How Fake News About Africa is Costing US Taxpayers

Uganda, Yoweri Museveni
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from DFID - UK Department for International Development / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and US Navy

Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni is like the fireman who is secretly an arsonist, starting fires he then rushes in to put out.

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, journalist and Africa expert Helen Epstein explains how Museveni, president of Uganda since 1986, has inserted himself into, and has been the cause of, many of the conflicts in East Africa.

He has taken advantage of the US fear of terrorism by inflating the risk of it on the continent, and then telling the world what he is doing to take care of the problem.

Museveni has used this strategy, including escalating the civil war in South Sudan, to secure more weapons from the US, and vast sums of money from the World Bank, which has consistently lied to prop up Uganda’s economic condition.

The people of Africa, and Uganda in particular, had high hopes for progress when Barack Obama took office. Obama gave a speech in Africa in July of 2009 in which he promised to do more to advance human rights and democracy there. Unfortunately, the White House and the State Department both dropped the ball, which gave added power to Museveni. He even got the State Department to cover up some of his crimes.

Epstein argues in her conversation with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman that the US needs to reconsider its support for the African dictator, whose country has one of the world’s poorest educational systems, and one of the highest rates of infant mortality.

And she explains how Museveni is actually creating more opportunity for terrorists, producing more refugees, and escalating proxy wars in the region.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Almost since the beginning of relationships between nations, we’ve often been guided by the idea of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The problem is that in a complex interconnected world, where the lives of people are at stake, where leaders often manipulate the truth, where fear is often the coin of the realm that dictators use to prop themselves up, the consequences can be devastating. Nowhere is this more true than in Africa today. A place where America’s so-called War on Terror has been used to support some of the most repressive and evil regimes. We’re going to talk about this today in the context of Uganda with my guest Helen Epstein.
Helen Epstein is a visiting professor of Global Public Health and Human Rights at Bard College. Her book The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa was a New York Times Notable Book, and her articles have appeared in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and many other publications. It is my pleasure to welcome Helen Epstein here to Radio WhoWhatWhy to talk about her newest work, Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror. Helen Epstein, thanks so much for joining us.
Helen Epstein: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to talk a little bit first about the history of the current regime in Uganda, which has been going on for some 25, 30 years now. Give our listeners a little sense of that history first of all.
Helen Epstein: Uganda was kind of in turmoil for many years after independence. A number of dictators came and went. Then in 1996 [Editor’s note: Museveni came to power in 1986], a young rebel leader named Yoweri Museveni toppled the government and took power. He declared that he was going to install democracy and the rule of law and all sorts of good things, but very quickly many Ugandans began to recognize that not only were they going to experience more of the same corruption and huge human rights abuses, but that this new leader, Museveni, had an extremely good and well-disciplined military force supporting him, which was going to make it very difficult to realize democracy and the rule of law that people have been longing for really throughout their history.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that he has repeatedly done is inject himself into so many of the other battles that are taking place in Africa. Issues that have taken place in the Sudan, in South Sudan and Rwanda. Talk a little bit about that and the way he has inserted himself into these other conflicts.
Helen Epstein: Very early on, almost as soon as he came to power, he, or his army, began to support rebels in Southern Sudan. In part the rebels had good reason to be fighting because they were being attacked by Arab dominated majority rulers in the north of Sudan, but before long they began receiving, the Ugandans began receiving large infusions of weapons via the United States, which they then began channeling to the rebels in Southern Sudan, and this escalated the war greatly.
The aim of the Americans was really they felt threatened by the new Islamist government that had taken power in Sudan in 1989 and was ruled by President Bashir, who we still are having issues with. He and his allies had begun creating this, what one ambassador called a Holiday Inn for terrorist groups. Even Al-Qaeda set up shop there. Briefly Osama Bin Laden lived there. The Americans got very concerned about this and felt that one way of weakening the government and perhaps leading to its fall would be to strengthen these southern rebels, and they did that by supplying the Ugandans. The Ugandans then used some of that weaponry in order to pursue their own interests in the region, including launching an invasion of Rwanda in 1990, which really set the stage for the genocide which many people must remember. Four years later in 1994 there was a horrible massacre of hundreds of thousands of people of Tutsi ethnicity were killed by the Hutus. Also Congo, which Uganda, along with Rwanda under its new leadership, invaded in 1986 and then again in 1988, and looted that country and made war that probably killed millions of people.
Jeff Schechtman: And since 2001, since the focus in the U.S. with respect to the war on terror and terrorists, talk a little bit about the role that Museveni and Uganda have played.
Helen Epstein: These countries are very poor. Uganda, like many African countries, needs to depend upon the United States, the UK, and other Western donors in order to maintain its army and to pay its bills to purchase imports such as oil and so on and to pay its civil servants and everything. In order to get that money, Museveni has very shrewdly figured out that he has to give the Americans what they want, and he knows that the Americans are particularly concerned, and the British as well, with the specter of terrorism. And so in many cases he has actually inflated the risks of terrorism, even after Sudan for example threw Bin Laden out of the country and tried to make overtures to the Americans to cooperate. Museveni continued to urge that Sudan was a terrible threat and they couldn’t let their guard down and he therefore needed more weapons in order to endure and fight terrorist threats around the region.
Something similar seems to have happened in Somalia, where a kind of moderate Islamist government took over in 2006, and Museveni helped convince the Bush administration that these were all terrorists and they had to be overthrown. That led to the invasion of Somalia, which led to a war that continues to this day and has consumed, we don’t even know how many people have been killed, but masses of them. Probably hundreds of thousands.
He goes around the continent, stirring up these crises, and then wins praise from the West for taking care of refugees, but these refugees which fill up Ugandan camps, there are millions and millions of refugees living in Uganda now, but they’re for the most part victims of wars that Museveni himself instigated.
Jeff Schechtman: Yeah, it’s a little bit like the arsonist who’s also a fireman.
Helen Epstein: Exactly. It’s like that. Or, as my mother-in-law used to say, it’s like hiring the goat to be your gardener.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about how this played out most recently under the Obama administration.
Helen Epstein: Well, many of us had high hopes for Obama. He gave a soaring speech in Ghana in July 2009, where he said that history was on the side of those brave people who were fighting for democracy and for human rights. And then unfortunately he both rhetorically and diplomatically, and also in terms of aid, turned his back on democracy movements throughout Eastern and Central Africa. So, for example, continued to support Museveni with large amounts of military and financial assistance. The State Department covered up his crimes, downplayed them. The media seldom covered them, so few Americans know who Museveni is or what he’s done, and also ignored the plight of people in Rwanda who are also desperate for freedom and democracy, and people in Ethiopia who have also been crying for freedom and democracy. The reason really, in particular with Ethiopia and Uganda, is that the United States is relying on them to fight its own proxy war in Somalia, because Uganda and Ethiopia both have troops there.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the situation on the ground now in Uganda and among the Ugandan people.
Helen Epstein: People are extremely poor. The World Bank has, mysteriously to everyone, long praised Uganda as an economic success story. This is simply not true and for the most part people are living at substandard level. People will consume what they can grow themselves. If they can afford a few chickens, they live off that. This is how most people live and if you read the details of the World Bank reports, this is what they say, so I’m not making this up. But their headlines will say things like, “Only 20% of Ugandans are poor,” but that’s absurd. Mainly they don’t have any cash at all. In fact even these World Bank reports, if you read the details, you’ll find that Ugandan children for example are among the least likely in the world to complete primary school, and they are also twice as likely to die before the age of five than children in Rwanda, which is a much poorer country, or in Kenya, and significantly less likely to die than children in Tanzania too.
Things are really quite desperate and Museveni is now pushing to have the age limit for presidents changed. At the moment you can only serve as president if you’re under the age of 75. He’s about to pass that birthday and wants to run again in elections in 2021. Last I heard there were, to prevent demonstrations and to prevent any dissent at all, he actually had rifles trained on the parliament to essentially force this change in the constitution through. It’s terrifying.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there any kind of organized political opposition at all to Museveni in Uganda?
Helen Epstein: There is. There’s a very courageous opposition. It’s always under the gun. The leading opposition figure’s name is Kizza Besigye. He’s a doctor who fought in the bush with Museveni when he took power and then quickly fell out with him. He has been arrested over 50 times, in and out of jail all the time. He’s been tear gassed,he’s had pepper spray sprayed in his eyes so that he almost went blind. Yet he continues to support – as much as he can against Museveni’s huge arsenal –

an opposition movement, and he has many, many loyal supporters.

Jeff Schechtman: What do we sense so far, and maybe it’s too early to tell, with respect to the relationship between Museveni and this current administration?
Helen Epstein: Well, it’s difficult to tell so far. One thing is, I am told that Museveni has met with Donald Trump during the current UN general assemblies, and I believe that Trump has met with Museveni. That’s what I’ve been told. We also know that Trump has met with UK foreign minister Boris Johnson, and Museveni tweeted that they talked about how Uganda needs more weapons to fight quote unquote “terror.” So, this is not good news.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the allies that Museveni has in Africa right now. Where are the leaders and countries that he is most aligned with?
Helen Epstein: Well what’s interesting is that he’s managed to interfere in pretty much all of the countries, almost all of the countries on Uganda’s borders, and install leaders who are generally friendly to him so he has an ally. There’s tribal genocide in South Sudan and it’s being perpetrated by the army of President Salva Kiir. Salva Kiir is a close ally of Museveni’s, for example. He’s also close to Uhuru Kenyatta, who is now the subject of a very contested election in Kenya. He was close to Paul Kagame of Rwanda, whom he helped install in power. It was Ugandan weapons that actually helped Paul Kagame’s Rwandan patriotic front take over power in 1994, but I gather the two of them, their relations are not as good as they used to be so we don’t know what’s going on there, it’s very mysterious. Museveni himself is the strong man in the region. He has the closest relationships with the West and he himself is a rather intimidating figure, so others generally defer to him.
Jeff Schechtman: Other than holding onto power, what are his objectives, if any, in the region?
Helen Epstein: Gaining more power and obliterating his enemies really. As far as anyone can tell, it’s power itself and it’s continual, like a shark. It has to constantly move forward.
Jeff Schechtman: What, if anything, could the U.S. do to begin to mitigate this situation? What should the U.S. do?
Helen Epstein: The U.S. needs to really reconsider its values in international relations, especially as regards to Africa. Really since African countries gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, we have tended to support strong men who were either allied with us against the Soviet Union, or in so-called war on terror. And we need to understand that this policy has itself been a source of terror — that the more we support these guys, the more refugees we create and the more terrorist groups merge to fight back against them, and the more we cause problems for ourselves. The only solution, particularly in societies, it’s the most ethnically diverse country on the planet in fact, there are more different ethnic groups than anywhere else. Some people speak languages that are as difficult to understand to each other as English and Chinese. They’re very, very vastly different. The only way to manage such diversity is through democracy with a strong element of minority rights. A kind of ideal democracy that we all profess. It is really the only way, because repression is causing complete pandemonium and backfiring very badly, so we really need to support democracy and the rule of law — everywhere, especially there.
Jeff Schechtman: What is the economic condition of Uganda at the moment?
Helen Epstein: Well, again, the World Bank would like us to think that it’s a growing, flourishing economy. Not at all. Economic growth is very low and very concentrated in a very small number of hands. You have a tiny number of rich people and masses and masses of poor. We’ve seen large companies, that had been sold this idea that there was an emerging middle class there, moving in and they’re now moving out so we’ve now seen British Airways for example no longer flies there, it used to be a very, very important colony and there were flights arriving every day. No more. Barclays Bank I think is closed or is about to close. Other banks have closed. Cell phone companies have gone out of business. Supermarkets that have opened are now closed. So really, investors are pulling up stakes and leaving town, and that’s an extremely worrying sign for everyone there.
Jeff Schechtman: Why is the World Bank painting this optimistic picture?
Helen Epstein: Well, the World Bank professes to be apolitical. Just a technical organization that looks at investment opportunities and supports economic growth in developing countries. That’s what it professes to do and says it’s not political. But of course it’s controlled very heavily by its largest … those who supply its money pretty much, and that’s the United States. The United States always chooses the person to run it. The United States has strong influence over its board and its decisions, and so therefore it is to a degree an instrument of U.S. power and also UK power and the Europeans. To me it seems very, very political, what it’s doing and if they wish to differ, I’d love to hear their explanation for it, frankly.
Jeff Schechtman: Are you at all optimistic about the situation there? Do you think that there’s anything on the horizon that are positive signs?
Helen Epstein: I think there could be. I think there could be, but I think there could be in a sense that we have continually, the foreign policy arms of the United States have continually seen the problems in that entire troubled region of the Horn and Great Lakes of Africa, the countries of Congo and Rwanda and Uganda, and Sudan and South Sudan, as tribal issues. I think the most important thing is to try to see them as justice issues instead. This seems to me the most important thing, because for one thing this is really just, injustice is at the root of all these problems and of course people turn to their ethnic group because they need support to fight against the injustice and that’s how it ends up looking tribal when it’s really about justice. The fact that these are really justice issues, and that a growing number of people are beginning to see that, means that there is some hope because we can’t do anything about ethnic conflicts. How can we mediate that? But we can certainly do something about issues of injustice.
Justice people here are beginning to recognize the importance of democracy and human rights and rule of law and care about them in ways that they had almost ceased to care very recently. Perhaps they will start to use those ideas to rethink our policy towards the rest of the world.
Jeff Schechtman: Helen Epstein. Her book is Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror. Helen, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Helen Epstein: Thank you so much again. Really appreciate it.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Ugandan army soldiers (DoD).

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