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Museveni Lashes Out at Critics

After two international court decisions targeting Uganda and growing diplomatic pressure, the president has stepped up the rhetoric against foreign “interference”.
By Peter Eichstaedt
Less than a week after launching his campaign for an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term, President Yoweri Museveni has accused foreign governments of attempting to “interfere in our sovereignty”.

He complained the international community is using generous aid packages to force African countries like Uganda to do their bidding.

“That’s how they have been running Africa for all this time,” Museveni told the BBC recently. “They think that when they give us aid, we should abdicate from thinking.”

He said foreign governments “should be humble enough to just leave us alone”.

This was one of Museveni’s harshest attacks and comes just days after the British government announced it would cut 15 million pounds, about 26 million US dollars, in direct assistance to Uganda. The money will instead be diverted to humanitarian projects, specifically in the war-torn north. A further five million pounds will be withheld until after the February 23 presidential election.

Hilary Benn, Britain’s Secretary for International Development, cited the arrest and ongoing judicial proceedings against Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s major political opponent, as the main reason for the cutback.

Besigye was expected to be released from the Luzira maximum security prison on December 19 when a military court order keeping him there expired. The Uganda high court granted him bail last month.

But a second order was then issued under dubious circumstances, which means Besigye could stay in custody until January 6.

Meanwhile, high court judge John Katutsi on December 22 ordered the commissioner of prisons to explain why Besigye continues to be held. That hearing will take place on December 28.

Benn also complained about the continued use of state money to benefit Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement, which until this year was the only official party, and significant governmental budget overruns.

With the cuts, England joins other European donors who have scaled back or diverted aid. This includes last month’s cut of five million pounds by the Dutch; two million pounds and the withholding of another five million pounds by Sweden; and cuts by Norway and Ireland totaling about two million pounds.

While the United States has not cut financial aid, it was critical of Museveni’s move earlier this year to convince the parliament to remove presidential term limits from the constitution.

But Museveni’s troubles are not restricted to diplomatic circles.

This week the International Court of Justice in The Hague said Uganda had violated international law and committed human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, from August 1997 to June 2003.

Responding to a complaint filed by the DRC in 1999, the court found that Ugandan soldiers plundered Congo's natural resources and must pay as yet unspecified compensation to the country.

The court said Ugandan forces trained child soldiers and tried to incite ethnic conflict. They also destroyed villages and public buildings, failed to distinguish between civilian and military targets, and did not protect the civilian population from the fighting when it invaded the Ituri district in eastern Congo, the court said.

Ugandan officials responded sharply to the court’s decision.

“We went there… to defend our national interest,” said state information minister Nsaba Buturo. “We still feel very strongly we were right and justified to do so.”

“It is Uganda which has been invaded before,” Buturo said. “We know what invasion means… our people [were] killed, our property destroyed,” Buturo said. “Clearly we feel strongly that there was a very compelling case that led us to do what we did. Unfortunately, the court doesn’t have the experiences we have had.”

Although the Ugandan forces initially entered with the Congo’s approval to chase attacking rebel groups, that permission was withdrawn in 1998. Uganda continued to occupy the Ituri region for several years.

Buturo said it is not unusual for other countries to cross borders for their own protection, and noted that the United States and Britain had invaded Iraq.

“Uganda is not the only country around the world that has done this thing before. It is a standard practice when it comes to defending the interests of one’s country.”

Fines could be imposed because of the ruling, as well as future prosecution of individuals for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Anyone involved with the commission of the crimes, including the plundering of resources, is subject to prosecution, according to Phillip Kasaija, a lecturer in international law at Makerere University in Kampala.

“The prosecution must start with the big fish,” Kasaija said. That is unlikely to affect Museveni directly, he said, but could well include a number of high-ranking government officials and military officers.

As president, Museveni is exempt from prosecution, but if implicated could face charges if and when he leaves office.

Elsewhere, the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague in October issued its first criminal indictments against Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and four other LRA commanders.

The ICC indictments drew international attention to the LRA, which has been terrorising northern Uganda as long as Museveni has been in power and highlighted the fact that he has been unable to subdue the rebels.

Since about 1986, more than one million Ugandans have been forced into refugee camps across the north and untold thousands have been killed, mutilated, or kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers and child brides.

Whether Museveni’s vocal posturing and attitude is more campaign rhetoric than substantive policy remains to be seen. Under his leadership, however, Uganda appears to be moving toward isolationism.

Peter Eichstaedt is a senior editor with the Uganda Radio Network, a project of IWPR Africa. URN reporters Charles Odongtho and Rosebell Kagumire contributed to this report.

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