Uganda is under the spotlight. With State Department travel restrictions on several senior officials and Amnesty International imploring the government to “reverse its decline,” it has been a full round of condemnation for the African nation.
Much of the negative attention stems from January’s election and its aftermath. Protests in the capital city, Kampala, where the opposition’s voter base is concentrated, descended into violence with the police. Some of it was perhaps excusable: COVID-19 restrictions on the size of public gatherings — when repeatedly broken — presented a challenging policing environment. However, some of the responses were heavy-handed.
Yet castigating a country based on a turbulent snapshot of riots in a capital city can be disproportionate. Kampala is not Uganda, in the same way D.C. is not America. No one would seriously base their view of the state of American human rights and democracy on the storming of Capitol Hill, also in January, by angry Trump supporters.
But in Kampala, they did. The short burst of global attention, with foreign correspondents deployed into the capital, provided an opportunity for a coverage-hungry opposition in their stronghold: Hold lockdown-breaking rallies of over 200 people, only to have them closed down in full glare of the international media.
This was presented as the “real Uganda” while the rest of the country, where most Ugandans live, went unseen. The majority of Ugandans abhorred the violence associated with their election. The global media who conducted narrow-vision election reporting from the Ugandan capital did not have the measure of the nation. Many of the turbulent events were staged for the benefit of these reporters.
Nestled in the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa, insecurity surrounds Uganda. Neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo has been plagued by decades of conflict and absent governance. South Sudan has not known peace since independence. In Burundi, political persecution and violence has left many with no option but to flee. Most of them come to Uganda to seek refuge. They now number more than 1.2 million.
Not only does the country host the most refugees in Africa, it also practices one of the most progressive policies in the world. Though numbers are important, it is the policy that distinguishes Uganda. After conducting on-ground personal assessment in Uganda, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres documented that the refugees are “not in camps, but in so-called settlements that are in reality villages, like villages of the Ugandan people. This allows them to farm the land, allows them to go to the same schools, the same health centres, to have jobs, to allow them to have normal lives, to live in dignity.”
The U.N. Secretary General also identified Uganda as “a symbol of the integrity of the refugee protection.” Pope Francis has praised its “outstanding concern for welcoming refugees.” This treatment gives them the chance to rebuild their lives. Yet the U.S. continues to focus on civil and political rights during a difficult election, while ignoring the social and economic rights of the most vulnerable.
Uganda’s policies have actively upheld these rights for millions. Yet a U.S. that bemoans human rights in East Africa says little to encourage its neighbors to follow suit. Rwanda hosts only a fraction of the numbers. Where they do, it is in camps where socioeconomic rights are limited. Kenya is moving to shut down camps altogether. Where they survive, refugees require a special pass to move outside of them. Yet little criticism is forthcoming, despite the fact that different policies would immeasurably improve the regional human rights picture.
The United States is in no position to challenge another nation’s response to refugees. The Middle-East crisis would not have occurred if not for the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq that collapsed regional stability and balance of power. Instead of becoming aggressively involved in the refugee solution, the U.S. let Europe endure the brunt of the migration. With withdrawal from Afghanistan edging closer, those that risked their lives to support the U.S. are struggling to obtain special visas. They now face death at the hands of the Taliban. For decades the U.S. has remained in a quagmire at its own southern border.
Disastrous outcomes should never be dismissed as uncontrollable circumstances. A series of choices and actions always determines the end result. Nothing positive will ever come of decisions based on faulty information and agendas that ignore reality. Whether from the media or international governments, especially the U.S., narrow-scoped snapshots manipulated by selective moments in time are going to contradict the big picture.
For Uganda, the big picture is the entire country and its place in continental stability. Not all human rights violations happen at the hands of governments, but by their lack of action. The Ugandan government understands this. Instead of choosing to let refugees into the country, the border gates are open. Uganda is very far from perfect when it comes to human rights; but certainly in this case, the U.S. government is not in a good position to be casting stones of criticism across the Atlantic.
• Wes Martin, a retired U.S. Army colonel, has served in law enforcement positions around the world.
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