November 4, 2011

Museveni Cashes Somali Dividends

As Somalia’s gears of war accelerate by the day, the New York Times recently reported Djibouti's incoming deployment of 850 soldiers. Regional observers immediately linked the battalion to America’s drone base in Djibouti, part of Africa’s ongoing militarized narrative. Djibouti troops will likely find themselves patrolling the vacated spaces left by al-Shabaab’s “tactical” retreat from Mogadishu, but they could theoretically bolster Kenya’s offensive as it stretches south to north.

Military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir listed Afgooye, roughly 15 miles northwest of Mogadishu, as one of nine towns under threat of air attack. AU troops would be needed to complete an effective operation.

Washington’s relationship with Djibouti leads down its own trail, but buried within the NYT report is Ugandan’s more immediate dilemma. President Yoweri Museveni has produced roughly 5,000 of the 9,500 African Union (AU) troops currently operating in Mogadishu; 2,000 more Ugandans are on their way and Museveni has promised up to 20,000 total. He’s even boasted of Uganda’s potential to raise two million men. Museveni wants the credit for stabilizing Somalia, and his 7,000 troops (and counting) render him untouchable to international criticism.

All the West can do is try: “The United States is concerned about Uganda’s deteriorating human rights record. Recently the Ugandan government has failed to respect freedoms of expression, assembly, and the media, as well as its commitment to protect the human rights of all Ugandans.”

On the same day that Amnesty International released its own report on escalating government repression, the State Department issued its latest cautionary memo on Uganda’s “deteriorating human rights record.” Museveni has smothered the opposition’s fledgling resistance - a “walk-to-work” boycott against high commodities prices - through a heavy security presence and liberal application of tear gas. Uganda’s symbolic oppositional leader, Kizza Besigye, was drubbed in February’s election and announced he wouldn’t run again, but he continues to lead the “walk-to-work” drive with injurious consequences. Police have sprayed Besigye’s followers with pink goo, temporarily blinded him with a point-blank spray of tear gas and arrested him over five times.

“To prevent renewed protests in October, police preemptively arrested several dozen opposition and civil society activists and placed opposition leader Kizza Besigye under house arrest,” read the State Department’s statement. “On October 31, police again arrested Besigye for attempting to walk to work. In October, the Ugandan government also urged Parliament to adopt draft legislation severely limiting public meetings of three persons or more. This legislation specifically references meetings where participants discuss government principles, policies, and actions, and appears to target opposition and civil society organizations critical of the government.”

Museveni already finds himself mired in a parliamentary crisis over an oil contract with Tullow Oil. Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa and Internal Affairs Minister Hillary Onek are suspected of receiving bribes from the company, and elements of Museveni’s own National Resistance Movement (NRM) staged a walkout after he ordered them to drop the investigation. Some local media and analysts weigh this internal dispute, coupled with Uganda’s oil and inflation woes (and other turbulence from Europe’s financial crisis), as a greater threat to Museveni’s 26-year rule than his opposition.

That hasn’t stopped Museveni from treating Besigye as more than a nuisance. Although his government belittled Besigye’s weak showing in February and subsequent protests, Museveni is determined to prevent an oppositional uprising before it begins. Local analysts have speculated that Museveni will redouble his efforts after the demise of his close friend, Muammar Gaddafi; rather than confront Uganda’s problems before they mushroom, he intends to crackdown even harder on the minority protest movement.

After Besigye was released from custody, one of his political aide warned that “several youths” had attacked his home. Anne Mugisha claimed that his guards captured one of the assailants, who supposedly confessed to being hired with several other individuals, and blamed the police for orchestrating the attack. Museveni’s government is accused of funding proxy groups - the Kalangala Action Plan and Kiboko squad - to target political figures and suppress urban demonstrations. The Kiboko (cane) squad originated from 2010 riots after a gang of plain-clothed men caned people during the melee. The shadowy unit has been accused of politically targeting Besigye in the past, and is naturally denied by Ugandan officials.

Police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba argued, "We have no time to hire youths to beat up Besigye. We have our medicine for Besigye and that is preventive arrest.”

While Ugandan police have repeatedly resorted to physical harassment, Nababooba makes a good point that house arrest suits their purpose. That an attack on Besigye’s home followed the lifting of his house arrest and disappearance of security forces is suspicious, but external political opponents presumably wish to do Besigye harm in the name of Museveni or the NRM. However the government’s “legitimized” strategy to prevent large-scale protests is equally deplorable: quarantine the few opposition leaders that exist, arrest their aides and issue time limits for public gatherings. Ugandan police detained Besigye because “they had received intelligence that he and others were set to participate in the walk-to-work protest,” as if they were going to plant a bomb.

His detention was necessary to “avert chaos” and protect Besigye’s life, according to police officials.

Uganda’s economic crisis is unlikely to pass in the near future, leaving its opposition movement to stagger onward with minimal external assistance. Museveni has no intention of changing his tactics for international consumption; he just received 100 U.S. personnel to track down Joseph Koy’s Lords Resistance Army (LRA), and the Western-funded AMISOM would collapse in Somalia without his troops. Tamale Mirundi, a spokesman for Museveni, delivered a message to the State Department by denouncing Amnesty International’s “exaggerated” report.

"No one in Uganda is on detention order. There is no political prisoner in Uganda. No journalist is imprisoned in Uganda. What human rights abuse are they talking about?"

One problem Museveni doesn’t need to worry about: international powers looking over his shoulder. He’s in the backseat, not them.

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