U.S. May Look Past Uganda's Museveni

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[Global: Africa News Review]

Is the United States looking past Yoweri K. Museveni, the Ugandan dictator who’s been in office for 24 years and enjoyed backing from various U.S. Administrations since Ronald Reagan's?

That's the question that the political establishment in Uganda is now debating with the recent visit of the U.S. ambassador to a Uganda hereditary monarch who has been at odds with Museveni.

For years, the U.S. uncritically supported the Ugandan general, who bullied and paid off lawmakers before the last presidential elections to lift the constitutional limit on presidential terms, which allowed him to run again.

Now Washington seems to be creating distance from the Ugandan, especially following the gunning down of as many as 30 unarmed demonstrators in the region of Buganda last year by Museveni's security forces. Washington has trained and armed many of Uganda's security personnel and the Obama Administration seems to have been embarrassed by the deadly show of force last September coming barely one month after President Obama had denounced tyranny in Africa, during his visit to Ghana.

Last month in a development that caught Kampala off guard, the U.S. Congress issued a directive to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, calling on her to closely monitor the preparation for next year's Uganda presidential run and the voting itself. In the unprecedented development, Congress also called on Clinton to issue reports every four months and another one after the elections.


Ugandan politicians seem to have been emboldened by the unambiguous statement calling for democracy by the Obama Administration. The Directive also calls for protection of political candidates, a credible voter registry as well as an independent Election commission. Museveni had already unilaterally appointed his own rubber stamp commission, which the political opposition says it will reject.

What's more, tension between the Museveni regime and Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II, the powerful hereditary monarch revered by the Baganda --they are the country's most populous ethnic group-- has never been worse. The civilians gunned down last year had protested against the Museveni government's arm-twisting the Kabaka into cancelling a trip to visit some of his subjects in Buganda, which is a hereditary kingdom within Uganda, dating back more than six centuries.

After the Kampala massacres, as the incident is now referred to, the government also shut down CBS Radio, in which Kabaka Mutebi II is a shareholder, accusing it of inciting a riot. The Kabaka's officials deny the charges and critics of the president contend the radio shutdown puts the Museveni regime at odds with the Congressional U.S. directive. Washington and London have primarily sustained the Museveni regime through the years with outside donors subsidizing as much as half of his government's budget. Tighter Western purse strings could impact the government's ability.

Washington has suddenly shifted its policy towards Uganda. "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," Tim Rieser, a senior adviser to Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee which funds U.S. foreign aid programs, told The Black Star News last month, referring to the Museveni regime, after the Congressional directive became public.

Separately, Leahy also called for an investigation of an automobile incident involving a key Uganda opposition figure Olara Otunnu, in December, when his car was allegedly forced off the road by cars driven by Museveni's Presidential Guard Brigade. Otunnu said it was an assassination attempt; Uganda's minister in charge of international relations, Oryem Okello, denied the charges.

Washington has been playing a more even handed role since the September killings. Recently, Jerry P. Lanier, the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, met with Kabaka Mutebi II. U.S. embassy officials wouldn't comment, with John H. Dunne, a mission officer saying:  “As a policy, the mission does not comment on private meetings between U.S. Mission officials and individuals.”

It's unclear whether Ambassador Lanier is trying to broker better relations between Museveni and the Kabaka, whose supporters have demanded that the radio station be reopened. The Kabaka's officials have also been pushing back against Museveni, whom they see as trying to curb the monarch's influence in the run up to next year's elections. Politicians crave the Kabaka's tacit endorsement.

“What we say is that the King of this nation, Buganda, is the Kabaka,” Apollo Makubuya, who is the Buganda Attorney General, said in an interview.

He added: “We do not discriminate and have never refused any one to practice their culture.”

Makubuya denied charges by Museveni that the Baganda were promoting parochial interests at odds with national ones.

Miwambo reports for The Black Star News from Europe.

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