Shannon Lorimer

Uganda continues to receive international funding despite human rights violations

The Netherlands Embassy through the Refugee Law Project on Wednesday July 1, 2020 donated an assortment of transport equipment worth 70 000 US dollars to Panyadoli Refugee Police Station, Kiryandongo district. Image published on the Twitter account of Ambassador Henk-Jan Bakker.

Police cabs donated by the Dutch government were identified at the scenes of multiple instances of brutality.

In July 2020, the BBC reported that security forces in Uganda may be more dangerous than coronavirus, with coronavirus restrictions in Uganda providing a license for the arbitrary arrests of civilians, journalists and members of the BTQ community. This violence escalated leading up to and in the wake of the elections in January of this year, with reports of human rights violations and abuses during the election campaigns, according to Amnesty International.

Leading up to the election in November, opposition leader Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, wore a helmet and bulletproof vest throughout his campaign trail in November. He said this was a necessary measure because of the methods police used to disperse his meetings. According to Al Jazeera, in November 2020, 54 people were killed during protests sparked after Wine was detained for not adhering to social-distancing regulations. Almost 600 people were arrested, accused of rioting and looting. Human rights experts from the United Nations have pushed Uganda to drop charges against opposition groups and restrain violent military and police forces. Bobi Wine has repeatedly accused security forces of torturing him and his allies.

In May 2020, The Guardian reported about a woman who had been severely injured after a  police officer kicked her saucepan with boiling oil over her because it was almost curfew. This incident was one of many reported during Uganda’s lockdown, and continued after the lockdown was lifted in June and escalated leading up to the elections. 

This crackdown on political opposition has placed a spotlight on the Ugandan police force, and raises questions about the funding they receive from the United Nations (UN), United States (US), and several European countries. This aid is aimed at increasing safety and security, but the lack of sufficient checks and balances means that this aid is not guaranteed to have positive results, bringing into focus the role of international actors who provide aid to developing countries. The US, the United Kingdom, and the European Union pride themselves on providing aid that promotes inclusive development and human rights, often chastising China for its “no-strings-attached” funding policies. But as casualties from police brutality increase and reports of a rigged election emerge, questions have been raised about the financial support given to a president growing increasingly authoritarian.

Uganda has long been a recipient of aid from the West. In 2009, The Guardian reported that Uganda was a “poster child in development circles, something of a ‘donor darling’", receiving more than $1.2 billion in overseas direct assistance in 2004.

International financial support

According to a Human Rights Watch report from 2018, the US has been a crucial donor to the Ugandan military, providing funding and training to thousands of soldiers with the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) programme. When reports of human rights abuses emerged after a by-election in Arua in 2018, international donors expressed concern, with the US State Department calling the violations “unacceptable”. The European Parliament produced a resolution with 14 points demanding that the accusations of torture and extrajudicial killings be investigated and the necessary parties disciplined. Despite this action, neither the EU nor the US introduced clear changes to their relationship with Uganda’s security forces.

According to the government of the Netherlands website, the Netherlands provides “advice and support” to the police and judiciary in poor countries to boost security. In Uganda, this means working with the Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) in a variety of areas to improve security, stability, and human rights, with strategic interventions planned for the period of 2019 until 2022. This includes training police officers and establishing projects that work towards improving the Ugandan public prosecution service with the aim of decreasing crime and violence against women. They also work to improve security in the national institutions responsible for it including the army, the judiciary, and the police. The budget for this programme is around €384 million. This is a joint project by the Netherlands, Austria, and the European Union. Several branches of the UN work to provide strategic support for the JLOS, which includes the Ugandan Police Force. The website states that one of the primary goals here is to ensure that these institutions are acting within the best interests of the state and adhering to the rule of law.

But as Museveni’s forces cracked down on opposition parties with scores of people killed leading up to the 2021 elections, questions have been raised about whether the Development Partners should be supporting a regime guilty of police brutality and accused of election rigging. Violence from police forces is not unfamiliar in Uganda but has increased significantly during the recent presidential elections that saw long-time president Yoweri Museveni re-elected.

A post to the Facebook page of the Dutch embassy in Uganda reveals that the Kingdom of the Netherlands donated double cabs and motorbikes for the Ugandan police. The post specifies that these vehicles must be used exclusively for the work the Ugandan police do with refugee camps. However, pictures and footage obtained by the Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant, paint a different picture, as police pick-up trucks financed by the Dutch government have been identified at the scenes of multiple instances of police brutality.

Maria Burnett, Africa strategy advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told de Volkskrant, that the Netherlands could have predicted that the vehicles would be used for other reasons than those specified. She says boundaries between the police force and army in Uganda are often blurred, and this is known to the Netherlands.

Despite these incidents, the Netherlands has continued to support Museveni’s regime. Although some members of the European Parliament are calling for sanctions, no decisive steps have been taken. Burnett says this is a common pattern for western countries who will condemn violence by police or military forces but not take any concrete steps against this violence.

According to de Volkskrant, the Netherlands has taken action in the past. When Museveni passed an anti-gay law in 2014, the Dutch embassy withdrew the aid until the law had been repealed. Aid was only resumed with struct conditions, including that money could only be provided for projects like combatting violence against women, improving gender equality, or eliminating corruption.

Museveni’s increasingly authoritarian rule

Museveni has been in power since 1986, making him one of the longest-ruling presidents on the African continent and immediately raising questions about the democratic environment in Uganda that has allowed a president to rule for such a long time. His supporters say he has brought stability and relative prosperity to the country, but he has been accused by the opposition of becoming an authoritarian figure. According to the New York Times, in 2005, as Museveni’s second term was coming to an end, parliament lifted the presidential term limit that would have forced him out of office. In 2017, a bill was passed to abolish the age limit for the presidency. Although the bill received a large majority of support from lawmakers, an Afrobarometer poll from two months before the vote revealed that 75 percent of Ugandans wanted the age limit to remain.

Allegations of a rigged election

With its young population of 80 percent of people under the age of 35, most of the country has never known another leader. According to Al Jazeera, Young people in Uganda have previously remained distanced from politics because they feel marginalised under Museveni’s regime, but Bobi Wine appeals to this portion of the population. Wine has posed the biggest threat to Museveni yet, promising to bring an end to authoritarian rule, discrimination, corruption, and the deteriorating healthcare system.

Although the Election Commission declared that Museveni won a majority of 59 percent of votes, Rebecca Navaa, the Dutch and Belgian coordinator of Wine’s Nationaal Unity Partner (NUP), denounced these results. Her party asked voters to share photos of themselves at the polling stations so they could conduct their own tally, which she says showed a different outcome to that declared by the Election Committee.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch has also cast doubt on the results, reporting widespread violence and intimidation prior to and during the election. According to Oryem Nyeko, an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, “A democratic playing field for free and fair elections was worryingly absent during these elections.” Two days prior to the election, internet service providers were required by the Uganda Communications Commission to remove access to social media platforms. Internet access across the country was blocked for five days after the election, with access to social media sites like Twitter and Youtube remaining blocked even longer.

Although the Internet has now been unblocked, the mood in Uganda remains tense, with a strong military presence in the capital, Kampala. Although the new parliament features a diverse selection of political parties, Museveni’s reign continues, supported by international donors.