The U.S., Uganda, and the War on Terror 

The United States' support for “strong man rule” in Africa, if President Yoweri Museveni’s recipe for longevity in Uganda.

A US Army member trains members of the Ugandan Army in Kasenyi, Uganda. Image via US Army Flickr.

Over the past three decades, the conflicts in northern Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, and Somalia have had one common denominator: Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni. In “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror,” the journalist and researcher Helen Epstein chronicles how the United States and Western donors enabled Museveni’s policy of destabilization in East and Central Africa, while at the same time he plunged his own country into the depths of poverty, and high rates of illiteracy and mortality. Adopting a façade of democracy, Museveni asserts his power through patronage, brutality, and terror, that continues to this day, as his party, the National Resistance Movement, is attempting to overturn the constitutional clause that imposed an age-limit on presidential candidates. The president can’t be older than 75. The next election is in 2021. By then Museveni, who has governed since 1986, will be 76. The book highlights how “Western support for dictators in the name of the War on Terror” had led to six wars in Africa and millions of deaths. This very accessible account and richly detailed book is published by Columbia University in the Columbia Global Reports series, which caters to “curious and busy readers.” We recently caught up with Epstein and asked her a few questions via email.

Why is your book called “Another Fine Mess”?

The title refers to a film by the 1930s slapstick comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.  They were always getting in trouble. If there was a rug, Laurel would slip on it; if Hardy tried to close a set of drapes, he’d get flustered and yank them off the wall so they’d collapse in a heap on the floor.

That’s what US policy in the Horn and Great Lakes of Africa has been like since the end of the Cold War. I don’t think there were bad intentions, but Washington created a real mess, and it actually isn’t funny.

When Western audiences think of Uganda at all, they usually think of warlord Joseph Kony’s brutality and laws against homosexuality. Why did you write this book?

Very few Americans know the true story of Uganda. The nation’s leader Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986 and quickly became Washington’s close military ally. Since then, his deep security relationship with the Pentagon has earned him more than $20 Billion in development assistance, $4 Billion in debt relief, an unknown amount of classified military aid and impunity for warmongering and human rights abuses that have devastated eastern and central Africa.

The resulting conflagrations — the Rwanda genocide, the Congo wars, the Sudanese civil war, Joseph Kony’s massacres in northern Uganda, the gruesome Sharia amputations in Somalia and the millions of refugees scattered by the ongoing South Sudan civil war — must seem to most Americans like distant storms having nothing to do with us. But under the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorism, US advisers and military officials have been involved in much of this violence, at times arming one side against the other, at times doing nothing until tensions built up and then downplaying abuses by our allies, especially Museveni.

Your book describes Uganda as a militarized dictatorship with a democratic face. What does that mean?

Museveni has used American and European taxpayers’ money to create a paramilitary state that looks democratic on the surface — Uganda has a Parliament, a court system, a lively press, and a pyramidal elected governance structure at the village, district, and regional levels. But these institutions operate at the mercy of a far more powerful paramilitary structure of Museveni-appointed Resident District Administrators, District Internal Security officers, Village Defense Committees, and a shadowy network of unofficial security organs that control their own arsenals, override the decisions of elected officials, and close NGOs, newspapers, and radio stations deemed unfriendly to the regime. Another Fine Mess describes numerous cases of torture, illegal detention, threats against critical journalists and their children and probable targeted killings.

But the World Bank claims Uganda is an economic development success story. Is that true?

No. The World Bank has been touting Uganda as an economic success story since the late 1980s, in lockstep with America’s warming security relationship with Museveni. Many multinational companies took the bait and began doing business there in the 1990s and 2000s. Many have since pulled out, upon realizing that Uganda’s middle class is tiny and most people remain very poor. Supermarket chains, cellphone companies and banks have closed in recent years. Even British Airways, flagship of Uganda’s former colonial master, stopped flying there in 2015.

According to the World Bank’s own surveys, two-thirds of the population still survives on subsistence agriculture, fewer than 20 percent have electricity, and roughly half live at least a ten-minute walk from the nearest water source. Uganda’s children are among the least likely in the world to complete primary school and eighty percent of their teachers can’t read English, the official language of government. That’s how bad it is. Meanwhile, Museveni’s henchmen routinely loot donor funds intended to fight AIDS, vaccinate children, assist war victims and carry out development programs. Just this month, his Foreign Minister was implicated in a massive bribery scam involving a Chinese energy company.

Is America’s support for “strong man rule” in Africa, Museveni’s recipe for longevity?

Definitely. No matter how brutal and corrupt Museveni’s regime is, Washington and Europe continue to shrug off his abuses and the Western media largely ignores them too.  Right now, there’s a heroic movement to stop Museveni from changing the constitution so he can further extend his grip on power. It’s called Togikwatako, which means “Don’t dare touch it!” — referring to a clause in Uganda’s constitution barring anyone 75 or older from running for president. Museveni, who says he’s 73, wants to continue in power past elections scheduled for 2021. In September, Museveni sent his brutal special forces into Parliament to beat up and arrest lawmakers who were trying to filibuster the Age-Limit Amendment bill. Several opposition leaders were injured, including Betty Nambooze, who has been fighting for years to defend peasants against state sanctioned land-grabbers. Her back was broken during the fracas, requiring a 8-hour operation in India in which metal braces were implanted to stabilize her vertebrae. The reaction of American and European diplomats to this atrocity has been strangely mild and military and development aid continues to flow into Museveni’s coffers.

Many people know about Joseph Kony, the vicious warlord who kidnapped children and terrorized the people of northern Uganda for nearly twenty years.  But few know that Museveni’s army also committed atrocities during that war, including massacres and cattle raids and the herding of millions of people into concentration camps where thousands died from hunger and disease and became sitting ducks for Kony’s attacks.   When I was in northern Uganda two years ago, I was told that Museveni himself deliberately prolonged that conflict.  What did Museveni gain from this?
It does seem that Museveni deliberately prolonged the war. When Kony offered to surrender, Museveni let him go.  When Museveni’s own cabinet minister organized peace talks, Museveni sabotaged them; when Catholic leaders tried to revive the peace talks, Museveni’s soldiers attacked them.  When locals warned Museveni’s soldiers that Kony was about to strike, the soldiers withdrew. 
Only Museveni knows why his army did these things, but it’s worth remembering that the government army he overthrew in 1986 was dominated by people from northern Uganda, and when his own army was taking over, it was particularly brutal in that part of the country.  Some locals, including Kony, mobilized to fight back. It seems that Museveni then punished these dissident forces by pummeling entire ethnic groups—particularly the Acholi and Teso people, so they would never think of challenging him again. 
The international community let Museveni get away with this because the war had geostrategic dimensions.  Central Africa is really where the world economy begins.  It’s home to rich supplies of gold and diamonds, the tantalum in cellphones, the cobalt and nickel in jet engines and car batteries, the copper in bathroom pipes, the uranium in atom bombs, the iron in everything.  During the Cold War, the West could rely on the dictator Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Apartheid South Africa, to keep this loot out of the hands of the Soviets and other enemies.  
But after the Berlin Wall fell, the kaleidoscope of US alliances shifted.  South Africa became democratic, and Mobutu became increasingly erratic and unreliable. Most worrying, Uganda’s neighbor Sudan, once our Cold War friend, was now fostering Islamic radicalism, and playing host to militants such as Osama Bin Laden and Jihadist groups bent on toppling our ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and undoing Egypt’s deal with Israel, which America wanted very much to preserve.  Most worrying of all, in the early 1990s, Sudan’s Islamist leaders began forming an alliance with Mobutu against Museveni, raising the frightening possibility that central Africa’s loot might fall into the Islamists’ hands. 
Museveni, whose ragtag rebels had outsmarted Uganda’s much stronger national army, was a ray of hope for Washington.  He was old friends with the leader of a Sudanese rebel group that had been fighting the government for decades because of discrimination. Until the late 1980s, these rebels had been backed by Soviet-allied Ethiopia, and America saw them as enemies. But now that the Soviets were departing, America decided it liked the Sudanese rebels and we began quietly funneling weapons to them, via Uganda, in order to destabilize Sudan’s Islamist government. 
The leaders of Sudan, got wind of what Uganda and America were doing and began supporting various Ugandan rebel groups, including Kony.  Then Museveni let the war continue until finally chasing Kony out of the country in 2006.

You first became interested in Uganda through its fascinating medical history. Tell us more about that and describe Uganda’s health system today. 

Well before colonial times, the Baganda, as Uganda’s largest tribe is known, had their own gods to distinguish plague from smallpox, and performed Caesarian sections, operations considered too difficult and dangerous by Europeans at the time. In 1878, a British missionary doctor named Robert Felkin witnessed a Muganda traditional surgeon perform one on a woman who had been in labor for two days and would almost certainly have died without intervention. After smearing her belly with banana wine and ensuring she was quite drunk on the same substance, the Muganda surgeon sliced her open with a sharp knife, extracted the baby and afterbirth, and closed the wound with iron nails tied around with reeds. When Felkin visited mother and baby a week later, both were well.

The first medical school opened in British colonial Uganda in the 1920s, and competition for a place was so tough that “to get in you had to be a genius,” according to one young aspirant. Ugandan scientists helped pioneer treatment for childhood cancers and malnutrition and the mass immunization campaigns that UNICEF would later promote throughout the developing world. When Singapore was looking to reform its own health care system in the 1960s, it sent a delegation to Uganda.

Today, bats, snakes, and other wildlife have taken up residence in Uganda’s once-functioning rural clinics. I have seen fecal material rain down from the crumbling ceilings of operating theaters. Power cuts and water shortages in hospitals kill thousands of patients each year, and emergency operations on pregnant women are sometimes carried out by the light of torches made from burning grass. The salaries of government doctors, a mere $350 per month, are a third or less of those of their counterparts in much poorer neighboring countries such as Rwanda. As a result, only half of Uganda’s health workers show up to work on any given day, and nearly half of those are so ill-qualified they can’t even diagnose pneumonia. In 2012, a senior physician who oversees the World Bank’s own health projects told me that women at Uganda’s main referral hospital are now seven times more likely to die than they were when he started working there in the 1970s, when Idi Amin was president.

Meanwhile, Museveni’s State House spends $150 million a year flying the president and his cronies out of the country when they need health care.

Your book uses the life story of Lawrence Nsereko to channel Uganda’s political history under Museveni. Tell us more about him.

Lawrence Nsereko is a Ugandan journalist, activist and former political prisoner, now living in exile in the US. During the 1980s and 1990s, he covered Museveni’s early moves as he began making war, first in northern Uganda, then in Rwanda, and finally in Congo.  When Lawrence first told me his story, I wasn’t sure whether to believe it. I’d met many Ugandans with stories about Museveni, some true, some not, and I’d spent considerable energy chasing up false leads. Lawrence’s old newspaper, The Citizen is long out of print, and most copies have been destroyed, but I eventually managed to track down old copies and verified what he told me. By now there have been many scholarly studies of these wars that also corroborate Lawrence’s story.

Lawrence’s wife and child are still in Uganda, unable to leave, so there is a Dr. Zhivago-type love story running through the book.

What do you think it will take for a political transition in Uganda? 

The international community needs to recognize that in eastern and central Africa, the so-called War on Terror has become itself a cause of terror. That’s why I wrote the book. It’s meant to be read quickly, and it’s already in paperback—just $10.39 on Amazon!  I hope readers like it and learn from it.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.