Leah Kalanguka beamed, having just won the crown of Miss Uganda based on her talents, her beauty, and her ability to milk cows and to sow a field. This year’s pageant was run by the Ugandan military, which, at the behest of President Yoweri Museveni, took over agricultural planning and “partnered” with the pageant to promote agriculture among the youth—hence the reward for Miss Kalanguka’s skill with a cow udder.
The pageant represents more than just an odd pairing of glamour and generals. It is in fact yet another incursion of Uganda’s military into civil society. Hailed in the 1990s as Africa’s success story, Uganda’s once promising democratization process has stalled. Uganda today is a poor country hamstrung by cronyism, corruption, repression, and the growing power of Museveni, ruler since 1986.
For some, the blame for this case of democracy denied lies with America—or more precisely American (and Western) money. The United States didn’t tell the Ugandan military to expand its reach over a national beauty pageant, of course, but it perhaps enabled it by strengthening the personal military of a dictator. Uganda, described by the U.S. State Department as a “key U.S. strategic partner” in the War on Terror, receives $485 million in American aid each year (total government spending on goods and services was about $3.8 billion last year, for comparison). Those dollars build Uganda’s military, the source of Museveni’s power.
Since the 1990s, and especially after 9/11, the United States has used this aid to bolster Museveni’s military as one of its proxies in the conflicts of Central and East Africa. Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller, while serving as deputy commander for Military Operations U.S. Africa Command in 2008, listed terrorism, oil disruption, and the growing influence of China as the key challenges to U.S. interests in Africa. Leaked cables show that the U.S. is aware of Museveni’s undemocratic and corrupt tendencies but continues to aid the country regardless.
The Uganda People’s Defense Force is now actively deployed either as a peacekeeping or combat force in northern and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, and South Sudan. In 2007, Ugandan troops played a key role fighting Al Shabab in Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, to which the U.S. contributed more than $300 million. Afterward, Uganda, unlike other allies, did not pull out from Somalia, even after the 2010 Kampala retaliation bombings, which killed 74 people. U.S. troops are currently stationed in Uganda assisting in the hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, perhaps as reward for Uganda’s assistance in Somalia.
These wars are profitable business for all involved. America builds the capacity for what seems to be a compliant military ally in East Africa. Uganda receives valuable military training and equipment for use in internal affairs and in later wars, while others foot the bill—17.3 percent of Uganda’s defense budget comes from donor partners on the Somalia mission, the Independent of Uganda reports.
In addition, according to critics like Andrew Mwenda, by focusing on its wars, Museveni has been able to get the U.S. and other Western donors to overlook his human rights record and persecution of journalists. Museveni’s government increasingly harasses journalists and activists. In 2012, Transparency International ranked Uganda as the most corrupt country in East Africa, a country where 87 percent of the population reports paying a bribe for government services.
Mwenda, a DJ at an independent radio station, was jailed for criticizing Museveni during what is widely seen as the stolen 2006 presidential election, one in which Museveni tore up a constitutional two-term limit and arrested his main competitor on charges of treason. “If foreign donors pulled the plug,” Mwenda wrote, “the regime would no longer be shielded from the consequences of its own misdealings and would have to bend to democratic pressures.”
Aid supporters such as Zach Kaufman, a legal academic and Social Enterprise Fellow at the Yale School of Management’s Program on Social Enterprise, acknowledge that aid has the potential to corrupt democracy. Still, Kaufman believes aid, if used responsibly and with proper transparency and monitoring, can be useful for assisting needy countries.
“Like weapons, foreign aid can be used for good or ill,” Kaufman, who helped build Rwanda’s first public library, said. To be good, aid must be sustainable. Aid supporters point to Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia as countries once heavily financed but now self-sufficient.
But the recent Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act shows how this game really works, says the writer Helen Epstein. The bill, which threatened life in prison for “aggravated homosexuality” and support of LGBT individuals, was denounced by the West, which froze more than $100 million in aid. Musveni signed the bill into law but told the West that it would be contested in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, where it was eventually struck down. Many believe donor pressure killed the bill, but Epstein believes it’s an example of a clever Museveni. In the end, Museveni supported a popular Ugandan measure while maintaining access to aid. The Americans, meanwhile, were able to congratulate themselves on killing the bill while continuing to ignore Museveni’s other, graver abuses against democracy and the rule of law.
“We want to give the impression we’re holding Uganda to this human rights standard, but we ignore deeper, more systemic injustices in the country in order to avoid alienating a military ally in the region,” Epstein said. “We are very selective in the human rights we care about.”
In this sense, aid is simply a game where the players know their roles: Museveni is wily and uses aid to consolidate power in a fractured nation; America is rich and uses aid to bolster an important ally. Both manipulate sympathy to minimize ugliness. And the American public, because it loves helping but hates complications, accepts without thinking.
The danger here is of becoming a handmaiden to generals, and of the U.S. recreating the Cold War cycle of supporting a repressive regime and excusing its human rights abuses, and then having to deal with resistance movements created by the resentment its policies created. In the short term, strengthening Uganda’s military may produce a stable ally. In the long term, however, it may reap a bitter harvest.