By Rodney Bukenya
Rodney Bukenya is a retired accountant living in Palatine, Illinois. He came to the United States from Uganda in the mid 1970s.
America has long been a sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. From Lithuanians fleeing Stalinist terror, to Bosnians escaping ethnic conflict in the Balkans or Ugandans fleeing the brutality of Idi Amin, the windy city has taken the downtrodden and persecuted, offering them a new life of freedom.
Embracing American citizenship, they didn’t forget their homeland. From their perch of safety, they organized to effect real change in the nations they fled. Lithuania Emigres kept the dream of an independent Lithuania alive – then known only fleetingly from 1918 until 1940 – ensuring the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet’s occupying government. When the USSR began to crumble in the 80s, American Lithuanians continued to vigorously lobby the U.S. government for a tough Soviet stance and support for the fledgling independence movement within the country. They did this from a sense of duty, driven by identity, heritage and a fierce resistance to totalitarianism.
Similarly, there are groups lobbying in the U.S. today against the Ugandan government. They tell of authoritarianism’s return under the current president, Yoweri Museveni. Yet unlike the Lithuania-USSR struggle, these mutterings come not from those, such as I, who ended up here in the 1970s when Uganda’s then brutal dictator Idi Amin was terrorizing our people. Rather, it is the work of D.C. lobbyists pursuing their own political agendas. And that is problematic, for they aim to destabilize in order to affect their political ideals. Yet having never known anything other than stability in America, they underappreciate its importance in Uganda and the region.
Uganda’s post-independence history has not been pretty. Idi Amin, weighed heavy with military medals and regalia, butchered up to half a million of his own people. Then his equally repressive successor butchered some more, forcing the country into a five-year civil war. By its end, Uganda was spent. It ranked amongst the poorest countries in the world and faced the worst AIDS epidemic on the continent.
Fast forward to this day. The story centres on a democratic tussle between Yoweri Museveni, liberation leader who reinstated democracy in the 90s, and Bobi Wine, a youthful afrobeat artist-turned-political challenger. In those intervening years, Uganda has grown exponentially, now a redoubt of stability in a challenging region.
The recent election, however, was tense and fractious. Under COVID restrictions on crowd numbers, police often overstepped the mark on enforcement and arrests. Come election day, President Museveni won almost 2.5 million more votes than his competitor – which were obligatorily alleged as fraud, though without evidence. On these bases, the D.C. lobbyists – under the guise of working for opposition leaders and “Democracy-In-Uganda”– deem the nation should be punished.
There is nothing wrong with debating the flaws in Uganda. But the lobbying aims for more than raised concerns. So far, they have elicited the mildest of knuckle wraps with a visa-travel ban for security services regarded as obstructive to the democratic process.
But the lobbying shall continue, hoping for economic sanction or the withdrawal of aid. Their public relations will persist in tarnishing the nation’s image, affecting foreign direct investment and tourism. And the electoral fraud claims shall be promoted back into Uganda – despite needing a quarter of the votes cast to be void – undermining trust in the democratic system. Taken collectively, it can serve to destabilize the nation, threatening hard won gains. It is the reason so few in the diaspora level the same demands on their US government.
Problematically, the lobbyists also say the U.S. has ignored abuses because they have been hoodwinked. Ugandan rhetoric on regional security has distracted, artfully deceiving in its conspiracy. But tell that to the refugees who have sought safe haven in the country from South Sudan, the DRC and Burundi. Belittling security challenges diminishes their plight. But as they would, and I can, tell you, human rights do not take root in conflict states. Then consider that Uganda hosts the largest numbers on the continent and, according to the UN, has one of the most progressive policies for them.
Moreover, the hoodwinking allegation is false. The U.S. has never turned a blind eye when human rights have fallen short in Uganda, but rightfully called them out. Yet, for the most part, it has done so as an ally, with support in conjunction – rather than threats or injunctions. That broader perspective takes security, human rights and the regional picture into account, recognizing their codependency. Consolidating human rights is about building together. Were the US to abandon that partnership, Uganda would simply turn to China – where human rights appear down the agenda.
Herein lies the paradox. Those that lobby as human rights crusaders may in fact turn its opposite, whether for engendering insecurity or pushing allies away. In America, there has only been a taste of what happens when facts become removed from reality with the Capitol’s storming. In Uganda, the consequences could be far more tragic.
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