Defending democracy? The UK and Uganda
by Ian Sinclair
1 August 2021
The June G7 summit in Cornwall generated the usual liberal drivel about the West’s noble global goals. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour noted Joe Biden and Boris Johnson “had a grand agenda ahead of them, covering democracy’s defence, climate change and pandemic.” The photo illustrating this “analysis” piece was captioned “Defending democracy is crucial to Joe Biden’s tour of Europe.” A couple of days later, in his Guardian review of Gordon Brown’s new book Seven Ways to Change the World, the academic William Davies stated the former prime minister “clearly holds deep-seated moral views regarding the responsibilities of wealthy countries to less wealthy ones, combined with a sense that true justice… is never adequately achieved, but needs constantly pushing for.”
When considering the UK’s role in the world, the UK’s relationship with Uganda provides a useful case study.
With a population of close to 45 million, and 75 per cent of people under the age of 30, on 14 January 2021 Uganda held a general election. The contest for the presidency was between authoritarian incumbent Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, and the 38-year old opposition politician Bobi Wine.
According to Human Rights Watch, the elections, of which Museveni was declared the winner, “were marred by widespread violence and repression. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and beat opposition supporters and journalists, killed protestors, and disrupted opposition rallies.” More broadly, Amnesty International note “the authorities continued to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”
Shockingly, over 50 people were killed during a government crackdown following the arrest of Wine on 18 November 2020. In comparison, two people died in the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, and no one has died in the anti-government demonstrations in Russia that started in January. The Ugandan authorities claimed the dead were rioters, though a BBC Africa Eye documentary investigated several of the killings and found none had been involved in rioting when they were killed.
Wine was put under house arrest for 11 days after the election, with his National Unity Platform party claiming in February that 3,000 people had been detained by security forces since November 2020. Jason Burke, the Guardian’s Africa correspondent, reported “some detainees have had joints or genitals beaten with wires, been burned with cigarettes, or had fingernails torn out.”
On 16 January the UK Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, released an extraordinary statement on the elections: “The UK Government welcomes the relatively calm passing of the elections in Uganda and notes the re-election of H.E. Yoweri Museveni as President.” Duddridge went onto note “Many in Uganda and beyond have expressed concerns about the overall political climate in the run up to the elections as well as the electoral process,” before asking “all parties, including the security services, but also all of Uganda’s political movements, act with restraint to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
I have searched the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s website and cannot find any statement about the November 2020 massacre (the FCDO press office has not replied to repeated emails asking if a statement exists). Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab doesn’t seem to have tweeted anything about the election or the November 2020 killings. He has, though, found time to tweet about opposition politicians in other nations, including support for Joshua Wong in Hong Kong, Alexei Navalny in Russia (25 times), and Juan Guido in Venezuela (five times).
Perhaps in response to criticism, it should be noted Duddridge tweeted a stronger response on 19 January: “We have significant concerns about restrictions of political freedoms following the Ugandan elections, including denying Robert Kyagulanyi’s [Bobi Wine] fundamental freedoms.”
Despite this shift, the UK’s response to the election and killings is deeply troubling – “inconsistent with the political reality,” is how Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist and analyst, put it to development news site Devex. “It didn’t speak at all to the scale of what was going on in Uganda, which by any standards was a uniquely severe challenge to democratic norms.”
So what’s going on? Rosebell Kagumire, the Uganda-based editor of the African Feminism website, told Devex the UK has “played a very important role in propping up this regime… they are partners with it”.
Ugandan journalist and TED Fellow Yasin Kakande explained these close ties. “British economic interests… remain prominent in Uganda’s economy”, he noted in The London Economic in February, highlighting the role of Standard Chartered and Barclays in the financial sector, and Shell in the oil sector. Incidentally, Kate Airey, the British High Commissioner to Uganda, used to work for Shell. And Declassified UK have revealed that until recently Duddridge himself “earned tens of thousands of pounds as an adviser to a London-based finance house whose advisory board is chaired by an ally of Uganda’s authoritarian ruler”.
Furthermore, Johnson met Museveni during the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January 2020 and “spoke of the UK’s commitment and investment in Uganda and his desire to see the two countries’ trade relationship go up a gear”, according to Number 10.
Writing for Declassified UK in January, ex-Morning Star journalist Phil Miller noted UK troops train Ugandan forces, supposedly as part of the so-called war on terror. In 2006 Oxfam claimed Ugandan forces were using armoured vehicles sold by BAE Systems to suppress opposition demonstrations. And echoing the Pegasus revelations last week, in 2015 BBC News reported a “UK-based firm has sold surveillance technology to Uganda which has been used to crush and potentially blackmail opponents of the president.”
While liberal theory posits the media acts as a fourth estate, holding the government to account and lubricating democracy by keeping the public informed, in reality the media has a remarkable tendency to echo the government’s interests and concerns.
For example, in his Declassified UK article Miller noted Wine has been mentioned in 39 articles in The Times newspaper since he announced he was running for Uganda’s parliament in April 2017. During the same period, Miller found the same newspaper named Wong in 94 articles, and Navalny in up to 600 articles.
A similar pattern can be seen with the Guardian. A search of the Lexis-Nexis database on 13 July found Wine has been mentioned in 57 Guardian articles since April 2017, while 150 articles naming Wong and 345 articles mentioning Navalny.
Even when there is reporting on Uganda, the UK’s close relationship to Musevini is rarely mentioned. The Financial Times’s 18-paragraph story on 13 January looking at the Ugandan elections didn’t mention the UK, and neither did a full page, 19-paragraph report in the Guardian two days before. A June report from Burke in the Guardian did note Musevini “has long been perceived as a key ally of western powers”, with Uganda receiving £150m of assistance from the UK in recent years, but this information appeared in paragraph 20 of 21 of the article.
Of course, there are exceptions. Miller has put the UK’s nefarious involvement at the forefront of his reporting for Declassified UK, while Burke wrote an April report about “the country’s worst wave of repression for decades” that made a more prominent reference to the West’s support for Musevini.
However, overall it is clear the British media have failed to adequately inform the British public what their government has been up to in Uganda, a situation the British government is more than happy with, I’m sure.
“What seems to be happening so far is the UK is privileging its strategic interests over its concern with open societies,” Samuel Hickey, Professor of Politics and Development at the University of Manchester, told Devex in January.
The article also quoted Nicholas Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham: “If you are going to support democracy around the world, Uganda is a pretty easy test case. This is not China or Saudi Arabia, a major economic power with influence at the United Nations and beyond. If you are going to pull your punches on Uganda, you’re going to pull your punches on most countries out there.”
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair