One September evening last year, a visitor stopped by the office of 48-year-old Ugandan parliamentarian Betty Nambooze. The man was a ruling-party politician. Nambooze belongs to the opposition, but they were friendly nevertheless. After a few pleasantries, the visitor informed Nambooze that he had just come from a meeting at which government operatives discussed plans to physically harm her. Don’t attend Parliament this week, she said he warned her. “They are going to break your back.”
Few Americans know much about Uganda, but it is almost certainly America’s closest military ally in Africa. For years, its army has served as a proxy force for the US War on Terror in Eastern and Central Africa. During the 1990s, the Ugandan military, with US support, fought dirty wars in Sudan, Rwanda, and Zaire in order to ensure Central Africa’s estimated $24 trillion in coltan, uranium, gold, and other mineral riches remained in the West’s sphere of influence. Today, more than 6,000 US-supported Ugandan troops are battling the Islamist group Al Shabaab in Somalia and thousands more serve as guards in Iraq. President Donald Trump’s Arab allies are now reportedly negotiating the recruitment of thousands of Ugandans to join the ghastly quagmire in Yemen.
In exchange for Uganda’s military favors, Washington has long turned a blind eye to grave human-rights abuses committed by its leader Yoweri Museveni—who has held power for 32 years through brute force, election rigging, and corruption. But with Museveni’s most recent attacks on opposition figures, the United States is now ignoring one of the most evil and blatant recent assaults on democracy anywhere in the world.
In February 2016, Museveni was declared winner of Uganda’s seventh presidential election. The poll had been marred, like others, by police raids on opposition rallies, the arrest of opposition candidates, the killing of unarmed opposition supporters, and electoral fraud. At the time, Uganda’s Constitution limited the age of presidential candidates to 75, making Museveni, who claims to be 73, ineligible to run in the next election, scheduled for 2021. However, during the summer of 2017, a back-bencher from Museveni’s party named Raphael Magyezi began drafting a bill to remove the age limit from the Constitution. If passed, it would enable Museveni to rule indefinitely. Reputable polls found some 80 percent of Ugandans opposed lifting the age limit, but all Museveni needed was the support of a two-thirds majority of Uganda’s 427 MPs.
Museveni’s political machine runs on a war chest of hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it stolen from the Treasury and foreign-aid programs. This ensures his party has a comfortable parliamentary majority, so that if Magyezi’s bill were to be voted on, it would surely pass. Nevertheless, MPs like Nambooze who opposed the amendment were emboldened by the knowledge that Uganda’s people were behind them and launched a campaign to block it.
Known as Togikwatako, or “Don’t touch it!”—a common parental warning to Ugandan children—the campaign organized demonstrations against the age-limit amendment around the country. Museveni’s forces responded by shooting student demonstrators and arresting activists passing out Togikwatako leaflets and MPs making Togikwatako speeches.
On September 19, the day Magyezi’s bill was to be introduced, tanks were deployed around Parliament and police carrying military-grade weapons closed off surrounding streets to prevent demonstrations. But as soon as the session was called to order, Togikwatako MPs donned red headbands—the symbol of their campaign—and began trying to filibuster the bill by singing Uganda’s national anthem over and over while waving copies of the Constitution. Uganda’s formidable Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, in black robes and white-horsehair judicial wig glared down at them from the dais and closed the session without introducing Magyezi’s bill. Afterward, the Togikwatako MPS danced and sang in the hallways, punching their fists in the air in triumph.
Nambooze received the “they will break your back” threat from her colleague the following Monday. Since joining politics in 2000, she’d been arrested numerous times and even breastfed two of her children in jail. Though worried, she attended the sitting the next day anyway.
The filibuster stunts resumed under Speaker Kadaga’s expressionless gaze. At one point, a scuffle broke out when Museveni loyalist Ronald Kibuule brandished a gun at Togikwatako MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, and, according to Ssemujju, told him to prepare for a bullet in his nervous system. Again the session ended without the introduction of Magyezi’s bill.
That night, operatives from Museveni’s elite special forces snuck into Parliament, checking the routes in and out of the central chamber and identifying the locations of security cameras. Speaker Kadaga opened Parliament the following afternoon by announcing the suspension of 25 mostly Togikwatako MPs, including Nambooze. Kadaga then departed the chamber as dozens of operatives in business attire streamed in via Museveni’s private entrance and began violently arresting the MPs Kadaga had named. Images of what looked like MPs throwing chairs, fencing with microphone stands, pirouetting on tables, and waving the Ugandan flag like toreadors were broadcast on the Internet and even evoked merriment on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show.
But off camera, something horrible was happening. While attempting to assist a fellow MP who had been slugged by an army officer, Nambooze found herself face to face with about six of the burly intruders. They led her to a small room without security cameras where two of them grabbed her from behind and began squeezing her shoulders and arms together. Then one of them shoved a knee into her back, and Nambooze felt something break. The pain was so intense, she thought she might die. Her assailants were dressed like women, but she told a local reporter that she had her doubts: “I could not see them, because they held me from behind but the hands were so hairy and I doubt that they were actually women.”
Nambooze was rescued when a female member of the Parliamentary police force that routinely patrols the building burst in. “Why are you killing Hon Nambooze?” she recalled the officer shouting. Her tormentors released her, but she was no longer able to stand unaided and fell to the ground. In November she was flown to India where surgeons performed a six-hour operation in which metal implants were inserted in her spine so she could walk again.
After the raid, attendance at Parliament dwindled and the filibusters ceased. But Togikwatako demonstrations continued around the country, and in October, police shot dead three unarmed demonstrators. Several NGOs that had been supporting community education about the age-limit amendment were shut down by the police, and explosives were thrown at the homes of some Togikwatako MPs. The presidential-age-limit amendment passed on December 20, 2017.
Early in the New Year, Nambooze’s health began deteriorating, and by spring the pain had become unbearable. She arranged to travel to India to consult her surgeon, planning to fly out on June 15. But on June 8, masked men on motorcycles gunned down Ibrahim Abiriga, a ruling-party MP whom Nambooze had once teased for always wearing yellow—signifying his loyalty to Museveni. Such drive-by motorcycle murders have become increasingly frequent in Uganda; a police commander, a senior prosecutor, several Muslim sheiks, and many others have been killed in this way in recent years. While Abiriga’s killers are not known, his constituents rioted before his burial, shouting, “We don’t want yellow!” and blamed the government for his death.
In a Facebook message of condolence to Abiriga’s family, Nambooze wrote, “Uganda will be better not through elimination of those we don’t agree with, but because of our effort to put up systems that will work for us all irrespective of our political beliefs. Every life must be respected and every murder must be condemned.” Her message also lamented that Abiriga had allowed himself to become a “loud speaker” for Museveni and his henchmen—“who have chosen to love power more than the future of our Uganda”—a sentiment shared by thousands of Ugandans on Twitter.
Three days later, Nambooze was arrested on charges of “offensive communication,” in connection with the Facebook post. She paid bail and was released, but during a budget speech the next day, Museveni announced that bail for murder suspects would be scrapped. Nambooze was immediately rearrested, and for two days she lay in a bare jail cell on a wooden bench, unable to sit up or stand. She was then taken to a hospital, but on the way a police vehicle rammed into the ambulance, further damaging her spine and severely injuring her knee. While it’s impossible to prove, Nambooze suspects the collision was deliberate and intended to further physically traumatize her. Doctors later determined that one of the metal screws implanted in her back had been dislodged and was pressing on a major nerve. Demonstrations broke out around the country, and she was finally released on bond and flown to India for another round of surgery on July 4.
In recent years, Uganda’s security forces have manipulated elections, tortured nonviolent political activists, and shot dead roughly 100 unarmed people—including 14 children in a traditional palace in western Uganda. Government security forces have also thrown countless peasants off their land to make way for politically connected investors such as Total, which is constructing an oil pipeline, and General Electric, which is building a refinery in western Uganda
As Uganda’s largest foreign-aid donor—with over $500 million in grants per year, plus an unknown amount of classified military aid—the US government has the leverage to rein Museveni in. Much of our aid pays for medical and other humanitarian projects, which should continue, but US tax dollars also flow through the World Bank directly into Uganda’s treasury, where much of it is looted to fund Museveni’s repression.
Suspending aid to Museveni might also help quell tensions in Uganda’s war-torn neighborhood. For far too long, gullible US national-security officials have relied on Museveni to interpret Central Africa’s complex regional conflicts, including the wars in South Sudan and Congo, even as Museveni himself has exacerbated those conflicts by arming one side or the other, while pretending to be a peacemaker. Uganda-backed rebel groups now appear to be emerging in Burundi and Congo, and Uganda may soon be embroiled in a new war—this time with Rwanda.
State Department insiders have told me that if we didn’t support Museveni, China would. China’s interests in Africa, however, are primarily economic, not military, and war—Museveni’s specialty—is generally bad for business. In any case, the United States has historically supplied far more weapons to African dictators than China has. And even if we did pull out and the Chinese propped up Museveni instead, at least our tax dollars wouldn’t be funding his oppression and mayhem.
Cynical Ugandans have taken to calling Museveni the Nyampala—after the brutal headmen who did the dirty work of conquest and subjugation during colonial rule, while British administrators looked the other way. The most recent US State Department annual human-rights report on Uganda mentions neither the Parliament raid, nor Nambooze’s injuries. In a statement days after Museveni’s troops raided Parliament, US Ambassador to Uganda Deborah Malac expressed concern about the “rough treatment” of some legislators and urged “both sides to refrain from violence,” even though all the violence had been committed by the government. In early June, Malac toured a Ugandan army base, where she inspected Washington’s latest $270 million donation of heavy military equipment. She’s seen in a newspaper photo gazing through dark glasses at a tank that looks just like the ones deployed in front of Parliament while Nambooze was being tortured.