Uganda’s President

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was recently sworn in as president for the third time after scrapping presidential term limits – he secured 59 percent of the vote on February 23, 2006. The Ugandan Supreme Court legalized Museveni’s victory on April 6 after ruling against a petition filed by his main challenger, Dr Kizza Besigye – who had secured 37 percent of the votes. Multiparty elections had been banned in Uganda for more than 20 years. Following a referendum last July, that ban was overturned. South African president Thabo Mbeki called Museveni’s election “a true reflection of the democratic will of the people of Uganda.”

Meanwhile, the World Bank has slashed Uganda’s external debt by almost 90 percent as part of an initiative by the G-8 organization of the world’s wealthiest nations to ease the financial burden faced by the world’s poorest nations. In the context of such political and economic events, the 20 year war in Uganda continues.

Olara A. Otunnu is the former UN special representative for children and armed conflict. He was born in Mucwini, Uganda, and was active in a student union against Idi Amin’s regime in the 1970s. He served as the Secretary-General of the Uganda Freedom Union and was eventually trained as a lawyer in the United States. He also served as Foreign Minister in Uganda from 1985-86 and as the President of the International Peace Academy from 1990-97. He has received several awards, including the German Africa Prize (2002) and the Sydney Peace Prize (2005).

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Do you agree with Thabo Mbeki’s assessment that Museveni’s election is “a true reflection of the democratic will of the people of Uganda”?

Otunnu: No, unfortunately for 20 years, Uganda backed the trend in Africa and remained a very totalitarian one-party state. And then earlier this year for the first time, there were supposed to be multi-party elections. In fact, they were marked by massive fraud, intimidation, the jailing of opposition leaders. And suddenly all the Ugandan monitoring groups, churches and civil society groups, indicated that the elections were not free and fair. Even the European Union, the Commonwealth, who in the end accepted the result, indicated that there was no level playing field in the elections and that they were marred by a lot of intimidation and fraud. But curiously, their conclusion was that the results should stand. So, it’s a highly contested situation and certainly Ugandans themselves don’t accept this as the verdict of the people.

Will the scrapping of term limits enable Museveni to be able to be “re-elected” time and again?

Otunnu: Most African countries have now adopted two-term limits, usually of five years each. In fact Mr. Museveni has been in power for 20 years. So what he’s now embarking on is the third decade of power. Three terms give the impression that this is the beginning of his second decade. But it is the beginning of his third decade in power. So certainly this is a life-long presidency we’re looking at.

And is his rule in Uganda closely correlated with the continuation of the war?

Otunnu: Yes, the war in Northern Uganda started with Mr. Museveni coming to power and it has continued for the entire duration of him being in power for 20 years non-stop. What we have in Northern Uganda is really the most comprehensive case of genocide I know in recent and present times. We have about 2 million people in concentration camps and they have been in these camps for the last 10-15 years. They were uprooted from their homes by the government, herded into these camps, where people are dying at the rate of 1,500 a week! The death rates in these camps in Northern Uganda are three times the death rates in Darfur, Sudan. A thousand children are dying a week in these camps.

And HIV/AIDS is being used as a weapon of mass destruction. The government forces screen the soldiers and those who are found to be HIV-positive are then deployed, especially in the North, with a mission to commit maximum havoc on the local girls and women. This is the reason why in the camps the HIV rate of infection has gone up 30-50% while the national rate is 6.4%. This is a program of extermination that is going on.

Is the use of HIV infected soldiers documented?

Otunnu: Yes, absolutely. There are ex-soldiers who have given interviews to their officers who served in the army, who have testified about this. There are documentaries which have been made in Europe concerning this.

The people of Northern Uganda are caught between two forces. On the one side there is the LRA (Lords Resistance Army), the rebel group that has been abducting children, committing atrocities, and maiming the local population, because they accuse the local population of collaborating with the government. And then the government is using the LRA as a pre-text or cover to commit genocide in the camps. And the local people, the women, the children, are entirely on their own.

Women have to wait 12 hours in line to get one jerry-can of water. Four thousand people share one latrine and live in tiny huts of 1.5 meters in radius in which 8-10 people are stacked like sardines, grandparents, parents, children, etc. It is horrendous what is going on in Northern Uganda.

You said that the rate at which people are dying in Uganda and particularly in the conflict in Northern Uganda, is much greater than that in Darfur. To what do you attribute the difference in world attention and media attention?

Otunnu: Unfortunately it’s politics, politics, politics. This is a case where political considerations have trumped the imperative of applying human rights. We are still in a situation where unfortunately some Western countries ask about the person committing the genocide, ‘is he one of our guys, or is he one of theirs?’ And Mr. Museveni happens to be, for a whole host of reasons, a darling of Western countries. And they have therefore been willing to turn a blind eye to the genocide going on in Northern Uganda. That explains why even though the genocide is deeper, has gone on for longer, more people have been killed, more are dying in the camps, we do not see any awareness and any discussion about this as compared to the abominations in Darfur. I’m very happy about the attention on Darfur. I’ve campaigned for the abominations in Darfur to end so I’m very happy about that. But how do you explain to the children and women in Northern Uganda that their own situation, which is far worse, receives no attention? This is a terrible and horrendous case of double standards. We’ve got to apply human rights everywhere. And we’ve got to protect those exposed to genocide regardless of where they are, regardless of their ethnicity and the politics of those who are perpetuating the genocide.

Let’s talk about the issue of debt relief. Uganda is one of several countries whose debt has been slashed by the World Bank by almost 90%. Is this good news?

Otunnu: In principle it is good news. But my own view is that debt relief should only take place in the context of full-fledged democracy and accountability. Uganda doesn’t qualify for that. It should take place in the context of reduced military budgets so that the beneficiary would be the social sector, education, and health. Uganda is the exact opposite – a country where the military expenditure is sky-rocketing and very little is being used for the social sector.

Debt relief should be given to a country which is not at war, within and outside. Uganda is at war for 20 years within and it is at war in neighboring countries, in particular the Congo. As you know the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Uganda committed an aggression in the Congo, committed massive human rights abuses and plundering of natural resources, for which it should pay reparations of $6-10 billion. That’s according to the ICJ!

So if these conditions are not in place, debt relief becomes a kind of subvention.

A reward?

Otunnu: Yes, a reward for bad behavior, for undemocratic practices, and for corruption. The Ugandan government today is one of the most corrupt anywhere in the world. So while in principle it’s a good idea, in practice debt relief again ensures a double standard.

We’ve talked about crisis of democracy, the on-going war and genocide, and the double standards of debt relief. But what are social movements in Uganda doing? Are people able to mobilize and organize for their rights?

Otunnu: There is a tremendous frustration because Ugandans had hoped that with the prospect of multi-party elections, their own voice would carry the day and it didn’t. Ugandans had also hoped that their wishes would begin to count for more. But we are still in a situation where unfortunately the real constituency of Mr. Museveni is not Ugandans. He treats them with utter contempt. His constituency is the Western world, the Western media, Western public opinion, and Western governments. That is the source of his continued stay in power in terms of political, military, and diplomatic support, and we’ve got to change this. We’ve got to shift from external sustenance of a regime to democratic accountability domestically. Ugandans have to hold their government accountable. It cannot be on the basis of support and patronage which comes from the outside. This is a perverse situation that has to change.

So Ugandans were disappointed by the results of the multi-party elections. Meanwhile are people organizing outside of the electoral system?

Otunnu: They are, but the room to maneuver is next to zero. This is a very tightly controlled state. It is a very authoritarian regime which is now given the veneer of a democratic mandate. People are thrown in jail. There are what they call ‘safe houses’ around the country where political opponents are taken and they are held without any accountability. Many are tortured and die. All this has been well documented. And the media is only free to the extent that they do not oppose government policies.

So would you recommend that Americans ought to pressure the US government to distance itself from the Museveni Administration?

Otunnu: I think it is unacceptable that a regime which has been so repressive, that is conducting genocide against its own people, that is so corrupt, that has conducted war and plunder in neighboring country like the Congo, would be so supported by the US today. I hope American people who believe in democracy and in justice will come to the support of the Ugandan people. I hope especially that they would join a campaign to end the genocide in Northern Uganda.

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This interview first aired on Uprising, KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles, on Friday May 12, 2006. Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and producer of Uprising, Gabriel San Roman is Assistant Producer. For more information, visit

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