uganda’s donors know this. In early 1987, about a year after Museveni seized power, he met with US Ambassador Robert Houdek at the embassy in Kampala to discuss a possible visit to Washington. They also discussed the “three-piece-tie,” a signature torture method of Museveni’s security forces, in which the victim’s upper arms are tied tightly behind the back so that the breastbone protrudes outward, producing searing pain and sometimes paralyzes or causes gangrene, necessitating amputation.

President Reagan met Museveni in the Oval Office the following October after the murder of Andrew Kayiira allegedly by Museveni’s security forces, and then again in 1988 and 1989—an unusual privilege for a young former rebel leader who professed to be a Marxist at the time. Museveni even visited Reagan’s California ranch, and hired Reagan’s son-in-law as a US-based publicist.

That meeting established the template for the remarkably benign reputation Museveni has enjoyed in high-level diplomatic circles from Reagan to Obama despite killing thousands of people in northern and eastern Uganda, backing brutal insurgencies that sparked mayhem in Rwanda and Congo, Museveni’s forces were gang-raping both women and men in northern Uganda and supporting violent rebel groups in neighboring Congo.

Museveni has claimed that Bobi Wine is being used by “homosexuals and others who don’t like the stability and independence of Uganda,” and has warned Wine’s supporters that they are “playing with fire.” Despite this obvious menace, Wine has resumed campaigning—though security forces continue to invade his rallies and shoot his supporters.

Of course, the diplomats see what is going on. But they must operate within a cruel system of foreign aid and subaltern military relationships in which rich countries hire poor armies to do their dirty work. The donors’ cynicism boils down to the same kind of racism that prevailed in colonial times, born of vastly unequal power relations. To stuff a dictator’s pockets so his forces will fight their wars, it is necessary to regard the lives of African people as expendable.

Abridged version of the original article published in the New York Book Review (Editor).