Updated August 6, 2019
U.S. officials have viewed Uganda as a key security partner
in East Africa for over a decade. The country has played a
lead role in high-profile counterterrorism and stability
operations in the region, most notably in Somalia. Uganda
is major recipient of U.S. foreign aid and has been one of
the top recipients of U.S. security assistance in Africa. The
United States provides logistics, training, equipment, and
advisory support to the Ugandan military for its regional
operations. Reports of torture and unlawful killings by
security forces complicate the bilateral relationship, though,
as do growing concerns about Uganda’s political trajectory.
The country has never had a democratic transition of power.
Figure 1. Uganda Key Facts
President Yoweri Museveni, who seized power in a
rebellion over three decades ago, is among the world’s
longest-serving heads of state. Once dubbed part of a “new
generation of African leaders,” Museveni, now in his 70s,
wrote in 1986, “The problem of Africa in general and
Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want
to stay in power.” His government’s reputation has been
marred by reported corruption, repression, and other abuses
of power. High unemployment, rising crime, land disputes,
and communal tensions have fueled popular discontent, as
have poor service delivery and uneven development among
Uganda’s regions. The opposition has long been divided,
but a new movement now seeks to harness mounting
frustration among a youthful electorate to push for change.
President Museveni was reelected to a fifth term in 2016, in
a vote marked by allegations of voter intimidation,
harassment of the opposition, and the misuse of state funds.
His main challengers were two former government
officials: former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and
opposition leader Kizza Besigye. Both were repeatedly
arrested by police; Besigye was detained on election day
and kept under house arrest during the post-election period,
preventing him from filing a legal challenge. The State
Department suggested that the electoral irregularities and
conduct reported were “deeply inconsistent with
international standards” for a democratic process,
contending that “the Ugandan people deserved better.”
The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), which
was formed from the rebel movement Museveni led in the
1980s, dominates the parliament. The military, which is
constitutionally granted seats in parliament, is widely
viewed as a key constituency for Museveni.
Uganda’s parliament abolished presidential term limits in
2005. The constitution has barred candidates above age 75
from vying for the presidency, but in late 2017, parliament
voted to remove the age limit after contentious debate,
paving the way for Museveni to potentially stand for a sixth
term in 2021. The age limit debate spurred protests and a
security force crackdown. A 2017 survey suggested most
Ugandans support presidential age and term limits.
Source: Data from CIA World Factbook, IMF (2019).
Musician Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi), who was elected
to parliament as an independent in 2017, has emerged as the
new, youthful face of the opposition. His protest songs have
raised government ire (his concerts are routinely blocked),
and he has drawn large crowds with his slogan of “people
power.” He was a vocal opponent of lifting the presidential
age limit. In August 2018, during a parliamentary byelection campaign, his driver was killed by an elite security
unit and Wine, among others, was detained and beaten. He
and several fellow parliamentarians were accused of
inciting violence against Museveni’s motorcade and
charged with treason. The incident spurred outrage and
protests. The musician-turned-politician announced in July
2019 that he would vie, presumably against Museveni, for
the presidency in 2021. Meanwhile, his trial is ongoing; he
would be ineligible to run if convicted.
Human Rights Concerns
The State Department’s human rights report on Uganda
documents restrictions on political freedoms and incidents
of torture, excessive force, and unlawful killings by security
forces; it notes that officers implicated in abuses often
enjoy impunity. Human right groups have criticized the
government for failing to hold security personnel
accountable for torture (more than 1,000 allegations of
torture were reported between 2012 and 2016 alone) or for
the deaths of over 150 people, including children, during
operations in Kasese, in western Uganda, in 2016.
Activists raise concerns with several laws, including the
Public Order Management Act, which gives police broad
authority to block public meetings and detain opposition
candidates and supporters. Another law adopted in 2015
tightened the regulation of non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), prohibiting activity “contrary to the dignity of the
people of Uganda.” The government monitors social media
and has arrested critics, citing the Antiterrorism Act and
other laws. In 2018, the government imposed a social media
tax on users (it blocked social media during the 2016 polls).
Threats to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)
rights have drawn international attention, particularly
around the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act. That law, which
made same-sex relations punishable by life in prison, was
later struck down in court. Per the State Department, LGBT
persons continue to face “discrimination, legal restrictions,
societal harassment, violence, and intimidation.”
The Economy and Corruption Concerns
Stronger economic growth will be critical for Uganda’s
ability to manage its rapidly growing population, 70% of
which is under 25. Unemployment is a key problem, as is a
growing demand for education and health services. Uganda
has one of the lowest electrification rates in Africa, only
20% of the population has access to electricity.
President Museveni’s ambitious development strategy,
which aimed to make Uganda a middle-income country by
2020 and an upper-middle-income country by 2040, will
not meet its first target. GDP growth, forecast at under 7%
through 2024, is well below the government’s double-digit
goal. Uganda seeks to develop its energy, agriculture, and
tourism sectors by improving infrastructure, developing
human capital, and strengthening competitiveness. It also
seeks to reform its regulatory environment: Uganda ranks
127nd in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.
Chinese financing comprises a growing share of Uganda’s
public debt, which is over 40% of GDP and rising.
Uganda’s economic outlook is tied to its nascent energy
sector. Proven crude oil reserves are estimated at 2.5 billion
barrels, with 500 billion cubic feet of natural gas reserves.
Production, which the World Bank forecasts could bring up
to $2 billion in annual revenues, has been delayed to 2022.
New roads are under construction with Chinese financing,
and land-locked Uganda plans to export oil via a pipeline
through Tanzania. A General Electric subsidiary is part of a
consortium working on a $4 billion refinery.
Gold surpassed coffee as Uganda’s biggest earner of
foreign currency in 2018, with gold exports growing from
$10 million to over $500 million in the past decade. Only
10% of gold exports are mined in Uganda, however, fueling
allegations of smuggling from neighboring South Sudan
and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Critics contend that state corruption and patronage are
entrenched in Uganda, and that the government has failed to
hold senior officials accountable. Some also argue that
donor aid, which comprises a large share of the
government’s budget, is used as a source of patronage.
Embezzlement scandals involving the alleged diversion of
donor funds from post-conflict reconstruction and health
programs have led some donors to temporarily suspend
budget support. Under pressure, the government adopted a
legal framework to improve public-sector governance and
created an anti-corruption court. New allegations that
surfaced in 2018 regarding fraud and misuse of donor funds
for refugee assistance led some donors to again freeze aid.
Uganda’s Regional Role
Uganda has won international praise for its open-door
policy for refugees from neighboring countries, although its
refugee host role has not been without controversy (amid
reports of fraud noted above). South Sudan’s civil war has
spurred an influx of over a million refugees into the
country. Uganda deployed troops to South Sudan when the
war began in 2013, at the request of the government in
Juba, to protect key infrastructure and state stability. It later
withdrew the troops and played an influential role in
pushing a peace accord in 2015. That deal collapsed less
than a year later. In 2018, Uganda, in partnership with
former rival Sudan, facilitated a new peace deal. Uganda is
not viewed as an unbiased actor in the South Sudan conflict
(it has been implicated in arms transfers to the government).
Uganda is a key troop contributor to the African Union
Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which has a U.N. Security
Council mandate to counter Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda
affiliate. In retaliation, the group conducted its first terrorist
attack outside Somalia in 2010, killing 79 people, including
one American, in bombings in Kampala. Uganda also led
regional efforts, until 2017, to pursue the Lord’s Resistance
Army (LRA), a small, violent group of Ugandan origin that
has terrorized civilians across Central Africa. U.S. advisors
withdrew from the mission in 2017 and Uganda
subsequently pulled its troops, declaring that the LRA no
longer posed a security threat. Separately, Uganda has
conducted operations in the DRC against a small, Islamist
Ugandan rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
Uganda’s deteriorating relationship with neighboring
Rwanda has regional implications. The public rhetoric of
the two governments, once close, has become increasingly
hostile since 2017. Their feud threatens a trade route vital
not only to Rwanda, but also to Burundi and eastern DRC.
U.S. foreign aid to Uganda has focused primarily on health
programs, but also supports agriculture, education, conflict
mitigation, and governance initiatives. Bilateral aid rose
from $330 million in FY2007 to $560 million in FY2018.
The Trump Administration has requested $415 million in
FY2020 (95% of it for health programs). The FY2020
request does not include food aid, which is allocated during
the fiscal year (it was $31 million of the FY2018 total).
Bilateral aid figures do not include much of the substantial
U.S. security assistance provided to support Uganda’s
participation in regional stability operations. Uganda has
been the largest recipient of U.S. support for AMISOM,
which has totaled roughly $2 billion in support to all troop
contributing countries. That total includes DOD “train and
equip” funding, of which Uganda has been among the
largest recipients in Africa. DOD has notified Congress of
over $280 million in equipment and training for Uganda
since FY2011; over $60 million in joint support to Uganda
and Burundi for AMISOM; and significant funding for the
2011-2017 counter-LRA effort. Uganda also receives
counterterrorism aid through State Department funds. It
received over $30 million in support via the African
Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership (APRRP).
Uganda’s North Korea ties have been a source of strain in
the U.S. relationship. Under pressure to comply with U.N.
sanctions, Uganda claims to have cut military ties in 2017,
but reports suggest some engagement may have continued.
Lauren Ploch Blanchard, Specialist in African Affairs
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