Stifling Dissent in East Africa

(written November 10, 2011)

Amnesty International USA released a new report last week (Stifling Dissent: Restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Uganda, 1 Nov. 2011) detailing the deterioration of human rights in Uganda. Uganda should be on the radar of American citizens because it is a key ally of Washington in central Africa.

Uganda’s role in the Congo holocaust is well documented, as is the more recent infamy earned for its lethal hostility to homosexuals, thanks in part to an alliance with the most barbaric elements of the so-called ‘Christian’ community in the U.S.

Just last month a new military collaboration was initiated, as Obama has begun deploying U.S. Army Special Forces to the region. Although this initiative is ostensibly being undertaken with the sole objective of tracking down and neutralizing the Lord’s Resistance Army, it would be terribly naïve not to see it as part of AFRICOM’s aggressive attempt to shore up military alliances throughout the continent.

If past precedent is any guide, this could be bad news for civilians unfortunate enough to be in the path of a vengeful LRA – the 2008-2009 regional alliance backed by Washington codenamed Operation Lightning Thunder reportedly led to the deaths of nearly 1,000 civilians. According to the report, press freedom in Uganda has been on a steady downward slope in the past few years. The protests against cost of living increases this past spring have provoked additional crackdowns on civil liberties.

The Amnesty report apparently prompted the State Department to spring into action with a face-saving statement of its own (though no reporters have yet seen fit to query State’s spokeswoman Nuland about how Washington’s collaboration with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s repressive forces might help him perpetuate his hold on power). It is hard not to see this sort of “unusual” public statement as a public relations exercise made by State Department officials to the media, while AFRICOM and the White House wink at Museveni, reassuring him behind the scenes that they are committed to strong relations.

Tabu Butagira, writing for Uganda’s Daily Monitor, observed that:

“Washington’s public disapproval over human rights abuses in Uganda, its strategic security ally in the fragile Great Lakes region comes a day after London-headquartered rights group, Amnesty International, said in a report that President Museveni is maintaining power through ‘repression’.”

Butagira noted the irony of “asking the UN, the US and European governments to put Uganda on the radar and ask its leaders to uphold human rights when President Museveni in his early days was lavished by the West” for reforms.

Washington’s alliances with unsavory regimes are scarcely news to anyone who’s been paying attention since… well since before living memory. Since the loss of innocence of the early 1960s, one result of this greater awareness (a good thing to be sure) is the danger that further revelations of this sort provoke merely yawns.

Yet some unsavory alliances tend to get more attention than others. Usually, African politics receive particularly short shrift. We have not yet seen sustained attention to the abuses (which should not be considered as unrelated to the headline-grabbing Arab Spring) of 2011, especially in a manner that emphasizes the simultaneously strong relationship with Washington. It is precisely this jaded shrug that permits abuses to continue in the semi-darkness.

With that in mind, let us take a closer look at Obama’s friends in Kampala.

Amnesty’s report – the result of dozens of interviews and visits to all regions of the country – a press release accompanying the report describes how:

“journalists, opposition politicians and activists face arbitrary arrest, intimidation, threats and politically motivated criminal charges for expressing views deemed critical of the authorities. Public protests have been banned in Uganda… In recent weeks four political activists have been charged with treason – a capital offense – for their involvement in organising the protests. …. [There are] increasing restrictions on the media in Uganda which hinder it from freely broadcasting information. …. According to one credible source: “Journalists at the state broadcaster had worked under constant pressure from the station management to black out coverage of the opposition during the general elections”… Journalists in private broadcasters and media houses have reported experiencing intimidation, harassment and temporary closure by the authorities. Up to 30 Ugandan journalists currently face criminal charges for activities which are a legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

Amnesty’s Uganda researcher speaks of a “surge in levels of repression of human rights in the country.”

Turning to the Amnesty report itself, it describes a country where freedom is sharply inscribed:

“…measures taken by the authorities violate Uganda’s international and domestic human rights obligations, and have culminated in widespread official intolerance of criticism of some of the government’s policies and practices and a crackdown on political dissent.”

As Amnesty documents, as of this year, the right to assemble no longer exists in Museveni’s Uganda:

“The government’s position as stated by the President, the Inspector General of Police and other government officials has been to effectively outlaw all forms of public demonstrations, rallies or assemblies in the wake of the 2011 general elections and especially those which criticize the electoral process, current government policies and the conduct of public officials. This ban is an illegitimate restriction of the right to peaceful assembly. It fails the tests of necessity and proportionality for a legitimate purpose set out in the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].”

News media have been bullied into “self-censorship,” according to Amnesty. As detailed in the report, Uganda’s preferred manner of disarming journalists is to harass them with never ending legal battles.

Radio – the primary news source for most Ugandans – has been targeted along with the rest of the media:

“Amnesty International delegates were told of at least two incidents between May and June 2011 affecting a privately owned radio station in Fort Portal in western Uganda, and a state owned radio station in Gulu in northern Uganda. A manager at a privately owned radio station in Fort Portal told Amnesty International:

‘…Things have been very bad since the September 2009 riots in Kampala. Between that time and now we have seen an increasing amount of surveillance and monitoring of radio programmes by the district security officials led by the Internal Security Organization…We (radio station managers) receive more regular calls from the security officials and the Broadcasting Council than before. We are usually called to meetings with security officials to discuss why we are hosting this or that programme or talk show especially programmes in which government critics have some radio air time…We then have to find a way of doing our job without offending these officials. Some times this involves asking the moderator on a given programme to tone down the level of criticism, not to discuss certain topics or not to host certain critical civil society activists…’”

That is not the worst of it. Physical violence has also been employed. The report notes:

“Some of the affected journalists have been subjected to a number of human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment in custody before being charged in court. Kalundi Serumaga, a radio journalist, told Amnesty International:

I was arrested in September 2009 in relation to my remarks on a radio talk show where I questioned the political leadership of the country under President Museveni. My arrest, if you may call it an arrest as I was virtually abducted happened during the September 2009 demonstrations that led to clashes between supporters of the King of Buganda and the police… I was not told what I was being arrested for and I was ill-treated before being put into a police cell where I was severely beaten up in the course of interrogations by security personnel…”

Nor is Museveni’s regime above the outright killing of dissidents. This was particularly evident during the April-May protests:

“The official response to public protests over rising costs of living involved the widespread use of excessive force, including lethal force, to quell protests; the arrest, ill-treatment and levelling of criminal charges against opposition leaders and their supporters, the imposition of restrictions on the media  and attempts to block public use of social networking internet sites. …. On at least six different occasions in April during a number of demonstrations throughout the country, the police and military personnel used excessive force, including firing live ammunition into crowds of protesters, killing at least nine people, including a two year old baby, and injuring dozens others. Typically the protests, declared unlawful by the police, first involved unarmed demonstrators attempting to ‘walk to work’ by shunning public transport. Subsequent to various instances of police intervention to disrupt protests a number of protests turned violent with protesters hurling stones and other objects at the police and other law enforcement officials.”

Following a pattern of autocratic (and even ‘democratic’) leaders this year, there has been a social media crackdown:

“Different sections of the Ugandan public and members of civil society debated the rationale for and the developments around the April and May protests on various social networking sites, particularly on Facebook. The authorities attempted to block the use of social networking internet sites, such as Facebook and Twitter citing the potential for widespread violence, even though there is no evidence that the protest organizers were or have been using the various sites to organize the protests in any way. A letter by the Uganda Communications Commission dated 14 April 2011 and addressed to all ten internet service providers in the country reads in part:

“We have received a request from the security agencies that there is need to minimize the use of the media that may escalate violence to the public in respect of the ongoing situation due to demonstration relating to “Walk to Work”, mainly by the opposition in the country…You are therefore required to block the use of Facebook and tweeter for 24 hours as of now, that is: 14 April 2011 at 3.30 p.m. to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incites the public…”

According to the BBC two out of the ten internet service providers complied with the directive.”

Shuttering social media – now where have we heard that before? Eliminating the dangerous new means of communication has become routine. Apparently, no illegitimate hold on power can be preserved without it. Just ask Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria – or Britain. One wonders how many internet providers would comply in the U.S. if Washington made such a request amid a similar level of popular unrest.

Kampala also imposed an extended cutoff of live news coverage:

“Amnesty International was told that a representative of the Broadcasting Council had informal telephone communications with the management of all television stations during the April protests, directing them to stop live coverage in order to discourage the prospect of incitement of further violence. A television media black out of the protests was subsequently noticeable for a period of about two weeks from mid-April.”

This should sound familiar; it is not so very different from the live coverage blackout of Occupy Oakland last week, just before the police violence began.

Obama and Museveni photo-op

The repression helped secure the reelection of Museveni, who has been in power since before most of the youthful country’s population was born. Attacks on journalists during the February elections were undertaken to prevent “adverse media publicity.”

After the elections were over, the brilliant ‘walk to work’ protest actions provoked particular state violence to maintain the president’s hold on power: “Dozens of journalists were beaten, harassed and intimidated by the police and other security personnel in the course of their coverage of the police’s reaction” to the public dissent.

Not only were they beaten, but they could not report on the violence inflicted upon them, having been “warned against any negative coverage of the actions of the security agencies.”

Besigye

As for Museveni’s political opponents and challengers, they have simply been destroyed:

“A number of key opposition leaders, including opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change, Olara Otunnu of the Uganda Peoples’ Congress, Norbert Mao of the Democratic Party and hundreds of their supporters were, on more than one occasion, arrested in April and May for their participation in the protests. A number of political leaders and their supporters were ill-treated by the police and other security personnel in the course of their arrest during the protests. In one incident on 28 April the opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye was the victim of a brutal arrest by the police and unidentified law enforcement personnel. Following a scuffle with the political leader’s aides, government security personnel forced him out of his car on one of Kampala’s roads. The officers broke the car’s windows using gun butts and a hammer, and sprayed cans of teargas and pepper spray into the politician’s vehicle and directly into the politician’s eye in order to force him and his aides out of the car. The officers then beat the politician and his aides before violently pushing them into a police van and driving them to a Kampala police station. Dr. Besigye suffered various serious injuries, including to his eyes. Various government officials publicly stated that this action and the level of force used against the politician was justified despite the clear excessive and disproportionate nature of the force used in the arrest of the political leader.”

Of course, the repression this year is part of a long-term pattern. Some of the framework was instituted after the 2001 terrorist attacks upon the U.S. when every power-hungry regime on the planet seized upon the Bush ‘counterterror’ rationale to legitimate new government repressive capabilities. In Uganda, the legacy of the Bush administration’s opportunistic response to 9/11 is, “The Anti-Terrorism Act, in force since June 2002, [which] defines ‘terrorism’ and other offences such as the ‘aiding and abetting of terrorism’ in overly broad terms in a way that could inhibit media work.”

Somewhat oddly, the Amnesty report limits itself to calling upon the international community (and rightly singling out the U.S. among individual nations) to publicly call for improved behavior by Kampala. However, in light of the U.S. military collaboration with Uganda, it could easily do far more, like withholding aid and training partnerships until human rights norms are respected. Given the leverage Washington possesses, it should be expected to do far more than make a public statement or two – and failure to do so should be viewed as continued complicity.

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