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Ranking Member Menendez Statement for the Senate Record on Safeguarding Democracy in Uganda

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, strongly condemns the arrest of the Honourable Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, and calls on the Ugandan government to immediately release him and cease its harassment of his presidential campaign. Yesterday, Senator Menendez submitted the following statement for the Senate record in advance of upcoming January 2021 elections in Uganda:

“Mr. President, I rise with grave concern to speak about the troubling political situation in Uganda in the run up to that country’s elections on January 14, and to call on President Museveni to take immediate action to stop the country’s downward political spiral.  

Uganda has been an important if not critical security and counterterrorism partner to the United States for well over a decade, playing a prominent role in the African Union’s Mission to Somalia and hosting over 1.4 million refugees. Its leadership and influence in east Africa and the African continent writ large is difficult to overstate. However these are troubling times in Uganda, and long standing efforts to advance its democracy are now in peril.

National elections in Uganda have not met internationally accepted standards for free and fair polls since 1996, when they were held for the first time after a long-running conflict that brought President Museveni to power. For decades, Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Party (NRM) has leveraged access to and influence over state resources and institutions to tilt the electoral balance in its favor. These efforts are not new. Under President Museveni’s leadership, the NRM successfully moved to change the Ugandan constitution in 2005 to remove presidential term limits, and again in and 2017 to lift age-limits. These changes allow President Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, to remain in office indefinitely. Not only have Museveni and the NRM engineered a constitutional coup, they have undertaken a campaign of political repression that has only become worse since the last general elections.  Ugandan authorities have increasingly used coercive measures, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, extra-judicial killings, and intrusive surveillance technology to intimidate and silence critics, place a strangle hold on media, and stifle political opposition in the country. 

Leading opposition figures have been targeted in brazen and shocking ways. Members of Parliament have been arrested and detained on numerous occasions, and there is strong evidence to support their claims of being tortured by President Museveni’s security forces while in custody. Last week, prominent human rights attorney Nicholas Opiyo along with several other attorneys was arrested in what appears to be a blatant act of intimidation for their investigation into killings that occurred as a result of the arrest of rival presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu in November. Just this past weekend, one of Kyagulanyi’s bodyguards was killed by security forces in a violent confrontation that also saw two journalists injured. Imagine that happening to any political candidate here in the United States, Mr. President, to one of our colleagues as they were out on the campaign trail this fall.  We should all be outraged by such acts. 

To date there have been no meaningful investigations into these incidents, and no accountability for these abuses. The question we must ask ourselves is why. Why has President Museveni failed to take swift and decisive action to ensure the safety and security of members of the Ugandan parliament and other opposition figures, and bring those responsible to justice?  Is President Museveni protecting particular individuals? Or perhaps direct responsibility for the violence against the Uganda opposition lies even further up the chain of command?

Journalists and non-governmental organizations have been under pressure as well. Ugandan authorities continue to use a range of restrictive and onerous administrative measures against NGOs, including deregistration of more than 12,000 mostly local NGOs in November 2019. Earlier this month, Ugandan authorities froze the bank accounts of some NGOs, and in the past, the Museveni administration has denied entry and deported some leaders of international NGOs in what were clear acts of intimidation. Journalists working for foreign media outlets are now required to re-register with Ugandan authorities or risk criminal penalties, and some foreign journalists have also been deported from the country. 

Government has also attacked digital rights and academic freedoms. Individuals with large social media followings are subject to onerous administrative regulation. Burdensome taxes have been imposed on social media users and some individuals who have criticized the Museveni administration on social media platforms have even been prosecuted. Ugandan authorities have taken repeated action to suppress academic freedom and intimidate students and faculty that have been critical of the Museveni administration, including by firing and jailing professors who criticize the regime.

In short, the long standing effort to build democracy in Uganda is under grave threat, and we must take action in support of those defending political freedoms in the country. That is why I introduced S. Res 807.  It not only condemns the actions of the Museveni administration, it calls on the Secretary of State, and the heads of relevant departments and agencies of the United States Government to undertake three essential actions. First, to consider the imposition of targeted sanctions and visa restrictions on actors involved in undermining credible, transparent elections, and those who have perpetrated or abetted human rights abuses. Second, to work with African partners, likeminded countries and international institutions and organizations to develop and implement strategies and actions to promote and defend human, civil, and political rights and multiparty democracy in Uganda. And third, to immediately conduct a review of United States assistance and cooperation with Uganda for the purposes of reprioritizing such assistance should neutral observers determine that the January 2021 polls do not meet internationally accepted standards for credible elections. 

Mr. President, if the outcome of the elections in Uganda does not reflect the will of the people, I will be calling for the Biden Administration to re-evaluate our relationship with the Museveni administration. And I plan to pursue binding legislation in the 117th Congress that builds on S Res 807. Uganda’s stature and importance as a security partner should not prevent the United States from speaking out in support of democracy, and taking action in support of those Ugandans fighting for democratic freedoms.”