Can Lobby Days Make A Difference?

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[International: Commentary]

Each year organizations, individuals and government officials gather in Washington for what’s knows as “Lobby Days;” an occasion for interested parties to agitate for an end of the war in Uganda which has primarily devastated the country’s Acholi region (see, by lobbying U.S. lawmakers and officials.

Attention of the US Government must focus on more than the Juba Talks, that are meant to end the war and conclude a comprehensive peace deal.

If the organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are meeting to raise awareness of the situation in northern Uganda and promote the Juba peace talks with US Senators visit the representatives of the group known as Coalition to End Genocide in Uganda Now (CEGUN), and incorporate the information they are bringing to the occasion, then Senators will be better informed and will be in a position to make wiser decisions regarding US policies in northern Uganda.

Many of us outside the US are not impressed with the Bush Administration’s policies regarding northern Uganda so far. We see the US support for deadlines President Museveni has set for the LRA to sign the Peace Accord, the latest being the end of February as demanded by Uganda or March the 3rd as demanded by the mediator, Dr. Riek Machar, the mediator of the talks in South Sudan, as being arbitrary and counterproductive, although it is true that the talks cannot go on forever.

The talks have become a sideshow in Uganda, where monies that have been donated for the negotiations have been used to grease palms; maneuverings have taken place behind the scenes so as to divide the LRA; and, bellicose language have been used by President Museveni and his propaganda team, which undermines the confidence that was supposed to be built with the LRA. The lack of transparency in the talks themselves and how donated money has not been accounted for has left a feeling of doubt in the minds of all stakeholders as to the sincerity of the Government of Uganda, which has always favored a military solution to the war.

It is hard to justify any further monetary donations to these peace talks which have become “peace jokes” in the eyes of many. Donors are being hoodwinked by a regime that by any standards is utterly corrupt. Hardly a day goes by that we do not hear of billions of shillings squandered to government graft: ghost soldiers, ghost teachers, ghost nurses, and ghost police and yet the real soldiers, police, teachers, and nurses are going months without pay.

Funds donated for healthcare are massively misappropriated and to date the perpetrators have not been punished. Where there are health centers in the north, there are often no drugs available; not even an Aspirin for those requiring surgery, let alone morphine. Poorly trained nurses are acting as doctors.

The Government of Uganda (GOU) quotes its record of introducing free primary and secondary education as an achievement to be proud of. In actual fact there are so many hidden costs that parents in the countryside cannot afford to send their kids to school, and when they do come up with the money their children sit in classes with student to teacher ratio of 1:100. Curriculum books are not available. Basic learning materials are not available. The situation is even worse in the north where often there are not even classrooms.

One has to ask--where has all the billions of dollars donated over 22 years to the Uganda government gone? One only has to see the obscene wealth of the ruling elite and the opulence of Presidential palaces. The renovations on “State House” cost $8.2 million and president Museveni is trying to purchase a new luxury Gulf Stream jet at $48.2 million.

Meanwhile, the US turns a blind eye to the thousands of people dying from the abominable conditions of the IDP camps in the north, where they are left deliberately unprotected.

The US has extended the lease on its relations with the corrupt dictator Museveni by recruiting him to fight its proxy war in Somalia.

True, we read that the US army is now drilling boreholes and helping to rebuild schools in the north. Commendable. Why were they not doing this for the past 11 years of the existence of these camps? Better still, why not get the government army, the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) involved in these activities?

The organizers of “Lobby Days,” from February 24 to 26 in Washington, D.C., would have us believe that they are lobbying for greater involvement by the US in the peace talks, in the “pacification” of the north. Uganda has been an important client state of the United States since Museveni came to power in 1986.

The Ugandan regime has been used to further US interests in the wider region, regardless of how many lives were lost in the wretched genocidal conditions in the north and the regional wars, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In order to further ingratiate itself to the regime and act as Washington’s policeman, the Uganda government is offering to send troops to Sudan’s troubled Darfur region. Moreover, with reported discovery of significant oil finds in Uganda, we can expect the Bush Administration to continue its policy of turning a blind eye to the suffering.

The “Great Plan” that has been reflected in US/GOU policies in Uganda will probably continue to unfold with or without “Lobby Days”. The organizations and major NGOs may garner more funding from the US government. One has to also wonder where much of their money goes in northern Uganda, as there is not a heck of a lot to show for their efforts, and certain major NGOs have been most reluctant to bring to task the GOU for fear of losing their jobs and projects. A murder of one of their Uganda staff took place and the organization never raised a peep when the UPDF failed to conduct a real investigation!

One can assume that the $600 million that Museveni has hyped for the “Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Plan” for the north will be donor-funded and the US has already promised a large contribution. The problem is that the GOU cannot be trusted to implement the plan with transparency and accountability; so much will be siphoned off.

President Museveni has never shown the slightest compassion for the people of the north and even recently referred to northerners as “those people.” He says there will be consultations with the people, but it was not clear what he meant by “consultation”. His is a top-down administration that operates without any accountability; a dictatorship masquerading as a democracy.

The people of the north do deserve to have a major say in their rehabilitation and development. In fact they should have had an equal third-party role in the peace talks from the very beginning. How ironic that the principal agents for the genocidal conditions, the Uganda government and the LRA, now negotiate an end to the tragedy without the involvement of Acholis that are the victims of the atrocities.

So, can “Lobby Days” really make a difference? It depends on how one defines “difference” and what one’s expectations are.


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