Washington's Power in Uganda
According to all insiders and analysts of Ugandan political affairs, it is clear that the one entity with significant power over the polity is the United States government. In order to understand this influence, it is important to recognize the history of this relationship, which dates back to the early 1990s.
In the early 1990s, the initial civil war between the National Resistance Movement government and the Lord’s Resistance Army was transformed into a proxy war between the Sudan and Ugandan governments. This proxy was further fueled by international politics as the West, particularly the United States, sought to fight against what it perceived to be an Arab-Sudan axis pushing a wave of Islamic fundamentalism in sub-Saharan Africa. When Sudan began to provide military assistance to the LRA, Uganda also began to provide military assistance to Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in southern Sudan. The United States, which wanted to challenge the regime in Khartoum, began to funnel massive amounts of military aid to the SLPA through the Ugandan government. People in the north recall witnessing substantial military supplies being transported through the northern regions of Uganda across the Sudanese border. These military supplies were advanced enough that they could have only come from a powerful western country.
Thus, this proxy war created an alliance between the United States and Uganda, which would persist throughout the 1990s. This alliance was furthered as President Museveni welcomed the economic intervention of the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund. As the southern part of the country experienced economic growth, the U.S. was able to publicize Uganda as the “success story” of sub-Saharan Africa. Uganda also has boasted a very successful fight against HIV/AIDS, predominantly utilizing the ABCD (Abstain, Be Faithful, Condoms or Die) campaign supported by President George W. Bush. This has given more incentive for the U.S. to provide different forms of aid, while touting Uganda as its success case.
Following the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on the United States on 11 September 2001, President Museveni has attempted to ally with Bush and has actively sought the patronage of the United States. President Museveni was quick to become one of the first and only African leaders to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, even though the majority of the Ugandan population opposed the war. Museveni has courted U.S. support and approval by declaring his own war on terror in Uganda, declaring the LRA to be a terrorist organization. Government officials have even declared that the LRA is funded and supported by al-Qaeda. In 2002, the government passed a Suppression of Terrorism Act, which declared immediate death penalty for terrorists and collaborators of terrorists.
During Museveni’s visit to the United States in June 2003, he brought a document which outlined his program for “Northern Uganda Reconstruction and Counter-Terrorism Initiative.” The document included the following telling paragraph:
“Uganda, a steadfast friend and ally of the United States in its war against terrorism, has been facing and continued to face a serious terror threat of its own in the north. Uganda is successfully countering the LRA, which the U.S. Department of State has officially designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The group was created by Sudan out of the remnants of former Ugandan dictators, Amin and Obote. Sudan has been supporting the LRA until recently when the United States put the LRA on its list of international terrorist organizations. The US military in Baghdad has found documents linking former President Saddam Hussein’s intelligence apparatus to some terrorists that have been trying to destabilize Uganda.”
This paragraph clearly shows a government trying to manipulate U.S. sentiments to gain military support and aid.
Such statements have fallen on open ears as the United States has significantly increased military assistance to Uganda. In January 2003, the Liu Institute highlighted the U.S. contribution of $3 billion to Uganda’s military. Over the last four years, the United States has given substantial and increased amounts of military aid to Uganda for its support in the “war on terror.” Further, the United States placed the LRA on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. The LRA remains on the list today. This is an attempt to pressure Khartoum, but also a sign of support for Museveni and his NRM regime. In 2002, U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell thanked Uganda for its counter-terrorism support and praised the NRM government for its work. In July 2003, President Bush included a stop in Uganda as part of his Africa trip as a result of this alliance.
This support from the United States has only empowered Museveni’s commitment to the “military solution” to deal with the LRA. The United States, until recently, has strongly supported the military approach to dealing with the war. In early 2004 when Bigombe was planning to return to Uganda to start peace talks, she was approached by a U.S. State Department official who told her not to return to her country.
Recently, Washington has begun to articulate a policy shift, claiming that the military approach must be complemented with serious peace negotiations. According to chief peace negotiator Betty Bigombe, Kony has expressed keen interest in Washington’s statements. It is yet to be seen how serious the U.S. government is about this policy shift.
As a result of this relationship and the history between the two countries, President Museveni cares deeply for and cannot ignore the statements, wishes and action that come from Washington. According to insiders and analysts, Washington is the one government with the power to actually change policy and direction of Ugandan politics. Numerous insiders make the statement, “If Washington decided at breakfast that it wanted the conflict over, it would be finished by dinner.”
Thus, the United States government has significant influence that it can and should utilize in this opportune moment for intervention and action. In a coming piece, I will show how the U.S. should use that influence immediately and effectively to support an end to the 19-year old horrific war in northern Uganda. With Uganda-CAN, we are working together to see that Washington takes such action that answers to the suffering of Ugandans in the north.