In this exclusive article, international journalist, migrant activist and TED Fellow Yasin Kakande, author of a new book on the historical and contemporary reasons for African immigration, Why We Are Coming, decries Britain’s continued endorsement of Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, when ordinary Ugandans are suffering greatly from his decades-long military dictatorship.
By Yasin Kakande
Despite widely reported election violence and fraud in Uganda, Britain’s endorsement of President Yoweri Museveni’s electoral victory came swiftly.
James Duddridge MP, the U.K.’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Africa, characterized the elections as “calm”. Thus, Museveni, at 75, could look forward to extending his 35-year rule by another five years.
In Africa, media outlets immediately pointed to Duddridge’s banking business relations with Museveni in the hopes of discrediting the endorsement. Conflating interests, apparently, is accepted with a matter-of-fact attitude.
Personally, the word ‘calm’ struck me as utterly ironical, for this was a heavily militarized election. Two days of violence alone on the streets of Kampala left 54 people dead.
There were also wider reports of hundreds of arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters, ballot stuffing, tally fraud, internet disruptions, the deportation of journalists, and the denial of access for foreign election observers.
To describe the situation as “calm” is untenable.
As I write this, my nephew Abubakar Kayemba is still missing after, I believe, being kidnapped by Museveni’s military forces a few weeks before the elections. Kayemba was a candidate for the National Union Platform Party that fielded Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu — more widely known as ‘Bobi Wine’ — for president.
How can it be that dozens of dead Ugandan citizens count for nothing, their killings swept casually away for the purpose of characterizing this particular exercise of the civic process as ‘calm’?
How many Ugandans must die before global observers challenge such descriptions?
These questions reminded me when an editor dismissed my reporting of six dead Africans in violence as insufficiently newsworthy. This is not a new problem in the Western media, where the narrative consistently accepts violence as a given in the civic and political life of an African nation.
However, to dismiss the value of an African citizen’s life also explains in part why many African dictators such as Museveni resort persistently to violence in order to stay in power.
The mainstream media (largely white) will not cover a few dead African protesters and, meanwhile, British and American politicians will not question the governments about the dead.
Still many black people in Africa and the West are pressing with louder, sharper voices about the issue, which also has propelled the Black Lives Matter movement in America.
For Museveni, the British endorsements are important and do matter more than even the Ugandan voters for the long-time ruler to contend that his election is legitimate and legal.
It was these endorsements delivered by British politicians such as Lord Carrington and Lord Luce, then Minister of State for Overseas Development in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which helped facilitate Museveni’s rise to power in Uganda during the 1980s.
Britain’s status as a global power still carries weight in terms of selecting leaders to govern the African countries that were its former colonies. British economic interests, of course, remain prominent in Uganda’s economy.
For example, Tullow Oil and Shell dominate the country’s energy sector, while Barclays and Standard Chartered are leaders in the banking sector, and Unilever has a major presence in the food and beverage sector.
Museveni is cunning enough to persuade Britain that he is the only one that can guarantee the continuity of British business interests in Uganda. Unfortunately, the Museveni economy has been in free fall, riddled with corruption, nepotism, and incompetence, with the effects ricocheting back onto British corporate interests. To wit: British Airlines had to close shop in Uganda.
Museveni is just as cunning with Americans, who accept that should he leave power, the militant Al-Shabaab group will take over East Africa. Washington continues to foot Museveni’s military bills. As several American media outlets and the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Natalie E. Brown, criticized the Ugandan leader for using violence to interfere with the elections, Museveni sought to distract the focus by alleging that the Ugandan military killed more than 180 Al-Shabaab fighters.
But if the only remaining useful purpose for Museveni is to fight Al-Shabaab in Somalia, why is it that poor Ugandans must continue to suffer or abide his presidency, which has been a domestic policy failure? Perhaps, Museveni should move to Somalia and let Ugandans dictate their own political future.
In Uganda, Museveni has exercised the same cunning skills. Older generations of Ugandans feared that if they voted against him, the country would return to the instability experience during the dictatorship of Idi Amin. After the guerrilla war that brought Museveni into power, large piles of human remain like skulls and bones were displayed on most roads in Uganda as evidence of the costs of war.
Museveni reminded Ugandans that he ended the civil wars and restored stability — “Yaleeta Otuulo,” which translates to “He brought sleep” so that no one had to worry about armed rebels knocking on their doors at night.
Eventually, Ugandans tired of the same sleep metaphor for every election and demanded progress in the economy, health care, and education. I remember an old relative who advocated for Museveni because he had “brought sleep”. Unfortunately, she died of malaria in a government hospital, and during her funeral everyone regretted that she had supported a president who could not even assure that his hospitals had anti-malarial drugs to treat the patients.
Ugandans have recently called upon the British to move past the purported fears that their corporations would lose their footing in Uganda once Museveni is gone. Likewise, Ugandans are telling Americans to stop thinking that Museveni is the only one who can confront Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Ugandans have been afraid that the U.S. would follow the U.K. path in endorsing Museveni, despite more pointed American media coverage criticizing Museveni’s policies of authoritarianism and brutal violence.
The U.S. is the major funder of Uganda’s military, which Museveni needs to ensure his grip on political power. It is the military that crushes, teargases, shoots, and kills protesters. The military effectively puts the entire country at gunpoint whenever its citizens go to the polls.
Election time is a display of military might in Uganda, with the streets, towns, and villages filled with soldiers in uniform wielding rifles and shouting to citizens to return to their homes. Those who don’t oblige can expect to be shot at with no consequences incurred by the forces. It is sensible to argue that without the U.S funding of the Ugandan military there would not be any Museveni.
Several American politicians have already called on the U.S. to invoke Magnitsky sanctions on Museveni and his military forces as a response to the regime’s repression and human rights abuses. Ugandans would hope that Britain would follow the lead of the new presidential administration in Washington other than a provision-free endorsement.
Business concerns are also waking up to the circumstances. MTV Base, the African television channel, cancelled its annual MTV Africa Music event, which was slated to be held in Uganda this year, after an online campaign by Ugandans urged the media outlet not to whitewash Museveni’s repression.
As Ugandans brace for another five years of Museveni tyranny, their appeal will now go mostly to the British people to rise with them against this repressive government, which has been endorsed in London. Ugandans will ask their British counterparts to demand that the U.K. government cut all of the financial, political, and military ties that have been so abused by Museveni.
Today, tens of thousands of Ugandans are refugees and migrants who have relocated throughout the world.
In the Middle East, Ugandan college graduates are employed as domestic workers and security guards under appalling conditions.
They are not happy that their circumstances have been so limited and forced upon them. They would prefer to be at home with their families but their country’s collapsing economy and the inherent corruption of the Museveni regime does not foretell progress or an expanded job market.
Britain is among the countries that once hosted many Ugandan migrants but, as nationalist and nativist sentiments have erupted, the doors to refugees and migrants from Uganda have been shut.
Indeed, if conscientious British citizens want to confront the amorality of this, they should consider the ramifications of drowning the livelihoods of Ugandans which is occurring because the British government supports a cruel dictator.
Even worse, it also blocks African citizens from coming to the U.K., who are more than willing to work and begin to seek relief from a lifetime of repression and oppression.
EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM WHY WE ARE COMING, BY YASIN KAKANDE
In this exclusive and moving excerpt from his latest book, Why We Are Coming, Ugandan journalist Yasin Kakande reveals the heavy toll that years of misrule by President Museveni has had on the Ugandan people, not least his own family.
DETERIORATING LIVES OF UGANDAN PEOPLE
My father-in-law, Al Hajji Ali Mawejje, had always been a pillar of support for me and my family. He had been there for me when each of my parents died and he was there to encourage me when he heard the news of my deportation from Dubai following the publication of my first book. When I returned to Uganda and ventured into agriculture he sent me a truck full of coffee husks to fertilize our pineapple crops and when that didn’t work out, he looked out for my wife and children after I went to the U.S. so I could provide for my family. So, when my younger brother Wahab called to tell me that he had received unconfirmed reports of Al Hajji’s death in an accident, I was devastated.
A week after his burial, my wife sent me graphic video footage of the fatal accident. It showed two motorcycles, each with passengers, colliding on a road in the rain and then four bodies scattered on the ground. A rescuer pulls my father-in-law to the side of the road where another body lies still. My father-in-law is seen shaking his head, indicating that he was fighting to stay alive. But…what happened next? Was he taken to the hospital? Did the rescuer call for help? Administer CPR?
My father-in-law’s death is symbolic to me of the lack of essential infrastructure in Uganda. He might never have been in the accident if the traffic was properly managed and the roads maintained to a reasonable standard. But the Government has never made road safety a priority. After the accident my father-in-law might have lived had there been medical help available. But ambulances are few and far between and there was not one near enough to help him. In the video the rescuer begged anyone who had a vehicle available to help carry the three survivors of the crash to the hospital.
I kept thinking as I watched the video footage again and again that if I was at the scene, I could have given CPR using the training I‘ve had in the U.S. for the work I do as a caregiver. Modern resuscitation techniques are a gamechanger for emergency care and individuals trained in CPR have been able to keep a critically injured person alive in the direst life-threatening circumstances. It is perhaps emblematic of the situation. I was watching his death from a world away wishing that I had been there to save him.
A 2017 journal article in the Journal of Injury and Violence Research indicated that deaths in road accidents in Uganda occur at a rate of 28.9 per 100,000 population, the sixth highest in the world. Indeed the British newspaper The Independent considers Uganda’s Kampala Masaka road to be the world’s most dangerous with more people dying on a single highway in Uganda than die on average each year on Bolivia’s infamous “Death Road.”
Researchers determined various reasons for these terrifying numbers. One focused on access and affordability of transportation. Because many Ugandans can’t afford cars they drive motorbikes called bodabodas which researchers call “silent killers.” But, more importantly was the quick, close access to trauma care centers. The researchers concluded that “it’s irrefutable that timely prehospital care can reduce injury severity reducing the trend of [road] deaths by saving lives, treating injuries efficiently and effectively, preventing infections and injury-related diseases as well as preventing disabilities.”
For me as for many Ugandans, this type of research only confirms what we have been saying for decades. After more than 30 years in power the government has not done much to fix roads, manage traffic or build an effective system of emergency medical response. For the most part, accident victims still have to be driven to hospitals in private vehicles and, once there, the care they receive will be patchy at best. Most hospitals in Uganda still don’t have CT Scan technology to accurately assess the presence or extent of injuries.
Although there’s widespread and profound concern about public safety and health among Ugandans the government has done nothing to fix the problems. While public safety and health have been consistently ignored for 30 years, Museveni continues to keep the military, one of the largest and most capable in Africa, well supplied.
This pattern of neglect only makes sense when seen through the prism of Museveni’s rule. The military is an essential asset and therefore a legitimate destination for public money, healthcare is neither, because the government equates the regime and not the population with the Nation.
Public expectations have been systematically lowered to the point that public healthcare has come to be seen as something like charity. In 2018 when popular Ugandan singer Mowzey Radio died in a private hospital, Museveni delivered the news of his death and added that he had personally contributed 30 million Ugandan Shillings (U.S. $8,000) to help pay for the singer’s treatment. In doing so he reminded Ugandans that their healthcare system had been relegated to personal donations for which they should be grateful.
Many public hospitals, where millions of Ugandan citizens and taxpayers go when they need medical treatment, lack prescription drugs and life-saving equipment. Even a celebrity like Mowzey Radio had to be moved between various public hospitals in the hope of finding the right treatment. until he was eventually referred to an expensive, private hospital.
Meanwhile, Ugandan drivers have become inured to dodging potholes rather than demanding that the Government fix the roads or account for the billions in taxes that could have been spent to improve them.
Three months before my father-in-law died my maternal grandmother and uncle passed away and one month later my sister died. Musebeeyi, my maternal grandmother, had pneumonia, Badru Kikaawa, my uncle had malaria, and my sister, Aisha Nansukusa, had AIDS. As I announced their deaths on social media it looked like everyone in my family was dying. It struck me that all these deaths could have been prevented if Uganda had a government that prioritized people’s lives and health. Malaria, which has already been prevented if not eliminated in many countries, was still claiming people’s lives in my country. Uganda receives some aid from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) program Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) to fight malaria but most of that is lost to corruption.
Too many deaths in Uganda are preventable but because the health service, designed and maintained by the Government, fails to adequately administer and provide resources, medicine and treatment, patients suffer. Museveni’s long rule has taken a toll of varying degree on virtually every family in Uganda. It is customary for families to maintain their own cemeteries in villages, and when I visit my mother’s family cemetery, I realize that I know nearly half the people buried there. I see the cost of many people’s lives as the consequence of misrule. Several people who are buried there died in the war that brought Museveni to power, while many more have died of diseases that could have been avoided with vaccinations or effective treatment.
It’s hard to argue with anyone who believes that the way to measure an African president’s legacy is by counting the dead at cemeteries. Perhaps, instead of naming airports, hospitals, and stadiums after them, our presidents’ names should be on their respective nation’s cemeteries, for it is there where they made the most impact. Ironically, while they avoid our hospitals and seek treatment for their families in Europe or the U.S., shun our universities and send their children to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and keep the fortunes they accumulate from robbing our institutions safely in European banks, when they or their children die they hurry to bring the bodies into our cemeteries
The morale of healthcare providers is another major problem. Hospitals in Uganda lack skilled personnel and those who work there are demoralized, underpaid and undervalued. Strikes are common but whenever healthcare workers demand equitable pay the government responds with the laughable suggestion that it will import health workers from Cuba.
My mother died in Mulago Hospital, the largest public hospital in Uganda, on an early evening in July 2012. The staff in the financial department had gone home for the day. As a result, we could not pay the bill which meant we couldn’t get clearance to leave the hospital with my mother’s body. One of the doctors on duty gave me the accountant’s number and advised me that if I talked “favorably” with him he would come back to the hospital, process our payment, and clear us to leave so that we could take the body that evening.
The accountant was rude on the phone, bluntly telling me that the death of my mother was not important to him, indeed he had seen plenty of similar deaths, and that I should wait until the following day, which was Sunday. When I told this story to the doctor who had given me the accountant’s number, he blamed me for not talking “favorably”with him. It turned out that “favorably” meant offering the man a bribe.