Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (Photo by Guillem Sartorio/AFP via Getty Images)

Ruins of the African Renaissance

Yoweri Museveni was once hailed in Washington

Artillery Row

Watching almost universal condemnation of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni for his vicious anti-gay laws, some of us with experience of his leadership felt a sad irony. Just take a close look at the man’s history, and his betrayal of almost everything for which he was once hailed as a leader of an “African Renaissance” — so lauded by the United States, no less.

It was somewhat reassuring to see President Biden denounce the awful nature of the law, with the death penalty prescribed for loosely defined “aggravated cases” of same-sex behaviour and life imprisonment for those convicted of homosexual relations. “A tragic violation of universal human rights,” said Biden, threatening sanctions and cuts to aid. Even an implacable foe of Biden’s, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, joined the chorus. “Horrific, grotesque, an abomination,” he said.

Yet any scrutiny of the passage that has led Museveni to this pariah status after 37 years in power exposes unmistakable, tell-tale signs of how the United States didn’t just turn a blind eye to the dictator-in-the-making, but positively backed him. The world’s number one superpower has blessed him as a favourite leader with aid, investment and support.

There’s never been a free and fair election in Museveni’s Uganda

To quote President Bill Clinton at the height of the lovefest with Museveni, celebrating Uganda’s leader alongside other Africa leaders who have since become dictators: “In a hundred years from now, your grandchildren and mine will look back and see here the beginning of an African Renaissance.”

Now, Museveni rules over a country where a gay activist, Pepe Onziema, sits live on American TV choking back tears, explaining from Kampala: “We have nowhere to go, literally nowhere, without fear of being imprisoned or worse. We are illegitimate, so the law says, illegitimate for being the way we are and how we are known to be.”

This correspondent first met Museveni on a warm Saturday morning at his home in Kampala, in June 1980. Charming, softly-spoken, he issued a striking declaration of war. Sitting in his garden, he revealed on camera that he intended to fight the government that had taken power after the fall of the monstrous Idi Amin, even though he himself had served in it as Defence Minister. “I see dictatorship coming, and I will not sit back,” he announced with his customary smoothness as a communicator. “I’m a democrat. Freedom for all is my calling.”

Memorably, whilst making us tea afterwards, he spoke thoughtfully about the continent and leadership. “The problem we have in Africa is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power,” he declared, waiting for a response. Then he filled the silence with: “you know I’m right.”

That tremendous self-belief, and his diplomatic skill in uniting longtime tribal enemies, led him to build an army of insurrection. He won a ruthless war against the government in Kampala in the five years that followed. Seizing power in 1986, his first act was to ban political parties and postpone any ideas of elections until later.

There’s never been a free and fair election in Museveni’s Uganda. He has won easily every time whilst his opponents are closed down, beaten up and even tortured by his paramilitary forces. Today, any meeting of more than three people is illegal, unless cleared first by his paramilitary police. So much for being a democrat. So much for freedom.

Yet in 1990s Washington, none of that seemed to matter. Scarred by deadly attacks on its peacekeepers in Somalia, then the genocide in Rwanda that left the superpower looking disengaged if not lost on the world stage, the Clinton administration re-cast itself.

The message was that Washington now represented an ally that understood a new generation of African leaders, who cared less about establishing full democracies, more about developing their countries and ridding them of famine, war, refugee crises and economic collapse. As Clinton gathered a handful of such leaders with Museveni as the host at Entebbe, Uganda in 1998, the New York Times reported that Uganda’s President was the standard-bearer of Washington’s policy.

Museveni’s government receives a billion a year in US aid

“Museveni is a model leader,” the newspaper concluded, citing the way he restored political stability, boosted economic growth and beat back a dreadful HIV/Aids epidemic. “His style of self-reliant government, fiscal discipline and free-market economics has made him the darling of United States diplomats.”

Ever the savvy operator, Museveni responded by giving the Clintonites much-need breathing space on the issue of slavery, amidst calls for Clinton to make not just apologies, but reparations. Extraordinary to consider it now, but Museveni welcomed Clinton to Uganda by blaming Africans for slavery. “African chiefs were the ones capturing their own people and selling them,” he said. If anyone needed to apologise, he opined, it should be “those African traitors”.

No surprise that Museveni’s Uganda was handsomely rewarded. Under a package launched when Clinton visited, US aid and investment rose dramatically, totalling more than 50 billion dollars in the years that followed. Even today Museveni’s government receives a billion a year in US aid. Yet Uganda remains amongst the world’s poorest countries.

Opposition leaders, such as musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine, say the clock is ticking on Museveni. The anti-gay law guarantees “he will end up in the dustbin of history”. He could well end up being remembered as yet another African democrat who turned dictatorial. Remember Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Ethiopia’s current leader, Abiy Ahmed — who was a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, believe it or not, before he launched a brutal war on the province of Tigray and its people.

Maybe, but Museveni shows no sign of leaving anytime soon. Indeed, he cancelled term limits on the presidential job years ago so he could stay in power forever. Oh, and by the way, his son — an Army General who will be in the vanguard of the crackdown on homosexuality — says he’s going to run for the Presidency come any election day.

I caught up with Museveni at the Clinton White House once again in the mid 1990s, reminded him of that Saturday morning in his Kampala garden, and asked him when he would hold a free and fair vote. He chuckled with disdain, mumbling that he would do so when the people asked him to. “You told me once ‘freedom for all’ was your calling?” I pressed. This time Museveni smiled with contempt.

“Freedom for all, yes, for all those who deserve it,” he replied. As ever, Yoweri Museveni told himself he was right.

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