April 19, 2011

Uganda’s Quiet Riots Scream Double-Standard

The double-standard haunting NATO’s intervention into Libya had already floated down to Côte d'Ivoire by the time Alassane Ouattara launched his military campaign towards Abidjan. Speaking for many skeptical observers weeks before the advance, Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia criticized the international community for imposing a no-fly zone over Libya on March 19th. With Nigeria chairing the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), it became Lagos’s duty to lobby for an immediate resolution to hostilities, which left over 1,000 people dead, wounded additional thousands and displaced over a million people.

Disputed president Laurent Gbagbo ultimately set a much-feared tone by refusing to step down after electoral defeat in November 2010. Thus people naturally began to wonder why Gbagbo was left to his own devices while Muammar Gaddafi faced NATO’s wrath.

Although understandable from a moral position, criticism of the international community suffers from a number of unfavorable comparisons with Libya. A no-fly zone was inapplicable to Gbagbo’s military, which did utilize artillery and tanks but not nearly to the degree that Gaddafi has. Lacking a workable air force of his own, Gbagbo’s deployment of small units within urbanized environments would have posed even smaller targets for streaking fighter jets, with the risk of civilian casualties running high in the non-designated zone of Abidjan. While not entirely forested, Côte d'Ivoire’s urbanized southern coast is also covered in jungle and waterways, whereas Libya’s desert offers the most favorable terrain for air-power.

A greater degree of truth exists in the opinion that Côte d'Ivoire was left for dead, however this trend only took off after Egypt’s revolution. Up until that point Côte d'Ivoire’s crisis had mobilized and unified Western and African states, capturing international and U.S. media attention in the process. Economic sanctions and diplomatic assistance aided in isolating Gbagbo’s regime, while UN peacekeepers protected Ouattara in the Gulf Hotel from Gbagbo’s fervent militias. UN forces eventually stepped directly into battle on April 4th by launching a helicopter raid on Gbabgo’s remaining military base, presumably to counter the impression of a double-standard.

The international community intervened with nearly every non-military option available in Côte d'Ivoire. Without appealing to NATO for a no-fly zone or resorting to ECOWAS’s military contingency, a second civil war was allowed to burn out on its own terms, keeping foreign forces out of the messy aftermath.

While the West applied different strategies to Gbagbo and Gaddafi, the two dictators shared in the designation of regime change. A double-standard was never theoretically applied. Although Uganda doesn’t qualify for Libya or Côte d'Ivoire’s level of violence, a real double-standard has pervaded the Western response to this much-needed ally. President Barack Obama never shied away from Côte d'Ivoire and he’s unlikely to go near Uganda, a key backer of Somalia’s war against al-Shabab.

Here’s a state where the opposition leader can be arrested without a word from Washington. Where America and Europe must remain silent due to Uganda’s heavy lifting in Mogadishu - and subvert human rights through another quid pro quo.

A long-time acquaintance of Gaddafi, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni recently secured his fourth election victory over frequent challenger and former ally Kizza Besigye. Though marred by the usual accusation of fraud, the February 19th election landed Museveni with 68% of the vote amid scant attention from the international community. He’ll have overseen Uganda for 30 years if he can last to his next “victory” in 2016, and all evidence suggests that he will.

Although Besigye started talking revolution before the results were released, the country hadn’t reached the ripe state of more mobilized societies such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Museveni’s 26 years fall in line with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 24, yet the 30's and above obviously provide more time to spawn a true tipping point. These repressive regimes often followed a period of greater political and economic instability, allowing them to accelerate their economies to placate dissent and create a relativistic shield to hide their abuses behind.

As economic progress fades the masses lose their reason to sit quietly in the corners of society, and begin to risk their lives for a better future.

Museveni is following but hasn’t necessarily completed a similar trajectory. After coming to power on the back of a victorious resistance, Ugandans were glad to finally rid their nation of colonialism and inter-African conflict. Museveni exploited the image of an “independent” man and national hero to counter Africa's foreign “puppets,” while simultaneously becoming an IMF darling during the 1990’s. More recently he’s taken on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an unpopular insurgency in the country’s north. Positioned by the West as part of Africa’s “new generation,” Uganda could have done worse during a fragile period of nation-building.

Relativity, however, loses its meaning to those suffering on the ground, and the West was eventually forced to back off Museveni like the rest of the fallen “generation.” Even with 6-8% growth over the last five years, upwards of 30% of Ugandans remain impoverished and unemployed. Human rights abuses have piled up over the last two decades, while Museveni has secured each election victory under a cloud of fraud allegations. Besigye took his previous outcomes into the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor but against overturning the results.

Kampala resumed its daily activity after his latest defeat in February and Uganda’s revolution never got off the ground. Defeated a third time without much of a plan, some predict that Besigye has lost his spirit. But protests and riots have steadily increased since then, with Besigye walking to work to protest rising fuel prices. Uganda’s exchange rate has risen by 15% since the beginning of year, followed by a 20% spike in fuel and broad increase in all commodities prices. Inflation in general rose from 6.4% in February to 11.1% in March.

Besigye, who Museveni has previously targeted through state security and lawsuits, found himself arrested twice in the last week. Although the government accuses him of disturbing the peace, the more likely motive is suppressing all attempts to protest, which often foments new dissent.

Museveni himself outlines his views in a CNN op-ed, saying, “we must distinguish between demonstrations and insurrections. Peaceful demonstrations should not be fired upon with live bullets. Of course, even peaceful demonstrations should coordinate with the police to ensure that they do not interfere with the rights of other citizens. However, when rioters are attacking police stations and army barracks with the aim of taking power, then they are no longer demonstrators; they are insurrectionists. They will have to be treated as such. A responsible government would have to use reasonable force to neutralize them.”

Unfortunately many violent means exist beyond live bullets to counter protesters, and protesters were arrested during peaceful demonstrations. Leaving economic riots to the side, many of Besigye’s political protesters have been arrested for civil-disobedience rather than “insurrection.” Even so, Museveni attempts to outmaneuver them by forbidding all civil-disobedience, even non-violent tactics that form the core of fourth-generation resistance. “Reasonable” force becomes disproportionate.

Elsewhere Norbert Mao, president-general of the Democratic Party, also finds himself jailed with six supporters for protesting, and accepts the charges willingly. Although he rejects the two counts of assault and incitement to violence, Mao recently declared during his court hearing, “Once again, Your Lordship, if it's an offense to protest against the high commodity prices in the country, then I am guilty. If it's an offense to speak on behalf of other Ugandans, then I am guilty.”

“Once again... they have brought the wrong people to court.”

The overriding point of Uganda’s unrest isn’t to expect a full-blown revolution. Conversely, expecting the latest wave of discontent to pass like the rest has doomed many experienced dictators. Accumulation is the key to a revolution and Uganda has plenty of stored energy. But the most glaring anomaly from outside the country is how little attention it receives from an international community lost in North Africa and the Middle East. Museveni’s level of oppression is staggering in comparison to the perceived threat. At least four protesters have been shot and killed in the last four days, while the government moved to cut off Facebook and Twitter. And the top two oppositional candidates remain jailed.

Internal Affairs Minister Kirunda Kivejinja went so far as to warn that protesters will be detained because they're acting, “outside the law and accepted norms of society. We shall not be ashamed in the execution of our duties.” Either Museveni believes the opposition is more potent than he lets on, or he’s committed to stamping out every last trace of dissent. Neither option is acceptable by international standards.

Though far less dire than those countries deep in revolution, Uganda’s internal situation clearly warrants attention from the international community. In its latest human rights report, the State Department concluded that, “Serious human rights problems in the country include arbitrary killings; vigilante killings; mob and ethnic violence; torture and abuse of suspects and detainees; harsh prison conditions; official impunity; arbitrary and politically motivated arrest and detention; incommunicado and lengthy pretrial detention; restrictions on the right to a fair trial and on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association; restrictions on opposition parties; electoral irregularities; official corruption...”

But this is as far as Washington has been willing to go.

It would be too simplistic to lay the entire cause on Somalia’s ongoing war. Beyond economic opportunities for foreign investment, Museveni forms a stable U.S. alliance with Ethiopia and Kenya in a region rimmed by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Sudan and Somalia. Thus he’s useful for more than his 8,000 troops stationed in Mogadishu, most of which were deployed before Kampala was struck by a dual-suicide bombing in July 2010.

However Uganda’s leading role in Somalia leaves no doubt as to why America and Europe want nothing to do with another uprising. Kampala’s attack allowed Museveni to remove the UN-mandated ceiling of 8,000 and push it over 12,000, in accordance with Western governments. Oddly, while Museveni has criticized Libya’s rebels for accepting foreign support, the president has shown no such embarrassment in fighting Somalia’s counterinsurgency for the Somali people.

He’s also unwilling to fund it, instead relying on Western funds and often complaining of late payments. And he wants to deploy more troops.

While it’s understandable that Museveni won’t fight America’s war for free - and rationally believes in keeping Western forces out of Africa - he certainly wishes to keep his arrangement as is. His dependence in Somalia is explicitly designed to keep the international community off of his back, and he's succeeding. Consider al-Qaeda’s three main theaters: Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. With two dictators guarding Washington’s vulnerable back-doors, who can blame Museveni and Ali Abdullah Saleh for leveraging U.S. aid and continuing to rule with impunity?

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