Why US declared travel ban on Ugandan officials

The affected Ugandan government officials, US says, are those that have records of being pivotal in undermining the democratic processes of landlocked Uganda. PHOTO/FILE/PPU

What you need to know:

  • Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo says the world power has resorted to blackmail and sulking because the people they supported in the elections lost. 

The US Department of State on Friday announced a blanket travel ban on Ugandan government officials who they say were involved in gross  human rights violations and undermining democracy during and after the January 14 general election.

The US Department of State also said the presidential polls in which  incumbent President Museveni was declared winner with 58 per cent while former National Unity Platform (NUP) party flag bearer Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, polled 35 per cent of the votes, were “neither free nor fair.”

The election violence since the presidential nominations last November 2, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, represented “a continued downward trajectory for the country’s democracy and respect for human rights as recognised and protected by” Uganda’s Constitution.

“Opposition candidates were routinely harassed, arrested, and held illegally without charge. Ugandan security forces were responsible for the deaths and injuries of dozens of innocent bystanders and Opposition supporters, as well as violence against journalists that occurred before, during, and after the elections,” Mr Blinken said in a statement.

Kampala, however, through Mr Ofwono Opondo, the executive director of Uganda Media Centre, the government’s communication clearing house, has scoffed at the visa restrictions as “blackmail and sulking because the people they supported in the elections did not win.”

Mr Opondo told Sunday Monitor that Washington not naming the affected individuals puts their motives into question.

“First of all, the government has not been notified formally on the matter. Secondly, given the cordial relations we have with them, we expected them to present to us names of individuals and what they are accused of, so that they can be given opportunity to defend themselves but also  so that government investigates,” Mr Opondo said by telephone.

The US embassy spokesperson in Kampala, Mr Anthony Kujawa, told this newspaper they cannot provide details of the affected individuals because visa records are confidential.

The visa ban policy, Mr Kujawa said “covers those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda, including through acts of violence, intimidation, and exclusion from participation in electoral processes and their immediate family members.”

“With these restrictions, we are sending a clear message that those who undermine democracy or human rights, along with their immediate family members, are not welcome in the United States,” he said.

Highly placed diplomatic sources intimated to this newspaper the visa restriction will apply to politicians,  police and army officials. 

“Technocrats could as well not be spared,” one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. 

The visa restriction that the US government says will be imposed on the unnamed officials is a departure from the sanctions under the Magnitsky Act which was slapped on former Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura. Sanctions under the Magnitsky Act involve both visa ban and assets freeze, which complicates even financial transactions for the affected individuals. 

President Museveni has previously scoffed at any proposed travel ban against his officials by Washington and its European allies as insignificant.

“Well, I normally need a lot of persuasion to leave Uganda to travel anywhere.  Why would anybody think Africans are dying to go to Europe?” Mr Museveni remarked in his address on the state of security in the country in February.

In the run-up to and after the January 14 polls, the President also accused Washington and Brussels, the seat of the European Union, of trying to meddle in Uganda’s politics as he accused rivals, especially Bobi Wine, of being an “agent” of the neo-colonialists.

Washington gives Uganda nearly $1b  (Shs361 trillion) each year, mainly for health and security support. 

It remains to be seen whether the EU will follow suit in taking action against government officials as indicated back in February.

In December, the former chair of the US House of Representatives committee on foreign affairs, Mr Elliot Engel, recommended several Ugandan military officials for sanctions, including the commander of Land Forces, Lt Gen Peter Elwelu; Maj Gen James Birungi, the then Commander of the Special Forces Command (SFC); Maj Gen Don William Nabasa, a former commander of SFC and now commander of Ugandan troops in Somali; and Maj Gen Abel Kandiho, Chief of Military Intelligence.

Others were former Deputy Inspector of General of Police Maj Gen Sabiiti Muzeyi, Commissioner of Police Frank Mwesigwa, and the Director of Crime Intelligence, Col Chris Sserunjogi Ddamulira.

“For several years, the US has raised concerns about the Ugandan government’s lack of respect for the civil liberties of its citizens and urged the government to conduct or permit credible investigations into alleged human rights abuses. However, diplomatic rhetoric alone has had little impact on President Museveni’s behavior.”

Mr Engel said in a letter to the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo under the Donald Trump administration.

 The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  Mr Blinken says during the November 2 nominations Opposition candidates were routinely harassed, arrested, and held illegally without charge. PHOTO/AFP

In the latest development, the Mr Blinken said the Ugandan government must significantly improve its record and hold accountable those responsible for flawed election conduct, violence, and intimidation.

“The US government will continue to evaluate additional actions against individuals complicit in undermining democracy and human rights in Uganda, as well as their immediate family members,” he said.

Earlier on March 4, Senators on the Committee on Foreign Relations gave Mr Blinken up to March 31 to present a detailed analysis of the US-Uganda relationship “informed by an interagency review of whether continued partnership” the regime in Kampala poses risks to Washington’s interests in the region.

The Senators, James Risch (Republican, Idaho) and Cory Booker (Democrat) indicated that despite repeated calls on the state democracy and human rights abuses in Uganda the Washington-Kampala relations have “remained largely unchanged for years” while the State Department and Department of Defence  “have generally responded with platitude” about the Kampala regime’s essential contribution to AMISOM, managing the South Sudan peace process, and the longstanding partnership on HIV/Aids, and additional regional security.

Mr Opondo, however, said Washington was merely trying to use its leverage to intimidate government.

“They like to say we are partners, so that essence we expect them to seek our side of the story before they take action. So am inclined to think what they are doing is blackmail by sulking,” Mr Opondo said.

The latest action by Washington comes as government is under increased pressure to release the hundreds of, especially the NUP supporters, who were abducted by security operatives without name tags and driven in numberless vans, nicknamed ‘drones’, to unknown destinations, presumably safe houses.  

The kidnap of civilians by security started shortly after the protests in November last year, following the arrest of Bobi Wine outside Luuka District in eastern Uganda for reportedly flouting Covid-19 regulations.  Security operatives killed at least 54 people as they fanned out to end the protests that broke out in several parts of the country while government has since the casually referred to the victims as rioters without offering evidence.

In a letter sent to media houses on March 7, President Museveni revealed that his own presidential protection force—the Special Forces Command (SFC)—was involved in the kidnap of Opposition supporters under the guise of investigating possible criminal acts related to insurrection.

The President further disclosed that the SFC’s commandos had subdued a potential election-time chaos and killed scores of “terrorists” (the President’s preferred description of opposition protestors).