While Donald Trump’s administration completely neglected America-Africa relations, the blind spots bedeviling America’s Africa policy preceded his 2016 election. Correcting the systemic flaws of the past 30 years will require a complete rethink after the controversial President’s departure.
To remedy America’s Africa policy, President Joseph Biden’s administration should pivot away from counterterrorism to supporting democratic governance as a principal rather than as mere convenience, and cooperate with China on climate change, peace, and security on the continent.
America’s Africa policy
America’s post-Cold War Africa policy has had three distinct and discernible phases. The first phase was an expansionist outlook undergirded by humanitarian intervention. The second was nonintervention, a stance triggered by the experience of the first phase. The third is the use of “smart” military interventions using military allies.
The turning point for the first phase was in 1989 when a victorious America pursued an expansive foreign policy approach predicated on humanitarian intervention. Somalia became the first African test case of this policy when, in 1992, America sent almost 30,000 troops to support Operation Restore Hope’s humanitarian mission which took place against the background of the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991.
On 3-4 October 1993, during the Battle of Mogadishu, 18 US servicemen were killed in a fight with warlords who controlled Mogadishu then, and the bodies of the marines dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The media coverage increased pressure on the politicians and six months later America withdrew from Somalia — a case of the New World Order meeting the harsh reality of civil conflict.
The chastening experience resulted in America scaling back its involvement in internal conflicts in far-flung places. The result was the emergence of the second phase — non-engagement when Rwanda’s Genocide erupted in 1994 and almost a million people died in 100 days revealed the limitations of over-correcting the Somalia experience. This “non-interference” phase lasted until the twin Nairobi and Dar es Salaam US embassy bombings by Al Qaeda in 1998.
This gave way to the third phase with the realisation that the new threat to America was no longer primarily from state actors, but from transnational non-state actors using failing states as safe havens. The 2002 National Security Strategy states: “the events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states . . . can pose as a great danger to our national interests as strong states.”
Counterterrorism training and equipping of African militaries is the central plank of this new security policy. As a result, counterterrorism funding has skyrocketed as has America’s military footprint in Africa. As a result, Africa has become the theatre in which the Global forever War on Terror is fought.
The counterterrorism traps
The reflexive reaction to the events of September 11 2001 spawned an interlocking web of covert and overt military and non-military operations. These efforts, initially deemed necessary and temporary, have since morphed into a self-sustaining system complete with agencies, institutions and a specialised lingo that pervades every realm of America’s engagement with Africa.
The United States Africa Command (Africom) is the vehicle of America’s engagement with the continent. Counterterrorism blurred the line between security, development, and humanitarian assistance with a host of implications including unrelenting militarisation which America’s policy establishment embraced uncritically as the sine qua non of America’s diplomacy, their obvious flaws notwithstanding. The securitisation of problems became self-fulfilling and self-sustaining.
The embrace of counterterrorism could not have come at a worse time for Africa’s efforts at democratization. In many African countries, political and military elites have now developed a predictable rule-based compact governing accession to power via elections rather than the coups of the past.
“Smart” African leaders exploited the securitised approach in two main ways: closing the political space and criminalising dissent as “terrorism” and as a source of free money. In Ethiopia, Yonatan Tesfaye, a former spokesman of the Semayawi (Blue) Party, was detained in December 2015 on charges under Article 4 of Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation ((EATP), arguably one of the the country’s most severe pieces of legislation. But Ethiopia has received millions of dollars from the United States.
The Department of Defense hardly says anything in public but gives out plenty of money without asking questions about human rights and good governance. Being a counterterrorism hub has become insurance policy against any form of criticism regardless of state malfeasance.
Egypt is one such hub. According to the Congressional Research Service, for the 2021 financial year, the Trump Administration has requested a total of US$1.4 billion in bilateral assistance for Egypt, which Congress approved in 2018 and 2019. Nearly all US funding for Egypt comes from the Foreign Military Finance (FMF) account and is in turn used to purchase military equipment of US origin, spare parts, training, and maintenance from US firms.
Another country that is a counterterrorism hub in the Horn of Africa is Ethiopia. For the few months they were in charge, the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU) brought order and stability to the country. Although they were linked to only a few of Mogadishu’s local courts, on 24 December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to contain the rise of Al Shabaab’s political and military influence.
The ouster of the ICU by Ethiopia aggravated the deep historical enmity between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab — initially the youth wing of the ICU — subsequently exploited through a mix of Somali nationalism, Islamist ideology, and Western anti-imperialism. Al Shabaab presented themselves as the vanguard against Ethiopia and other external aggressors, providing the group with an opportunity to translate their rhetoric into action.
Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia could not have taken place without America’s blessing. The intervention took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, met with the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The intervention generated a vicious self-sustaining loop. Ethiopians are in Somalia because of Al Shabaab, and Al Shabaab says they will continue fighting as long as foreign troops are inside Somalia.
America has rewarded Ethiopia handsomely for its role as the Horn of Africa’s policeman. In both Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s case, on the score of human rights and good governance, the net losers are the citizens.
In keeping with the War on Terror being for forever, and despite departing Somalia in 1993, America outsourced a massive chunk of the fight against Al Shabaab to Ethiopia primarily, and later, to AMISOM. America is still engaged in Somalia where it has approximately 800 troops, including special forces that help train Somalia’s army to fight against Al Shabaab.
America carried out its first drone strike in Somalia in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Under the Trump administration, however, the US has dramatically increased the frequency of drone attacks and loosened the oversight required to approve strike targets in Somalia. In March 2017, President Trump secretly designated parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”, meaning that the high-level inter-agency vetting of proposed strikes and the need to demonstrate with near certainty that civilians would not be injured or killed no longer applied. Last year, the US acknowledged conducting 63 airstrikes in the country, and in late August last year, the US admitted that it had carried out 46 strikes in 2020.
A lack of transparency regarding civilian casualties and the absence of empirical evidence that the strikes lead to a reduction in terrorism in Somalia suggest that expanding to Kenya would be ill-advised. The US has only acknowledged having caused civilian casualties in Somalia three times. Between 2016 and 2019, AFRICOM failed to conduct a single interview with civilian witnesses of its airstrikes in Somalia.
Despite this level of engagement, defeating Al Shabaab remains a remote possibility.
Containing the Chinese takeover
The Trump Administration did not have an Africa policy. The closest approximation of a policy during Trump’s tenure was stated in a speech delivered by John Bolton at a Conservative think tank decrying China’s nefarious activities in Africa. Even with a policy, where the counterterrorism framework views Africa as a problem to be solved by military means, the containing China policy views African countries as lacking the agency to act in their own interests. The problem with this argument is that it is patronising; Africans cannot decide what is right for them.
Over the last decades, while America was busy creating the interlocking counterterrorism infrastructure in Africa, China was building large-scale infrastructure across the continent. Where America sees Africa as a problem to be solved, China sees Africa as an opportunity to be seized.
Almost two years into the Trump administration, there were no US ambassadors deployed in 20 of Africa’s 54 countries even while America was maintaining a network of 29 military bases. By comparison China, has 50 embassies spread across Africa.
For three consecutive years America’s administration has proposed deep and disproportionate cuts to diplomacy and development while China has doubled its foreign affairs budget since 2011. In 2018, China increased its funding for diplomacy by nearly 16 per cent and its funding for foreign aid by almost 7 per cent.
As a show of how engagement with Africa is low on the list of US priorities, Trump appointed a luxury handbag designer as America’s ambassador to South Africa on 14 November 2018. Kenya’s ambassador is a political appointee who, when he is not sparring with Kenyans on Twitter, is supporting a discredited coal mining project.
The US anti-China arguments emphasize that China does not believe in human rights and good governance, and that China’s funding of large infrastructure projects is essentially debt-trap diplomacy. The anti-China rhetoric coming from American officials is not driven by altruism but by the realisation that they have fallen behind China in Africa.
By the middle of this century Africa’s population is expected to double to roughly two billion. Nigeria will become the second most populous country globally by 2100, behind only India. The 24-country African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) entered into force on 30 May 2019. AfCFTA will ultimately bring together all 55 member states of the African Union covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people — including a growing middle class — and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$3.4 trillion.
While Chinese infrastructure projects grab the headlines, China has moved into diversifying its engagement with Africa. The country has increased its investments in Africa by more than 520 per cent over the last 15 years, surpassing the US as the largest trading partner for Africa in 2009 and becoming the top exporter to 19 out of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the legacy Chinese investments have come at a steep environmental price and with an unsustainable debt. Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway is bleeding money and is economically unviable.
A fresh start
Supporting democratic governance and learning to cooperate with China are two areas that will make America part of Africa’s future rather than its past.
America should pivot way from making the military the most visible face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.
Despite the elegy about its retreat in Africa, democracy enjoys tremendous support. According to an Afro barometer poll, almost 70 per cent of Africans say democracy is their preferred form of government. Large majorities also reject alternative authoritarian regimes such as presidential dictatorships, military rule, and one-party governments. Democracy, while still fledgling, remains a positive trend; since 2015, there have been 34 peaceful transfers of power.
However, such positive metrics go hand in hand with a worrying inclination by presidents to change constitutions to extend their terms in office. Since 2015, leaders of 13 countries have evaded or overseen the weakening of term limit restrictions that had been in place. Democracy might be less sexy, but ignoring it is perilous. There are no apps or switches to flip to arrest this slide. It requires hard work that America is well equipped to support but has chosen not to in a range of countries in recent years There is a difference between interfering in the internal affairs of a country and complete abdication or (in some cases) supporting leaders who engage in activities that are inimical to deepening democracy.
The damage wrought by the Trump presidency and neo-liberal counterterrorism policies will take time to undo, but symbolic efforts can go a long way to bridging the gap.
America must also contend with China being an indispensable player in Africa and learn to cooperate rather than compete in order to achieve optimal outcomes.
China has 2,458 military and police personnel serving in eight missions around the globe, far more than the combined contribution of personnel by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia, the US, France and Britain. China had more than 2,400 Chinese troops take part in seven UN peacekeeping missions across the continent — most notably in Mali and South Sudan. Of the 14 current UN peacekeeping missions, seven are in Africa, consuming two-thirds of the budget.
Climate change and conflict resolution provide opportunities for cooperation. Disproportionate reliance on rain-fed agriculture and low adaptation to the adverse impact of climate change make Africa vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, the consequences of which will transcend Africa. Through a combination of research, development, technological transfer and multilateral investment, America and China could stave off the impact of climate change in Africa.
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Facebook Removes Inauthentic Assets Linked To Ugandan Government
Facebook removed content engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior six days before Uganda’s presidential election.
On January 8, 2020, Facebook removed 32 pages, 220 user accounts, 59 groups, and 139 Instagram profiles working to promote Ugandan president and National Resistance Movement (NRM) leader Yoweri Museveni. The accounts of at least six government employees and two PR firms were involved in the network taken down by Facebook for using fake and duplicate accounts and misleading pages to target public debate ahead of the January 14 presidential election.
According to a Facebook statement, they removed the assets “for violating our policy against government interference, which is coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a government entity. This network originated in Uganda and targeted domestic audiences.”
The takedown was precipitated by a DFRLab investigation into the inauthentic assets.
The Facebook statement continued:
We found several clusters of connected activity where people relied on fake and duplicate accounts to manage Pages, impersonate at least one public figure in Uganda, comment on other people’s content, and post in multiple Groups at once to make their content appear more popular than it was. Some of these fake accounts had already been detected and disabled by our automated systems. In the fall of 2020, this network actively promoted StopHooliganism hashtag in response to protests against the arrests of the opposition candidate across social media services, including off Facebook.
This operation posted primarily in English. The first cluster of this activity focused on posting in support of the President of Uganda and the ruling party called National Resistance Movement (NRM). The second cluster posted about Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba as a potential future presidential candidate. Finally, the last cluster focused on commenting on the opposition Pages, targeting the National Unity Platform in particular and the opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi [aka Bobi Wine], in addition to posting comments on the Pages of the government of Uganda. Much of this network’s posts were amplified by other fake accounts in the network. Some of these Pages reposted content from local news aggregators and pro-NRM blogs.
Three days following the takedown, Twitter removed a group of accounts corresponding to some of the accounts removed by Facebook. In response to the removal of NRM-linked assets on both social media platforms, the Ugandan government implemented a social media lockdown on January 12, preventing users from accessing social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as messaging applications such as WhatsApp. According to Museveni, the social media giants were not acting “equitably” and therefore would not be allowed to operate in the country.
The DFRLab identified at least five user profiles associated with Government Citizens Interaction Center (GCIC) that were removed during the takedown. GCIC is a department of Uganda’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Ministry. Also included in the list were aspiring NRM politicians, an opposition member of parliament, and journalists working for pro-Museveni news organizations. The DFRLab found no evidence that the two PR firms included in the set were connected to the government for the purposes of promoting Museveni.
After Facebook announced that Ugandan government employees were implicated in the inauthentic network, the verified Twitter account associated with the government media center posted a tweet confirming that accounts “lost” in the Facebook takedown belonged to employees of the government.
WATCH: We demand that @Facebook & @Twitter write directly to the individuals that lost their accounts. Since @Facebook cited @MoICT_Ug in their statement, let them write to us so that there’s a chance for a fair hearing.
Accounts lost on Facebook belong to @GovUganda employees. pic.twitter.com/gGSDYkfgWI
— Uganda Media Centre (@UgandaMediaCent) January 12, 2021
The DFRLab identified five GCIC members whose accounts were removed during the takedown. Another account claimed to work for the ICT Ministry and Kampala Post in its Twitter bio.
Of the five accounts, three of them consistently posted pro-Museveni content and amplified the NRM ahead of the January 14 election, using the NRM slogan #SecuringYourFuture at the end of posts praising Museveni and his government. During the November anti-government protests, two of them used the hashtag #StopHooliganism, which had been inauthentically amplified on Twitter using old images of protests in the country as evidence of Bobi Wine supporters acting like hooligans. A page corresponding with the name of one of these employees was inactive during the lead-up to the election, though was primarily used to promote a campaign to become guild president of a Ugandan university and president of the Ugandan National Student’s Association.
The accounts actively promoted Museveni and worked to denigrate opposition candidate Bobi Wine. In early December after Wine started wearing protective gear to political rallies, one of the GCIC employees shared a post questioning why Wine had not been shot in the head after removing his helmet.
However, GCIC and the ICT Ministry were not the only government organizations represented in the takedown — two Instagram accounts and 11 duplicate Facebook accounts associated with a spokesperson for Museveni’s son were also removed.
The majority of the accounts using the name of this individual contained a small handful of photographs, or else had not posted new content in years. From the profile pictures uploaded to the accounts, it appeared the accounts were split between two people — an official spokesperson for Muhoozi, and a young man using the same name.
Mysterious PR firms
Included in the takedown were two PR firms, with a combined following of over 10,000 accounts at the time they were removed. Despite the fact that they promoted Museveni and his government, the DFRLab found no indication that they were directly connected to the Ugandan government.
The DFRLab previously identified one of the firms, called Robusto Communications, in its preliminary report into the network. The firm advertised its services on Facebook and Twitter, and even claimed to be hiring for a job as a Twitter administrator for the company. Yet the company lacked at dedicated website. And though it is an incorporated entity, the only offline presence the DFRLab could find for it was a phone number that was shared by an online outlet calling itself Kampala Times, which was also removed during the Facebook takedown.
Both the Twitter and Facebook pages dedicated to the PR firm worked to promote Museveni and members of his parliament. On Twitter, Robusto Communications was part of a smaller network within the large takedown that tweeted the same copy and pasted text promoting Museveni and other members of his party.
On Facebook, Robusto Communications worked to promote Museveni by sharing positive posts from inauthentic news organizations included in the takedown, such as Chimp Reports and Kampala Times. The page also stole news stories from legitimate Ugandan news sites such as the Daily Monitor without crediting them, in an attempt to make it appear more legitimate.
The second PR firm, named White Bear Communications, also actively promoted Museveni and his campaign. They appeared to use their social media accounts to advertise and promote companies and services, and, like Robusto Communications, advertised a position to work for the company shortly after the creation of its social media pages.
On Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, White Bear Communications started off by promoting its services, creating posts about business and marketing strategies, and advertising other companies. Unlike Robusto Communications, which started off promoting Museveni and members of his government, White Bear Communications appeared to operate as a more general interest advertising firm until October 2019.
On Twitter, the account continued to post advertisements for hotels and game lodges until October 12, 2019. @WhiteBearCOMM then was inactive until March 18, 2020, when it started consistently retweeting tweets by Museveni, Chimp Reports and other pro-NRM accounts. Any original tweets by @WhiteBearCOMM included hashtags such as #SecuringYourFuture or #SevoLution. Securing your future was Museveni’s campaign motto, and “Sevo” is a nickname for the president.
During the period in which the Twitter account was inactive, the Facebook page dedicated to White Bear Communications posted fewer advertisements and more celebrity gossip and world news, interspersed with content about Museveni. By November 2, 2020, when Museveni was nominated as the NRM’s presidential candidate, the White Bear Communications page started tagging posts with the hashtags #SecuringYourFuture, and sometimes #Sevolution.
In some instances, the White Bear Communications page copied content directly from Museveni’s social media pages, government accounts such as the Uganda National Roads Authority, or pro-Museveni pages such as NRM Achievements. Two weeks before the election took place the White Bear Communications page created several posts using content copied directly from Museveni’s official website, firmly aligning itself with the president. Most of the tweets were signed off using the hashtag #SecuringYourFuture, or #IWillVoteM7.
White Bear Communications also consistently retweeted and tagged a pro-Museveni account advertising different services as well as more politically oriented tweets. Similarly, this account tagged White Bear Communications in political tweets and advertisements.
In 2020 a number of anonymous Facebook accounts were set up to promote Museveni and his son, Muhoozi. The accounts contained no personal information about the users operating them and used stock images of Museveni or his son as profile pictures. Many of them used the surname “Frank.” While some contained the occasional generic status update, such as “I am thinking,” the majority were used exclusively to post pro-Museveni content or share posts from Museveni’s official page and other NRM-related pages.
Many of the accounts were also friends with one another and engaged with each other’s content. The content itself garnered significant engagement — even the first stock profile pictures of Museveni or Muhoozi uploaded to the some of the “Frank” accounts received over 100 likes.
Included in the takedown were accounts belonging to politicians and political aspirants.
Dixon Ampumuza, a member of the NRM, campaigned to be a member of parliament, however in August 2020 he pulled out of the race alleging his supporters were harassed by security personnel, according to Uganda Radio Network. However according to Chimp Reports, Ampumuza pulled out of the race because he did not agree with the mode of voting. Ampumuza went public with his account being taken down on Twitter, where he accused Facebook of criminalizing those who supported Museveni.
Ampumuza’s LinkedIn page also claims he is the CEO of The Ugandan, a news website whose Facebook page was also removed in the January takedown for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior. The website itself stopped publishing new content after its corresponding Facebook page was removed on January 8.
The Facebook page allegedly belonging to opposition MP Cecilia Atim Ogwal was also removed. Ogwal has been a member of parliament since 1996 where she represents the Forum for Democratic Change, an opposition political party that received 35.61% of Ugandan votes in 2016, and only 3.24% in 2021.
Although it was not a verified account, Ogwal’s page appeared to be legitimately operated by the politician, regularly referring to discussions Ogwal lead in parliament shortly after the house adjourned. Unlike the other pages removed by Facebook, Ogwal’s page did not lobby for Museveni to be re-elected. It also vocally protested the application of COVID-19 regulations and standard operating procedures (SOPs) being utilized as tools to silence opposition candidates.
Although it did share one screenshot from a profile that was also removed, as well as one link to Chimp Reports, Ogwal’s page was a significant outlier in the takedown as it did not actively promote Museveni. However, the accounts included in the small network the DFRLab previously identified liked and amplified content from Ogwal.
Influencers and prominent accounts
Facebook and Twitter accounts that were particularly vocal during the protests after Bobi Wine was arrested in November 2020 were removed by both social media platforms. The accounts used old images of protests and riots in Uganda as evidence that Wine’s supporters were violent thugs, tagging each other in their posts in an attempt to amplify the hashtag #StopHooliganism.
Some of the influential accounts Facebook identified as part of the inauthentic network included a popular blogger and NRM supporter, another blogger who switched from supporting Wine to supporting Museveni ahead of the election, and the editor of Chimp Reports, one of the inauthentic news organizations included in the takedown.
Ultimately, the network of pages, accounts and groups worked together to amplify Museveni and his political party ahead of the January 14 election. The inclusion of prominent government employees in a network using coordinated inauthentic behavior to promote an incumbent president and the ruling party brings into question the authenticity of the National Resistance Movement’s campaign strategies.
Uganda and the Bobi Wine Proposition
The history, age, religion, tribe or whatever other characteristic of whoever challenges Museveni doesn’t matter. When everything else fails Museveni resorts to the use of force.
When Yoweri Museveni was declared winner of the January 14 election in Uganda, the situation in Kampala and other towns and townships across the country remained calm. There were no spontaneous celebrations. His party’s secretariat would hours later organise a victory procession from the spot where the declaration was made to Kololo Airstrip, the venue where Museveni will take the oath of office for the sixth time on May 12. One could clearly see that the procession, which took place under tight security, was largely made up of paid participants.
The absence of spontaneous celebrations after Museveni is declared winner is not news; it has been like this before. Museveni being declared winner and his opponents disputing the results has been a ritual that has been repeated every five years since 1996. When Museveni defeated Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere in 1996 amidst accusations of rigging, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, was 14 years old, too young to vote.
Much earlier – in 1980 – Museveni took part in his first presidential election as a candidate more than a year before Kyagulanyi was born. Museveni failed to win even in his own constituency on that occasion and the victory went to Milton Obote, the man who commanded the guns at the time. Museveni turned things in his favour when he started a war after that election and took control of the guns and the country’s leadership in 1986. He hasn’t looked back since.
Of course some Ugandans vote for Museveni, but perhaps they consider it too risky to openly celebrate. It is risky because many of their compatriots who vote against Museveni are angry at the establishment and do not understand how a Ugandan in full possession of their mental faculties can vote for Museveni in the year 2021. Many Ugandans have been attacked for showing support for Museveni, and when demonstrations take place, one would be well advised not to be caught wearing yellow, the colour of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM).
Those Ugandans who don’t vote for Museveni believe that elections are habitually rigged in Museveni’s favour. And there is another group of Ugandans who have grown too despondent to participate in any election in which Museveni is a candidate. A regular commentator has over the past few months repeatedly wondered why Ugandans are keen to participate in polls whose outcome is known in advance.
The country is deeply divided and very few believe that the government is committed to democracy. An opinion poll that was conducted by Afrobarometer, whose results were released two days to the election, showed that whereas 78 per cent of Ugandans want their leaders to be chosen through periodic free and fair elections, only 36 per cent of the citizens are satisfied with how democracy works in Uganda. (Afrobarometer describes itself as an Africa-wide survey research project that measures citizen attitudes on democracy and governance, the economy, civil society, and other topics.)
That is the setting in which Kyagulanyi took on Museveni. The popstar-cum-politician whipped up emotions and motivated many – especially the youth – and ran a campaign against Museveni in particularly difficult circumstances. He had 64 days to campaign in 146 districts in what was his first ever countrywide tour as a politician. He had attempted to tour the country before the campaigns – and the law allows a presidential aspirant to conduct such a tour one year to the election – but the authorities blocked him. His music concerts were banned over three years ago when he made it clear that he harboured presidential ambitions.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to drop like manna from heaven for Museveni, and it was quickly seized upon to ensure that Kyagulanyi’s campaign activities in dozens of districts were blocked, while those in the districts he visited were over-policed and strictly controlled. To say that Kyagulanyi campaigned in the actual sense of the word would be to stretch matters.
The same thing happened to the other candidates in the race. Museveni did not personally address rallies and limited himself to fairly small meetings with leaders of his party in different areas in observance of the rules that the electoral body had put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But he has interacted with the same voters for decades and as in all previous campaigns, he again had the entire state machinery doing his bidding in every village, paid for by the taxpayer.
Like Kizza Besigye, who before him had challenged Museveni at the polls four times, Kyagulanyi ran his campaign through defiance and made it clear at the outset that he would not abide by the rules set by the electoral body ostensibly to control the spread of COVID-19; he would only abide by the electoral laws as set out in the constitution and the relevant statutes. Although Kyagulanyi acknowledged that COVID-19 is real and had sent out messages asking Ugandans to protect themselves, he also pointed out that by the time the campaigns started, Ugandans were interacting freely and such restrictions were almost nonexistent in markets and other areas, and argued that it was not logical that the government should think that people could only contract COVID-19 at political events.
In any event, he added, the government had not showed a commitment to the fight against COVID-19 and, as an example, pointed out that whereas money had been appropriated to supply all Ugandans with masks six months before the campaigns started, millions of Ugandans still hadn’t received them.
Kyagulanyi would be vindicated when after the election – and having been declared winner – Museveni drove from his country home hundreds of kilometers from the capital, making several stopovers along the way and addressing crowds of people who were not observing the preventive measures that had been strictly enforced during the campaigns. The veil was off and the lie was laid bare the moment Museveni obtained the result he was after.
Kyagulanyi disregarded the regulation to have a maximum of 200 people per meeting and called mass rallies. The authorities held their breath for a moment, hoping that the popstar would fail to draw crowds in areas away from his native Buganda region and his efforts would collapse on themselves. When the campaigns kicked off on 9 November 2020, Kyagulanyi started with a bang in an area far away from his native land. The crowds kept growing bigger and the narrative that he was only popular in his native Buganda region collapsed as quickly as it had been been constructed by regime propagandists. As the days wore on Kyagulanyi continued to pick up steam as he went through the districts and his tour of Buganda region drew closer. The regime ran out of patience.
Kyagulanyi had scheduled rallies in the east on 17 November 2020, to be followed by his first rally in Buganda the following day. He visited Masaka – the epicenter of anti-Museveni activities – on his first day in Buganda. The authorities couldn’t allow that so on the morning of 17 November, Kyagulanyi was arrested as he arrived at the venue of his scheduled rally. It took something like a garrison of the army and the police to arrest him, and after a mini scuffle the presidential candidate was whisked away like a hardcore criminal. The abduction was relayed live on social media and some of it was on television. Kyagulanyi’s supporters violently protested in Kampala, Masaka and other towns and after two days of rioting the security agencies had shot and killed at least 52 Ugandans. According to official records, two others were run over by vehicles that were caught up in the melee.
The effects of the events of 18 and 19 November are still in evidence all over Uganda. While Kyagulanyi has been under house arrest since election day and he disputes the results of the election – Museveni was declared winner with 58.64% with Kyagulanyi garnering 34.83% – his supporters have not raised their heads to protest. There are armed soldiers walking in single file every few hundred meters in Kampala and other urban centres, and Ugandans only have to look back at the events of two months ago to know that these armed men could kill them with little provocation.
President Museveni left no doubt at all whatsoever that this could when he spoke about the November protests and killings: “According to the police report, for instance, the five persons who died in Nansana were part of the rioting group. They had, apparently, “overpowered” the police. I will get the details of “over powering” the police. What actually happened? It is criminal to attack security forces by throwing stones or attempting to disarm them. Police will legitimately fire directly at the attackers if they fail to respond to the firing in the air. Many of the up-country police groups are not equipped with anti-riot equipment (shields, batons, water cannons, rubber bullets etc.) and should not be. We should not have a country of rioters. It is the duty of everybody to keep the peace.”
It is therefore back to square one. The emergence of Kyagulanyi as his principal challenger excited many and ignited hitherto apolitical constituencies to rise up against Museveni. These groups include artistes with whom Kyagulanyi has interacted for decades and young Ugandans who were excited by the prospect of having a youthful president. But the optimism that was whipped up by Kyagulanyi’s superstar status has since dimmed. He is locked up in his own home and not even the American ambassador succeeded in meeting him when she tried last week. His lawyers and party officials have been pleading to meet with him so that, they say, they may prepare a petition against Museveni’s re-election.
After the 2016 election, Besigye was where Kyagulanyi now finds himself. He was locked up in his home from the day after the voting until the eve of Museveni’s inauguration – a period of three months – when he escaped and unexpectedly showed up in the busiest area of Kampala. Besigye was then arrested and flown in a military chopper to the remotest part of the country where he was charged with treason because he had declared himself winner of the election. The treason case has not been tried for five years and the state is clearly not interested in following through.
The objective – which was achieved – was to keep Besigye out of circulation and prevent him from organising a mass uprising, which Museveni’s government seems to believe is the only thing that can remove it from power. After the 2011 election, which Besigye again disputed, the opposition leader inspired what were dubbed walk-to-work protests, bringing Kampala to a standstill for months. Museveni is keen to ensure Kyagulanyi does not inspire such protests and his government has literally banned demonstrations; whoever tries to protest is met with brute force. On the other hand, those Ugandans who would perhaps like to protest against what they call a rigged election wouldn’t dare – the events of November are still very fresh in their minds.
Museveni has thrown at Kyagulanyi every weapon that he thinks might work. In an interview with an international television channel during the campaigns, he accused Kyagulanyi of being backed by foreigners and homosexuals and has repeated these claims many times over. Museveni made the same claims against Besigye, never mind that his stranglehold over Uganda for the last 35 years has been made possible in large measure by foreign funding.
A new accusation that has cropped up against Kyagulanyi is that he is promoting tribalism and sectarianism. Kyagulanyi is an ethnic Muganda and his tribesmen have for the first time since 1996 rejected Museveni and voted for Kyagulanyi. Museveni, however, has on each occasion since 1996 been overwhelmingly voted for by the Banyankole – his kinsmen – and most of western Uganda, but this does not come up in the tribalism talk that he and his spokespeople have now ignited. The import of what is happening is simple: Kyagulanyi, just like Museveni’s every opponent before him, will be fought by all means possible.
When all other methods fail, Museveni resorts to the use of force. In a video clip that went viral, Museveni vowed to obliterate Kyagulanyi’s group. A few days later, security forces arrested dozens of Kyagulanyi’s followers, accusing them of all sorts of crimes. Some of them are locked up by the military, accused of illegal possession of military equipment. The pressure exerted on Kyagulanyi was so intense that about a week to polling day he sent his children out of the country. He cut an isolated figure going into the election, only enjoying the company of his wife at home, with whom he now remains under house arrest. You can call it a home or a barracks, whichever you choose.
In the end, all the theories about whether Kyagulanyi would be a different proposition to Museveni collapse. It was always going to come to this; the history, age, religion, tribe or whatever other characteristic of whoever challenges Museveni doesn’t matter. When everything else fails Museveni resorts to the use of force. With his military strength still visibly intact, he will perhaps keep his foot on the gas peddle for as long as he can. Or maybe he will surprise us and engineer a negotiated exit.
Elections at a Discount: Uganda’s Political Imagination Under the Spell of Electoral Fundamentalism
Unless another mode of political imagination is envisioned and then institutionalised in the always uneasy trilogy of state-market-society relations, a truly democratic political order in Uganda today will remain elusive.
The chairperson of Uganda’s Electoral Commission, Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama has declared the National Resistance Movement (NRM) presidential flagbearer, fifth-time incumbent Yoweri Kaguta Tibuhaburwa Museveni, winner of the just concluded 2021 presidential polls. The emotive dust in the cyber-political atmosphere is yet to settle down. The country’s electorate together with all those associated with Uganda diplomatically or otherwise are also yet to come to terms with the outcome of the 2021 elections. In the meantime, the debate about liberal democracy within the parameters of national sovereignty pitted against cyber-globality rages on.
The birth of electoral fundamentalism: the February 1962 polls
As British colonial rule in Uganda wound up, the 1949 Local Government Ordinance intentionally placed authority at sub-national levels (local government) in the monarchical set-up in all kingdom areas. This legal framework precipitated a double move: the minorisation of a great many social groups in those kingdom areas and the provincialisation of social groups in non-kingdom areas. The 1949 Ordinance here buttressed the process already underwritten by the 1900 (B)Uganda Agreement. The subsequent passing of the 1955 District Councils Ordinance, however, augured the prospect for democratisation. The promulgation of the new ordinance drew the contours of an inaugural democratic dispensation in which the holding of universal adult suffrage became sacrosanct.
The first half of the 1950s in Uganda had seen two important developments on the political stage: the Uganda National Congress (UNC) and the Democratic Party (DP), respectively founded as political parties in 1952 and 1954. These parties appealed to different groups for political followership. Although nationalist in rhetoric, the UNC — first under the leadership of I.K. Musaazi — was already stunted by the ethnic and religious bases of Ugandan politics.
So divisive along ethnic and religious lines were the politics articulated by the UNC that it eventually split into factions. The most prominent faction was Milton A. Obote’s UNC, which subsequently metamorphosed into the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) after a merger with the 1958-founded Uganda Peoples’ Union. The formation of the DP in 1954, on the other hand, was a response to the struggle for power dating back to the 1890s from which the British colonists and their Protestant allies in Buganda had emerged victorious.
Taking advantage of democratisation reforms in motion in Buganda since the late 1940s, the Ganda Catholic élite made a bid to challenge the chiefly Protestant establishment at Mmengo. They thus fielded Omulamuzi Matayo Mugwanya for Katikiroship — a far more influential premiership position in Buganda Kingdom hitherto reserved for Protestants. The establishment closed ranks to ensure Mugwanya was not elected. Matayo Mugwanya then became first President-General of the DP, a party whose initial raison d’être was to challenge the Protestant establishment at Mmengo and elsewhere. With the formation of the UPC and the DP (soon after under the leadership of Benedicto Kiwanuka), political lines were more boldly drawn in the run-up to Uganda’s accession to independence from British colonial rule. At stake, however, was a viable system of administration for independent Uganda: a political framework of federalism (ethnic or otherwise) was pitted against that of centralism (by premiership or otherwise).
The consequential national elections set in February 1962 framed the choice for a political framework for independent Uganda in stark contrast: federalism versus centralism. The report of a commission appointed by the folding colonial administration under the chairmanship of Lord Munster, published in 1961, had recommended that Uganda should be a single democratic state with a strong central government.
The Munster Commission Report, however, underscored that the relationship between the central government and Buganda should be federal in nature, while that with the other kingdom areas of Ankole, Bunyoro, Toro and the Territory of Busoga, should be semi-federal. So, then, were the 1962 polls, with late colonial British brinkmanship, cast in a deeply fundamentalist fashion. The coming together of Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress with the Mmengo establishment under the auspices of the Kabaka Yekka party — characteristic of a political matrimony full of unholy romance — afforded an electoral victory to Obote as the new Prime Minister-elect. A fundamentalist belief in universal adult suffrage to secure rather than challenge a preferred political status quo was hence set in motion for would-be independent Uganda.
The coming of age of electoral fundamentalism: the December 1980 polls
Against the backdrop of the 1980 ballot was the firing bullet. On the morning of 30 October 1978 thousands of Idi Amin’s troops crossed into northwest Tanzania and occupied the Kagera Salient, an area of 710 square miles. It took two months for the Tanzanians to marshal their army. In January 1979, they pushed through Kagera, crossed the border and invaded Uganda. In their company were militias composed of Ugandan exiles.
Amin’s military put up a desultory defense. Tanzanian troops, alongside a cocktail of soldiering Ugandan exiles, made fast progress: on 11 April 1979 they victoriously marched into Uganda’s capital and put an end to Idi Amin’s government. In the wake of Amin’s ousting, the de-facto Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) authority eventually called for national elections to choose the leaders who would form a new government. The electoral commission, it is reported, aimed to establish polling stations for every 1,000 voters.
Though the equipment was almost entirely absent — three months before the election day the then electoral commission asked foreign governments for 50 duplicating machines, 200 typewriters, 10,000 duplicating stencils, 15,000 ballot boxes, 15,000 padlocks, 250 calculators, 12,000 lanterns, and 100 Land Rovers to transport election materials — crowds of up to 2,000 people queued to vote in Kampala, and voters in Mbarara, for instance, walked as far as ten miles in order to reach their polling stations. In Gulu, it was reported, there were so many voters that by 11 a.m. election officials had run out of ballot papers.
Marred by serious allegations of malpractice, the then electoral commission declared the outcome of the bitterly contested election in favour of Milton Obote, the man who Idi Amin had ousted in 1971. Even the diplomatically careful Commonwealth Observer Group that watched the December 1980 polls noted in their interim statement that “imperfections and deficiencies [of these 1980 elections] had caused deep unease”. The leaders of the Uganda Patriotic Movement — under the aegis of one of the former soldering Uganda exiles named Yoweri Museveni — called the elections “one of the greatest farces in electoral history”.
More than the 1962 electoral experiment, the 1980 polls embodied a political imagination obsessed with securing the status quo ante. Universal adult suffrage was here a rubber-stamp. Its aftermath hence begot a cesspool of violence. Obote’s 1980 inaugural speech painted a rosy picture of a regime which, from the onset, was set on the path to collapse. In February 1981, a militia — the National Resistance Army led by Yoweri Museveni — launched a guerilla war against Obote’s government. In the words of the Ugandan historian Abdu K.B. Kasozi, what followed were “four and one-half years of brute violence”.
The electoral saga of 1980 thus ended up being an additional plot in the long-drawn out narrative of political violence in contemporary Uganda. That the end of the Cold War further suffocated an already paralysed political imagination obsessed with electioneering is an indisputable fact in much of independent Africa, the façade of multi-party dispensation notwithstanding.
Electoral fundamentalism writ large: Bobi Wine and the new generational wave
Late in the afternoon of Thursday 17 August 2017 Kampala was in an uproar: the then 35-year-old Ugandan musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, took the parliamentary seat for Kyaddondo East with a landslide victory in a by-election. The seat fell vacant when the losing NRM candidate, Sitenda Sebalu, filed an electoral petition which eventually successfully overturned the victory of his opponent, Apollo Kantinti, of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party. Bobi Wine put forth his candidacy when a by-election was called. His triumphant entry into elective politics set the national political stage for the countdown to the 2021 polls.
Bobi Wine’s parliamentary representation of this no less important constituency of a great many urban poor on the outskirts of Kampala City came to symbolise an array of possibilities for a multitude of Ugandan youth to write themselves back into the country’s political history. For Kampala’s youthful and opposition-leaning electorate, as for the rest of the disenchanted youth across the country, Bobi Wine’s parliamentary victory vividly invigorated the belief in universal adult suffrage as the route par excellence to reclaim the country’s political leadership from what they see as a “non-responsive gerontocracy”. Never before in the course of the three-and-a-half decades of NRM rule have the batteries of electoral fundamentalism at both ends of the political spectrum been so charged.
One important lesson soon emerged: one person can make music and even make it very great, but one person cannot make politics. Politics, Bobi Wine and his immediate entourage quickly found out, does require mass mobilisation, association and alliances. The National Unity Platform (NUP) party thus came into being at the eleventh hour of the election clock. From the announcement of his parliamentary candidacy in May 2017 to assuming the presidency of the NUP party and subsequent presidential flagbearship in September 2020, Bobi Wine captured the country’s political imagination with the changing dynamics of the electorate much in his demographic favour.
But the character and scope of this political imagination were by no means revolutionary in any substantive sense. For the NUP and its charged supporters, the 2021 ballot was the new silver bullet to end all the ills besieging both the Ugandan polity and society. So contagious indeed was this belief in electoral fundamentalism across the political divide that politics beyond the horizons of universal adult suffrage were rendered inconceivable. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to argue that the electoral fever by this new generational wave in today’s Uganda seems to have brought to the fore a category of elites whom Jean-Germain Gros rightly labelled opportunistic democratizers. To be sure, despite the fact that universal adult suffrage remains a prerequisite for broader democratic practices, electoral exercises and democratic political order are certainly not synonymous.
One of Uganda’s bottlenecks beyond electoral fundamentalism: the land question
There is no longer doubt that land policies and land reforms in particular have moved to the very center of discussions about development in most of the global South and more particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. There seem to have emerged two main positions in the discussions about land reforms and economic development in Africa in particular, namely, the neo-liberal and the evolutionary.
The neo-liberal position argues that indigenous customary land tenure is static and a serious stumbling block on the road towards a functioning capitalism in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, this should be replaced by individual land titles to fuel economic development. On the contrary, the evolutionary position argues that customary land tenure in sub-Saharan Africa is dynamic and gradually moving towards individual ownership and that actually, the titling programmes implemented by the state are doing more harm than good and simply not making capitalism work.
The case of Uganda demonstrates that there is no single answer to this debate. Some forces within the country advocate for large-scale mechanised agriculture, arguing that the land is underutilised. Other forces within the country want to maintain the status quo, and simply argue to be left alone to pursue the way of life they have known for generations. Within this debate, questions over access to resources, the role of government, rights and responsibilities of citizens, and the most appropriate drivers of development are not agreed upon. Yet they remain pertinent to resolve in order for Uganda to achieve its own assigned goals within the globalised world of the 21st century.
Within Kampala and along highways in Uganda are signposts with bold words painted on them: “This Land Is Not For Sale” or “Land For Sale” with a cellphone number to be found right below the words. The competing visions on the value and meaning of land are evidenced by these signposts as well as through discussions with different stakeholders. Even within the central government’s own policies, there appear to be contradictory visions. For example, the current National Development Plan (now in its third phase) asserts that agriculture needs to be modernised, causing fear in some regions, especially the north where land is communally held.
The 1995 Constitution itself asserts that land belongs to the people and that those who are bona fide occupants of land can only be evicted for nonpayment of rent for two consecutive years, yet the government has in some instances promised plots of land to various investors without securing the agreement of the people. Ground rents, Busulu, are set by the government. In June 2012, for example, the government set the yearly rental fee for tenants in Kampala at 50,000 UGX (approximately US$15) while in rural areas the fee was set at 5,000 UGX (approximately US$1.5).
To further complicate the situation, there are four land tenure systems in Uganda, namely mailo, freehold, leasehold, and communal. Land cannot be owned by foreigners, but it can be leased for up to 99 years. The central government has also issued edicts that contradict some of the existing laws related to land. For example, in February 2013, President Museveni announced that the government was halting all evictions, whatever the reason. So, while on the one hand the central government is saying it wants to attract foreign investment — and there are reports that it is working on large-scale land deals — on the other hand, the same government is assuring the people that evictions will not take place. The lack of certificates of ownership of land for many “bona fide occupants” also confuses the picture, while attempts to issue certificates of occupancy have been resisted by many private landlords and customary landowners who fear that the process of issuing certificates will only make it easier for the government to take over their land.
The tension between locals who wish to remain insulated from many of the drivers of globalisation and those who advance embracing these forces as a way of modernising or developing the state is evident in many places where land deals are being discussed in today’s Uganda. One basic indicator of this tension is the characterisation of the phenomenon by different stakeholders: those in favour of modernisation of the agriculture sector, such as the government of Uganda or the World Bank, utilise terms such as “large-scale land lease” or “large-scale land investment” while those opposed to these types of deals utilise the term “land grabbing”. A neutral term that seems palatable to both sides does not exist. Each terminology for the phenomenon brings with it an implied ideological orientation and a competing vision of the way forward. The bottlenecks relating to the land question in Uganda today will certainly not be fixed by the mere holding of popular elections, however free and fair, as currently professed by the localised liberal democracy script.
In lieu of a conclusion
As an historically underprivileged student of Western liberal democracy, Uganda today—across the political divide—is gravely suffering from electoral fundamentalism in the same way macroeconomists from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank not so long ago suffered collectively from market fundamentalism. In the words of the Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck, the latter too believe that meeting the formal requirements of a system is enough to let a thousand flowers bloom in even the most barren desert. For a country that, since its founding moment in modern times, has been gripped by deep-seated antagonisms along religious, ethnic, class and political lines, the elitist organisation of general elections in the quest for a democratic political order ironically suffocates all opportunities for a “democracy-from-below”.
Those who, alongside Lancincé Sylla and Arthur Goldhammer, argue that period and popular elections provide a rational solution to the problem of succession would still have to remember that the early optimism about Africa’s democratic transition has met with new scepticism: political liberalisation under the dispensation of liberal democracy has shortened rather than aggrandised the time horizons of African heads of state at the expense of the development of institutions for the common good.
Moreover, the characteristic winner-takes-all kind of elections (as have been witnessed in the previous Ugandan electoral experiments) turn the pursuit of democracy into a matter of life and death, a zero-sum game whereby the elected government focuses on the systematic annihilation of the defeated party(ies), together with the constituencies (real or perceived) that support them.
Ironically, the script of liberal democracy now goes against the grain of a truly democratic order: the hunger for free and fair elections only ends up producing a power-hungry political elite characteristically hostile to the notion of democracy as once practised by the ancient Athenians. A political imagination thus undergirded by electoral fundamentalism ends up begetting a disenfranchised polity, with both the citizens and non-citizens within it deeply disenchanted.
The debate on the management of the electoral process in today’s Uganda is still heavily laden with the assumption that the key institutional players in the process — most notably the political parties — do represent the aspirations of the electorate, and that the general elections merely come into play to arbitrate over which of the contesting parties is deemed by the voting majority as best at addressing their concerns. Yet, the prevalent context strongly suggests that the demands of loyalty supersede efficiency, inclusivity and even (social) justice. Dooming as this context portends, electoral violence remains likely not least because power is sought by any means necessary. After all, hasn’t the predominant route to Uganda’s state power in past instances been the orchestration of political violence, of which electoral violence was the harbinger?
The litany of predicaments of social existence in current Uganda — from the systemic impoverishment of society with the blessing of the neoliberal polity to political violence with remarkable impunity — are not simply incidental problems which the holding of periodic and popular elections can easily fix. Rather, these are structural pitfalls sustained by a kind of political imagination deeply entrenched in an ill-negotiated neoliberal mode of governance. Thus, unless another mode of political imagination is envisioned and then institutionalised in the always uneasy trilogy of state-market-society relations, a truly democratic political order in Uganda today will remain elusive.
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