U.S. Senator Calls For Investigation Of Alleged "Attempted Assassination" Of Otunnu, Uganda Opposition Figure
"The Congress is aware of that incident and it has been brought to the attention of the Obama Administration," said Tim Rieser, a foreign policy staff member for Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee which funds U.S. foreign aid programs. "Senator Leahy is concerned about it and believes it should be investigated."
In Calling For Investigation Of Alleged "Assassination Attempt," Senator Leahy Says U.S. Also "Disappointed" By Uganda's Pace At Democratic Reforms
An influential U.S. Senator has called for an investigation of a suspicious December automobile incident involving a leading opposition figure abroad after the Ugandan said he was the victim of an "attempted assassination."
Separately, the U.S. Department of State says it's also keeping an eye on the incident involving Olara Otunnu, a former United Nations Undersecretary General and now a prospective presidential candidate on the opposition ticket in the 2011 Ugandan elections.
A Ugandan foreign affairs minister denied there was an attempt to kill Otunnu.
On December 21, 2009, Otunnu reportedly narrowly avoided death when his car was forced off the road when, he says, vehicles belonging to President Yoweri K. Museveni's Presidential Guard Brigade (PGB) suddenly veered in front of his car, after first giving his driver the okay to overtake the slow-moving military convoy. Museveni wasn't part of the convoy.
Otunnu was headed to Kampala, Uganda's capital. Both he and Museveni had been at a religious ceremony in the city of Gulu the previous day. Otunnu returned to Uganda last year after 23 years in exile.
In a wide-ranging interview on The Voice of America's "Straight Talk Africa," program on January 13, Otunnu said "There is no doubt in my mind that it was an attempted assassination," referring to the December 21, 2009, incident.
"The Congress is aware of that incident and it has been brought to the attention of the Obama Administration," said Tim Rieser, a foreign policy staff member for Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee which funds U.S. foreign aid programs.
"Senator Leahy is concerned about it and believes it should be investigated."
A State Department spokesperson in a statement echoed Leahy's position: "We are aware of the reports that in December Olaro Otunnu was involved in a car accident that may have occurred under suspicious circumstances. We take allegations of any attempt at political intimidation very seriously and have been monitoring the situation closely."
"While there are concerns about the progress of Uganda's democratic development, we are working to support peaceful, free and fair elections in 2011," added the State Department spokesperson. "Our Embassy in Kampala has been working diligently for many months in preparation for these elections and will continue to do so in the coming months."
In an interview Otunnu welcomed the call by U.S. officials as well as from people within Uganda for an investigation of the December incident. "The Ugandan government must respond," he said, when asked how such an investigation could start.
Otunnu said the investigating entity, whether it is Ugandan, or an East African regional body, or an international organization, must be totally independent of the Ugandan government.
Uganda's foreign affairs minister for international relations, Oryem Henry Okello, denied that there was an assassination bid.
"I do not believe it was an attempted assassination," he said. "The government of Uganda has no intention of assassinating Olara Otunnu or anybody else for that matter."
He said the incident was already being investigated by the police.
"All those who hope to participate in the political process,
be it Olara Otunnu or others, are attempting to make statements trying to create some advantage or gain publicity," heading into the 2011 election, he said.
"We welcome the interest of the United States government and we welcome the interest of our friends around the world," he added. "We have to be very careful about such statements."
Since President Obama's Accra Speech last year, in which he called for a shift from one-man rule to democrat institutions in African countries, there's been some shift in U.S.-Africa policy, and in the case of Uganda, a notable one.
As reported by The Black Star News on Wednesday, the U.S. Congress has issued a directive as part of the 2010 appropriations bill calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to closely monitor the Uganda election, including the preparation, the independence of the Election Commission, the credibility and verifiability of the voter registry, posting of results at polling stations, freedom of movement and assembly, freedom of the media as well as the security of all candidates. What's more, she's to issue a report every four months and another 30 days after the election.
There are indications that U.S. patience with the Museveni government has worn thin.
"The Congress does not take sides in the election. It is up to the people of Uganda to decide who their president or representatives will be. But the United States does care that the electoral process is free and fair," Rieser, the aide to Senator Leahy, continued.
He said the incident involving Otunnu is illustrative of why the Congress included the directive calling for security and protection of candidates. (A State Department spokesperson wouldn't say if the Otunnu incident will be covered in Secretary Clinton's first report, in March, on the status of compliance with the directive).
He said the Ugandan government is aware of the Congress's concerns. Rieser said the Congressional directive was included because there is disappointment that the Ugandan government has not moved toward a multi-party democracy as many had hoped and expected.
"There was recognition that coming out of the disastrous Idi Amin and Milton Obote eras it would take some time for the country to recover and for democratic institutions to develop. But a long time has elapsed and people have become impatient," he added.
"Senator Leahy has visited Uganda and he has seen the progress that has been made. As chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds U.S. foreign aid programs, he has supported many hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for Uganda. But like others he wants real democracy to develop there. There is concern with reports that the government is limiting opportunities for political parties to organize."
Rieser continued: "Congress wants to see the media able to broadcast and publish freely, political parties able to operate without harassment or threats, and the balloting to be free and fair. By signaling its interest and requiring the Secretary of State to regularly report on these matters, the Congress is saying that it intends to follow this process closely."
When asked what would happen if the Secretary of State submitted a report showing shortcomings by the Uganda government in meeting the standards outlined in the directive, he said if there were credible evidence that the government was impeding the role of the media and political parties, then "we would convey those concerns" to the Ugandan government and the manner in which the election is conducted would have an impact on aid from the U.S.
Henry Okello, the Ugandan minister, rejected Leahy's position, saying Uganda has a vigorous multi-party system. He said Leahy was "misinformed and behind the times" because Uganda had several opposition parties, such as the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the
Uganda People's Congress (UPC), and independent legislators, with opposition Members of Parliament.
"This is Africa. They should be patient," Henry Okello continued. "This is not America or Europe. We are on our way to where the United States and Europe are today."
The Black Star News has confirmed that Otunnu was a driving force behind the Congressional directive, which explains why the language is specifically tailored to address obstacles that opposition parties in Uganda have complained about in the past.
The Ugandan is said to have met several times with key U.S. lawmakers and after several presentations was able to help shift direction of a rigid foreign policy establishment. Any doubts amongst U.S. lawmakers were erased after the December 21 road incident in Uganda, people familiar with the matter say. Months before, Otunnu had stressed the need for the directive to cover the security and protection of all candidates.
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