When I first met Bobi Wine in 2018 — after he had been charged with treason and allegedly tortured while in Ugandan police custody — I recall him saying to me: “They are going to imprison some of us. And they will kill some of us too.” He was right.
President Yoweri Museveni has been in power longer than most Ugandans have been alive. His regime is sustained by the nearly $2 billion in aid it receives annually from the United States and major global institutions like the World Bank.
Museveni’s regime remains secure in power, in large part, due to the welcome embrace he receives in western capitals. Because of his longstanding and carefully crafted image as an American military ally, Museveni has repeatedly been an invited guest at the White House. His visits were as recent as August, 2014, during then-President Barack Obama’s U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, and as far back as 1987, during the Ronald Reagan administration. Uganda has often topped the list of the biggest recipients of military aid in all of Africa. And in May, the World Bank announced a $300 million assistance package, ostensibly for covid-19 relief. The evidence suggests, however, that this money was likely diverted to finance the same thuggish security apparatus that is brazenly assailing Wine and his colleagues. This practice in Uganda has been documented thoroughly.
In effect, U.S. taxpayers are implicated in the plight of Wine — and of the overwhelming majority of Ugandans, who clearly aspire to democracy and reject military rule.
The money keeps flowing despite Museveni’s obvious contempt for human rights. During his nearly four-decade reign, Uganda has become one of the most repressive police states not just in Africa, but arguably in the world. The U.S. State Department readily acknowledges this fact in its annual human rights reports. The rule of law in Uganda has deteriorated in recent years. This reality now plays out daily on our radios, television screens and across social media.
It is time for Uganda’s so-called development partners in general, and the United States government in particular, to stop bankrolling the repression. This an opportune moment to kickstart the process. The incoming Biden administration, which will take office a week after Uganda’s election, has made the promotion of human rights a key component of its foreign policy platform. Wine’s current predicament — and the pro-democracy movement he now embodies — gives that promise fresh urgency.
First, Biden and his team should launch a comprehensive — and prominently publicized — review of all financial assistance to Uganda. Any humanitarian programs carried out by the Ugandan government should be redirected to third-party implementers — ideally local civil society groups — to ensure continuity of service to the Ugandan people. Importantly, programs that solely benefit the government of Uganda , especially military and security assistance, should be suspended until this review is complete.
Second, only personal repercussions are likely to spur Museveni toward needed reform. The U.S. government should start the process to ban Museveni — and other individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Uganda — from obtaining U.S. visas and from participating in U.S.-funded programs. Similarly, any assets held in the U.S. that belong to Museveni, his inner circle, or his family members should be frozen.
Third, the Biden administration should be willing to deploy measures, which can be seen as rather extreme, in diplomatic circles. These actions could include temporarily, but publicly, recalling the ambassador from the U.S. Embassy in Uganda to Washington for consultations while revised U.S. policies are being finalized.
Meanwhile, the United States should closely coordinate with democratic allies and multilateral institutions to issue joint statements that unequivocally condemn ongoing human rights abuses.
The support for long-ruling dictators like Museveni has too often been justified under a dubious banner of maintaining stability. We must ask: Stability for whom? Clearly, Uganda is far from stable. Just ask Bobi Wine, his colleagues and supporters. Ask the country’s battered journalists and human rights activists. And ask the family members of the dozens killed in broad daylight last month by Ugandan state forces.
It is long past due for the United States and the World Bank to cease subsidizing repression in Uganda and fueling the instability that it inevitably produces. Until then, the Museveni regime will no doubt continue persecuting political opponents — like Bobi Wine — while American taxpayers keep footing the bill.