Ugandan Election Underscores Double-Standards of U.S. Foreign Policy in Africa and Need for Change

On Saturday February 20th, Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni extended his thirty year rule by winning an election marred by vote rigging and political intimidation according to a European Union observer mission. Opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was put under house arrest after the election and was jailed during the campaign.

As a strategic ally, the United States has provided Museveni with $750 million in aid each year and established a Special Forces mission to hunt down Joseph Kony in Sudan. During the 1990s, Bill Clinton heralded Museveni with his counterpart Paul Kagame of Rwanda as the "new face of democracy" in Africa. Both leaders remain in power two decades later and have presided over repressive police-states. In the late 1990s, they invaded the Congo to plunder its resources, resulting in the deaths of millions of people.

Museveni came to power in 1986 after leading rebel forces against Idi Amin. He started out as a Marxist-Leninist though came to embrace a neo-liberal economic model, becoming a darling of the International Monetary Fund and Western donor community. Museveni has been especially valued by the U.S. for helping to counter China's growing influence in Africa and for aiding in the fight against terrorism. He also allowed the CIA to establish a major African electronic listening post in Kampala.

Though he has presided over considerable economic growth, Museveni as Olive Kobusingye documents in her 2010 book, The Correct Line? Uganda under Museveni, has incarcerated more journalists than those detained in all of Uganda's previous regimes, has overseen numerous deaths in custody and has established an elaborate system of illegal and punitive detention without trial. Kobusingye notes that "Museveni's revolution has devoured so many of its own children." The regime has sustained its system of patronage in part through participation in the invasion of Congo, where Ugandan soldiers looted some $10 worth of timber, elephant tusks, gold and other minerals according to Helen Epstein in the New York Review of Books.

The Ugandan military has also committed myriad atrocities against the Acholi people who were punished for supporting the previous regime of Milton Obote. As historian Adam Branch chronicles in Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda, forced displacement resulted in the growth of an anti-government insurgency led first by religious prophetess Alice Lakwena and then by Kony, with the Acholi subjected to reprisal attacks by home guard units reminiscent of the Vietnam War.

According to Branch, however brutal he may have been, Museveni maintained the war against Kony for years primarily to keep a crisis environment that enabled it "to justify measures that would be unacceptable in different circumstances," and allow the government to "silence political dissidents, including vocal members of the Acholi population in parliament accused of being 'friends of the terrorists.'" The war also enabled Museveni to maintain the large amounts of foreign military aid and to legitimize heavy military expenditures to the neglect of needed social reforms.

The Obama administration's continued support for the Museveni government underscores the double standards at the heart of American foreign policy in Africa. Obama and his then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton promoted military strikes to foster "democratic regime change" in Libya for example, while sustaining dictatorships elsewhere.

Mainstream media such as the New York Times it should be noted have often failed to point out the contradictions, accepting rhetoric about democratization without subjecting U.S. policy to serious scrutiny.

On February 18, 2016, The Times published an article by Jeffrey Gettleman entitled "Uganda moves Toward Dictatorship Light' Amid Election," which highlighted many of the positive aspects of Museveni's rule and emphasized that he was "still genuinely popular though repressive." Similar kid gloves treatment has been evident with other American backed dictators like Paul Kagame, for example, who was long heralded in the press for engendering an economic miracle in Rwanda, with the dark side of his rule almost entirely ignored.

Prior to his overthrow in 2011, Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi by contrast, who had opposed the giant U.S. military base AFRICOM and moved to renationalize portions of Libya's oil sector, was frequently painted in the worst light by The Times and other dominant news sources. He was never referred to as "genuinely popular" or a "dictator lite," though Qaddafi had used the country's oil wealth to help sustain the highest living standard for Libya's people in Africa and to support the African Union.

Bernie Sanders has emerged this election cycle as the main political contender speaking out against corruption and hypocrisy in government. His rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Hilary Clinton, along with her husband Bill, are central figures in upholding a U.S. foreign policy in Africa marred by blatant double-standards and injustice. Bernie should cast attention on this as he has done with the Clinton's ill-fated support for the war in Iraq. He should in turn more clearly lay out for the public an alternative foreign policy in which military aid to repressive governments like Museveni is cut and the rhetoric of democracy promotion is matched with reality on the ground.

Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa, and author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).