The diplomatic attention of the United States and the international community is being tested as they contend globally with unprecedented major humanitarian and refugee crises and increasing violent conflict exacerbated by COVID-19 and its destabilizing impacts. In Africa, the Biden administration is rightly focusing on addressing the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and ongoing violence in Somalia and South Sudan.
However, one country that merits more attention and preventative engagement by Washington is Uganda, which is quietly falling further into fragility and authoritarianism under cover of COVID-19. President Biden’s promise to put “human rights and democracy” back at the center of U.S. foreign policy is significant. However, that means the U.S. can't keep excusing human rights violations and backsliding democracy. If Washington wants to prevent violent conflict and build sustainable peace, it must invest significantly in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.
For years, despite domestic challenges, Uganda served as an outsized contributor to regional stability by hosting the largest number of refugees in Africa and contributing the greatest number of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia. However, Uganda faces long-term conflict risks and divisions exposed by its most recent elections earlier this year. The international community provides Uganda nearly $2 billion a year in development assistance and maintains high levels of security cooperation. It is time to use this leverage to advance a new conflict prevention approach to Uganda.
The Ugandan government is unabashedly committing human rights abuses and obstructing civil society, as exemplified during the recent elections. It harassed and arrested opposition candidates, leaders of civil society organizations, and journalists, while its forces killed and injured dozens of opposition supporters and civilians. The opposition still won 57 of the 527 seats in parliament even though the opposition National Unity Party could only contest fewer than half the parliamentary seats, and the government imprisoned the leading opposition candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu. Voting patterns exposed significant divisions between Uganda’s ethnic and groups and classes, and showed the growing influence of its disproportionate youth population.
Even before the elections and COVID-19, Uganda has been hovering around 24th — 1st being the most fragile — on the fragile states index, due to poor social cohesion, ethnic clashes, economic decline, and violations of human rights and the rule of law. 25 percent of Ugandans now live below the poverty line, and public debt stands at 41 percent of GDP, having increased by about 70 percent over the past three years. Regionally, violent conflicts in the DRC and South Sudan have contributed to the 1.4 million refugees living in Uganda. Their presence also increases instability.
To date, the U.S. and the international community’s rhetoric about democracy and human rights have had minimal impact on President Yoweri Museveni's 35-year reign because policies have been inconsistent, and there has been little follow-through. In 2012, the European Union froze development aid when it discovered massive corruption in the prime minister's office only to resume in 2013. In 2014, the U.S. announced a review of its assistance to Uganda after Uganda adopted the Anti-Homosexuality Act, but, despite persecution of LGBTQ activists, aid continues to flow. Secretary of State Blinken shared concerns about the recent elections and announced visa restrictions on those responsible for undermining the democratic process. Yet, his announcement appears to have had little effect beyond signaling Washington’s concerns. The Ugandan government is keenly aware of its leverage as a key regional counterterrorism and stability partner.
But Washington and other donors could exert significant influence if they chose to do so. The United States provided more than $8.1 billion in aid to Uganda between 2001 and 2019. In 2017, the Ugandan government received 58 percent, and in 2019, 44 percent, of its national budget from donor funding. With the global pandemic, foreign assistance as a percentage of the budget will likely be even higher in 2020 and 2021. As in any country, most development assistance mainly funds agriculture, health, and education programs with governance and peacebuilding programs comprising only $6.6 million, a small portion of overall assistance. Peacebuilding programs include the Northern Uganda Transitional Justice Working Group and Youth Empowerment Programs implemented in northern Uganda, and, while vital, this programming is not sufficient to address increasing conflict dynamics throughout the East African country.
President Biden should put “human rights and democracy” back at the center of U.S. foreign policy toward Uganda and countries with similar conditions. There must also be an elevated focus on conflict prevention, which offers new ways to leverage U.S. assistance and engagement.
Experience and research consistently show investments in conflict prevention are impactful and cost-effective because every $1 invested in peacebuilding carries a potential $16 reduction in the cost of armed conflict. In championing the Global Fragility Act, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said, "For the past two decades, we've had the same security-focused approach. So, we need to focus on upstream conflict prevention in line with the recently passed Global Fragility Act, and fundamentally reframe how we approach these issues."
While the GFA priority countries and regions have not been announced, investing in conflict prevention must be a top priority in Uganda. A conflict prevention approach requires an analysis of conflict drivers, integrated diplomacy, and funding programs that will sufficiently mitigate and manage the causes and consequences of violent conflict, instability, and extremism.
Washington enjoys additional leverage because Uganda is the largest recipient of U.S. support for the African Union Mission in Somalia, totaling about $2 billion, including the Pentagon’s "train and equip" program. That program has helped build strong military-to-military ties with the Ugandan People’s Defense Force. Those ties should be used to push for critical reforms that would prevent the UPDF from being overly politicized or employed by the government to repress the opposition and civil society as was the case in the last elections.
The recent visa restrictions imposed by the Biden administration, as well as its rhetoric promoting democracy and human rights, are unlikely by themselves to result in the kind of transformation needed to reverse negative political trends, including increasing authoritarianism and growing rights abuses, as well other trends that are driving potential conflict in Uganda. Failure to invest significantly in governance reform, conflict prevention, and peace-building programs will increase the chances for instability and ultimately violent conflict in Uganda, as we have witnessed repeatedly throughout the larger region.