Debt Relief for Tyrants Is a Terrible Idea

Debt Relief for Tyrants Is a Terrible Idea

Debt Relief for Tyrants Is a Terrible Idea

Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar want to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries. In some cases, that’s a big mistake.


In May, Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Ilhan Omar, and more than 300 other lawmakers from around the world called on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries. Covid-19 is set to deepen poverty in already indebted African, South Asian, and Latin American countries, 64 of which were already spending more on debt service than health care before the pandemic hit.

I’ve been working in, and writing about, international development for nearly 30 years, and I’m a great admirer of Sanders and Omar. But blanket debt relief for countries ruled by corrupt tyrants is a terrible idea.

Lately, most of my research concerns Uganda, an equatorial Eastern African nation of some 40 million people. Few Americans know much about Uganda, but its people, like those in many highly indebted countries, are extremely poor. Per capita income averages around $700 a year; two-thirds of the population survives on subsistence agriculture; fewer than 20 percent have electricity; roughly half live at least a 10-minute walk from the nearest water source; and only a third of children pass their primary school final exams.

Uganda spends nearly $800 million a year on debt payments. Debt relief functions like aid—it means the money that would come out of a nation’s treasury can instead be spent on, for example, health care, education, and roads. But if the past is anything to go by, debt relief for Uganda would be directed to election rigging and militarizing the country so that current leader Yoweri Museveni can retain power.

Museveni, who occupies a vast hilltop compound costing Ugandan taxpayers some $70 million a year, seized power by force in 1986. Western donors have since poured some $50 billion into the country, including about $4 billion in debt relief. In 2017, I wrote a book about where much of this money has gone. During the 1990s, Museveni armed rebel groups in Sudan, Rwanda, and Congo, triggering a series of deadly conflicts, including the Rwanda genocide, that claimed millions of lives. Within Uganda, Museveni’s troops have massacred countless innocent civilians and his henchmen have stolen billions of dollars from the Treasury and foreign aid programs, while allowing Uganda’s once thriving schools and hospitals to wither. Meanwhile, politicians and activists calling for Museveni’s removal have been tortured and killed.

But donor money still pours in, because Museveni is a great friend of Western militaries, especially the Pentagon. During the 1990s, Uganda funneled clandestine US weapons to Sudanese rebels, and today its troops battle Islamist Al Shabaab militants in Somalia. In Iraq, Ugandan guards serve under American command, enabling the drawdown of US troops there. Ugandans are much cheaper than US Service personnel, and their deaths don’t make US headlines. When Ugandans are injured or killed, the shady contractors who hire them often fail to compensate them, without repercussions for American politicians.

These favors earn Museveni a blind eye from the donors, who lavish aid on the country, even as the human rights situation continues to darken.

While many governments are using Covid-19 restrictions to tighten their grip, Uganda stands out. The country has been under lockdown since late March, and widespread hunger is driving growing desperation. In early April, Parliament passed a supplementary budget of roughly $15 million for relief food distribution, to be administered by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda. But the little food thus far distributed was found to be spoiled and mixed with dirt and stones. Aponye, one of the companies responsible, is owned by Apollo Nyemagehe, one of Museveni’s campaign contributors.

On April 19, 29-year-old opposition member of Parliament Francis Zaake, a fierce critic of Museveni’s, hired motorcycle taxis to distribute bags of rice and sugar to his destitute constituents. “I could not stand starving mothers and their children camping outside my gate every day for help,” he told reporters.

That evening, Zaake heard commotion outside his house. He was taking a shower, and as he rushed out to put on some trousers, police and army officers broke down his bedroom door and dragged him into a waiting police vehicle. On the way out, they ransacked his house and made off with about $4,000 in cash, according to Zaake and his wife. For the next four days, Zaake said, he was ferried from one detention center to another and kicked, punched, and beaten with sticks while being subjected to periodic interrogations. A stinging substance was poured into his eyes, rendering him temporarily blind—his sight only returning weeks later. At one point, his upper arms were tied behind his back in a position known as the “three-piece tie,” a notorious Ugandan torture method that can damage the shoulders and breastbone. He was then suspended, face down between the seats of a speeding pickup truck, enduring excruciating pain as his body swung to and fro.

Zaake’s captors, who spoke the language of Museveni’s home area, made tribalist slurs against his ethnic group, stepped on his head, and ordered him to swear allegiance to Museveni and his wife, Janet.

While Zaake was in custody, his wife, lawyers, and colleagues were not permitted to see him. He, however, did meet dozens of other Ugandans who had been assaulted and detained for supposed Covid-19-related offenses. University law student Ronald Mark Kizito claimed he was beaten by members of Uganda’s Local Defense Unit—a hastily trained auxiliary force with “shoot to kill” orders—for leaving his lights on. The police say he was beaten by acquaintances for trying to rape a girl and denied that LDU officers had anything to do with it. A woman died of her wounds after being shot by police for supposedly violating the Covid curfew. Another woman was packing up her fried chicken stall in order to meet the curfew, when security men arrived and doused her with hot oil from her own saucepan.

Unable to see, stand, or even sit up, Zaake was eventually delivered to a hospital, where he remained under armed guard, charged with defying presidential orders. He had to be carried to his court hearing, where he lay prostrate on a bench, moaning in agony.

Parliament was incensed. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga ordered Internal Affairs Minister Jeje Odongo, who oversees the police, to explain what had happened. The following day, ruling party MP Obiga Kania presented the results of the ministry’s investigation to Parliament. Zaake had injured himself deliberately by banging his body against the side of the police vehicle, Kania declared. He then suffered further injuries in a “scuffle” when he tried to resist being moved from his cell by clinging to the bars.

No Ugandans I know find this credible, and on May 4, five Ugandan opposition leaders wrote to UN Secretary General António Guterres urging him to call on the UN Security Council to suspend all but the most essential humanitarian aid to their country. In Uganda’s fractious political landscape, the five signatories—including popular MP and musician Bobi Wine, whose torture in detention made international headlines in 2018—normally agree on very little. But they do agree that much donor funding to Uganda does more harm than good. They warned Guterres that unless foreign aid is conditioned on strict human rights criteria, it will be used to rig Uganda’s forthcoming election, expected in early 2021, and further militarize the country. A group of civil society activists—including me, the only non-Ugandan—wrote to the IMF a few days later, endorsing this view.

Not surprisingly, Museveni takes the opposite view, and has been leading the call for Covid-19 debt relief. As usual, the donors are rushing to fill his coffers. The IMF recently opened a $491 million loan facility for Uganda; the European Union has given the Uganda government 30 million euros; the United States topped up its annual $1 billion contribution by $12 million; and the Irish government has pledged hundreds of millions more.

They should all really think twice. In 2005, the international community celebrated a steep surge in foreign aid to the poorest countries, which British Prime Minister Tony Blair dubbed the “big push.” But instead of ending poverty, the big push was followed by a resurgence of authoritarianism across sub-Saharan Africa, even in countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi that were thought be democratizing. This may be no coincidence. Studies of foreign aid and governance suggest it can concentrate power in the executive at the expense of other institutions, including the media, civil society, and the legislature.

When I first began working in development in the 1990s, there was a softly spoken assumption among my peers that too much emphasis on democracy and human rights could hold countries back by enlivening noisy, competing constituencies. “Strong leaders”—as then–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called dictators like Museveni—were better at getting things done, the argument went. Museveni was held up as a model, not only by the World Bank but even by some Western academics. Clearly, they were wrong.

Zaake is not the first Ugandan lawmaker to be tortured by Museveni’s security forces. In December 2012, outspoken 24-year-old MP and Museveni critic Cerinah Nebanda was poisoned, and when her parliamentary colleagues voiced concerns about foul play, they and the pathologist they’d hired to conduct an investigation were jailed. In September 2017, Ugandan Special Forces raided Parliament, where they tortured and partially paralyzed MP Betty Nambooze as she attempted to filibuster a bill that would allow Museveni to remain in power for life. In August 2018, Special Forces detained and assaulted five members of Parliament including musician Bobi Wine, along with dozens of their supporters.

Curiously, the response to all this has been muted. During Zaake’s ordeal, for example, a spate of reports praising Museveni’s Covid-19 response were featured by prominent US news outlets including PBS and The Washington Post. The African Union condemned the police torture and killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, but not the torture of Zaake, Wine, Nambooze, or other Ugandan MPs.

The Covid-19 crisis creates opportunities for rethinking policies of all kinds. It’s pretty certain there will be less money for international development, as Western donor governments concentrate on assisting their own people. At present, the World Bank and IMF do not even consider human rights when making loans and grants. It’s my firm belief that our aid and debt relief dollars would stretch a lot further if they did. Perhaps then community leaders would be free do more to help their own people, as Zaake was trying to do, before his ordeal. There’s no guarantee that a greater emphasis on human rights in development would end poverty, but if it meant our taxes didn’t go to another torturer’s trust fund, it would certainly be worth a try.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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