Relations between US and Uganda solid, says Oryem

State Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Okello Oryem addresses Parliament recently. PHOTO / ISAAC KASAMANI

What you need to know:

  • Speaking to Saturday Monitor early on Thursday afternoon, Mr Oryem, described relations between the two nations as not broken and, therefore, not in need of fixing.

Despite taking a heavy bashing from the US government over its human rights record and practice of democracy throughout last year, Uganda will not be working to fix its relationship with the US, the State Minister for Foreign Affairs in-charge of International Cooperation, Mr Henry Oryem Okello, has said.

Speaking to Saturday Monitor early on Thursday afternoon, Mr Oryem, described relations between the two nations as not broken and, therefore, not in need of fixing.

“As far as the NRM government is concerned, there is nothing to worry about its relationship with the US. It is firm and solid and the US needs us as much as we need them,” he said.

Minister Oryem said the US and Uganda enjoy a symbiotic relationship, adding that President Museveni is an important cog in the maintenance of regional peace and the pursuit of US interests in the region.

“Whatever one thinks about President Museveni, at the end of the day, the reality if America were given the option to choose between Mr Museveni and other players in Uganda such as [former Forum for Democratic Party president Dr Kizza]  Besigye or [National Unity Platform party leader] Robert Kyagulanyi [alias Bobi Wine] in regard to US national interests, regional interests, peace and security, in the interest of the global fight against terrorism, and determination, Mr Museveni would be the best hand,” Minister Oryem said.

Cold relations

Relations between Uganda and the US have seemed strained over the last year amid widespread condemnations, a snub and sanctions that were slapped against the Chief of Military Intelligence (CMI), Maj Gen Abel Kandiho.

Late in November, Uganda was left out of a list of 17 African states that were invited to a two-day virtual democracy summit that was called by President Joe Biden.

Its omission was conspicuous given that Uganda has always been considered a key ally of the US and has been an annual recipient of nearly $1b in development and security support.

The snub elicited a sharp reaction from Mr Oryem, who described it as a “big mistake”, adding that Uganda was too influential to be ignored.

“Be it in democracy, trade, security, you cannot ignore us. You cannot do anything in this region without Uganda. Impossible!” Mr Oryem said.

Sanctions

In February, the spokesperson of the US embassy in Kampala, Mr Tony Kujawa, announced in Kampala that the US would work to ensure that whoever was implicated in any abuses would be brought to book.

“The United States has made it clear that we would consider a range of targeted options, including the imposition of visa restrictions, for Ugandan individuals found to be responsible for election-related violence or undermining the democratic process,” Mr Kujawa said. 

True to its word, on April 16, the US Secretary of State, Mr Anthony Blinken, imposed visa restrictions on 12 Ugandan officials accused of undermining the democratic process before and during last year’s elections.

Then on December 7, the US Department of Treasury announced financial and travel sanctions against Maj Gen Kandiho for his alleged role in rights violations.

Inconsequential sanctions?

Gen Kandiho is the second Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) General after former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, to be sanctioned. This brought to 14 the total number of Ugandans sanctioned by the US.

However, Mr Oryem dismissed the US sanctions, describing them as “school playground bully tactics” that are of no consequence to the country or the targeted individuals.

“What is the impact of US sanctions on so-called abusers of human rights? Zero. Between us, what can sanctions do to these people? Even America knows that it is just sending a symbolic punishment for the world to say they have punished somebody,” Mr Oryem said.

A day after the US announced the sanctions against the CMI, Gen Kandiho told this newspaper that he was not bothered by the sanctions.

“I am not bothered by the so-called sanctions. I have no business with the US,” Gen Kandiho said.

Minister Oryem repeated the same claim on Thursday, saying the General had neither business nor personal interests in the US.

 “Let us look critically at sanctions imposed on Gen Kandiho. What assets has he got in the US? What does he want in America? He doesn’t need to go and study in America. His children do not need to go to America! So what is the impact of those sanctions?” Mr Oryem wondered.

The minister said the sanctions have also not affected Gen Kandiho’s work or lifestyle.

“He is still a top CMI guy. He is protected by about 30 soldiers each time, still draws his allowances and gets respect in Uganda. He is living a quality lifestyle that many people cannot enjoy in the US. So really, what is the impact of those sanctions?” he asked.

Rights violations

Shortly after the US slapped sanctions against Gen Kandiho, Mr Kujawa issued a statement in Kampala, saying Ugandan government officials had been engaged as part of the process of compilation of the “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices”, which was released by the Department of State in March.

The report indicted members of Uganda’s security forces of having committed various abuses, including participation in extrajudicial killings of, especially, supporters of the political opposition.

“Opposition activists, local media, and human rights activists reported that security forces killed individuals the government identified as dissidents and those who participated in protests against the government…Opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, reported on February 24 that a Uganda Police Force (UPF) truck assigned to the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) killed his supporter Ritah Nabukenya…” the report read in parts.

The report, which was published on the website of the State Department, also indicted security forces for, among other crimes, torture and degrading treatment, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, undermining the democratic process and keeping detainees in pathetic conditions.

The report also accused President Museveni of being one of those fuelling impunity, saying he had on August 22, 2020 lavished praise on members of the Special Forces Command, who had earlier beaten up NUP leader Robert Kyagulanyi.

Need for improvement

Mr Oryem conceded that there is need for improvements on issues around rights and the practice of democracy.

“We believe in democracy, we believe in human rights. We all believe in it. We also believe that there is need for human rights improvements. There is need for improvements in the practice of democratic principles and to open up more space for people to express themselves,” Mr Oryem said.

The minister, however, pointed out that for that to happen, there is need for those at the frontlines to be more sober-headed. The challenge, he said, is that the people at the frontline are often impatient, and feel threatened even when they should not be and end up using disproportionate force against unarmed civilians.

He said those who seek to beat people with gun butts or kick them with military boots should first ensure their targets are also equipped with guns and military boots in order for there to be an even fight.

Members of the security forces and government agents, he said, need to exercise tolerance and understand that the public has a higher standard of expectation from them.

“If you are in government there is a higher standard of expectation from you on every issue, the way you behave as a minister, the way you run government, the way you deal with the issue of freedoms, the way you deal with issue of human rights, the level of expectations is higher than that given to people who are not in government,” he said.

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