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.