Three years ago, I would get into long discussions with a friend in Uganda about the United States, global political affairs, and the situations in African countries. On Ugandan politics, he delivered impassioned speeches about democracy and responsible governance, and I often thought I was looking at Africa’s next great leader. He knew the rules of Ugandan politics but refused to accept them. Instead, he advocated for a higher standard in government, one that put the interests of the country’s citizens ahead of political gain.

When I visited him in Uganda this February, we shared our excitement over the election of Barack Obama, and he described the depth and breadth of expectations for the new president with regard to African issues. But as we continued talking, he narrowed Obama’s agenda down to one request. “If Obama would just denounce dictatorship, that would be it,” he said. “Nothing else.”

In other words, after years of seeing Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni rewrite the constitution to run for yet another term, my friend wants something different. He, too, wants change.

Undemocratic Allies

In the Great Lakes Region, Uganda is one of the most important U.S. allies. For years, Uganda was an aid and investment haven, and one of Africa’s rising stars. Today, State Department officials continue to receive critical intelligence information from the Ugandan government, and its military is trained and deployed for peacekeeping in Somalia. Additionally, Museveni is still sometimes cited as an exemplar on HIV/AIDS in Africa, despite recent years of increasing prevalence rates, largely a result of Bush administration pressures.

And yet Museveni isn’t a responsible democratic leader. He has been in power since 1986 and plays political favoritism with those from his alleged birthplace in western Uganda. Perhaps most notoriously, he has marginalized the people of the north, cheating them of development aid and prompting the formation of a brutal rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Human Rights Watch has cited Museveni’s military, the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), numerous times for committing serious crimes against the civilian population. The UPDF also invaded and occupied the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during Museveni’s rule, which led to the killing and torture of Congolese civilians, as well as the pillage of Congo’s mineral wealth.

The LRA terrorized northerners for 20 years without any serious action from the Ugandan government. In 1996, rather than effectively dealing with the LRA problem, the government forcibly displaced much of the population into camps. There they were vulnerable to mass attack by the LRA and died of disease, hunger, and inadequate sanitation. International pressure eventually became so strong that Museveni could no longer ignore the humanitarian catastrophe occurring in his country. A peace process was initiated in Juba, South Sudan in 2006 with buy-in from the LRA, the government of Uganda, and the United States. It was the most comprehensive process to date, although it lacked any serious measures of accountability for the atrocities committed by Museveni’s government.

The peace process failed in December 2008, when LRA leader Joseph Kony refused to sign the final peace agreement. The International Criminal Court warrant against the LRA might have been the primary reason for Kony’s absence. Or perhaps he was never serious about the peace process and simply used the opportunity to re-arm. Whatever the reason, the failure of the talks prompted the Ugandan military to wage a disastrous attack against the Lord’s Resistance Army in the DRC. AFRICOM, the U.S. military command for Africa, supported the attack, though the Pentagon tried to deny any responsibility for its failure.

Another intervention, some argue, would end Kony’s violent rampage. Among the many reasons to oppose another military strike is that the United States would be repeating its Cold War mistake of supporting an undemocratic regime’s armed forces. Northern Ugandans have innumerable stories about the abuses committed by the UPDF in their communities. Although the UPDF’s behavior has been slightly better in recent years, it would be a mistake for the United States to train and equip such a force for combat. Museveni has shown no interest in relinquishing his presidency, and yet the United States continues to shower his so-called democracy with aid and military support.

Obama’s Move

None of this should negate the good things Museveni has done for Uganda. But it’s important to recognize that many Ugandans, particularly those not from southwestern Uganda, question the legitimacy of his multi-decade rule. They highlight corruption, the violence in the north, and his ethnically unbalanced approach to governance. Museveni’s oppressive actions and dictatorial attitudes to the presidency effectively rob his government of the “democratic” title.

Obama said in his inaugural address, “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” But what happens if the United States has already extended that hand so far that it resembles an embrace? It may be difficult for Obama to rescind his predecessors’ undying affection toward Uganda, but he should know that people like my friend are expecting a firmer stance.

If he is bold enough, Obama will heed my friend’s advice and denounce undemocratic governments such as Uganda during his trip to Ghana this week. If he does not, African civil society will continue to face regimes that, despite outside support, remain hollow at their core.

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