Racked by pain and hobbling slowly on crutches, Uganda’s most famous parliamentarian has brought his allegations of torture and attempted assassination to Washington, sparking new questions about U.S. military aid for one of Africa’s longest-ruling regimes.
Robert Kyagulanyi, a popular music star and opposition MP who is best known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, arrived in the United States this week for medical treatment for the severe injuries he says he suffered at the hands of Ugandan soldiers.
His doctors told him to rest and recover. But on Thursday, he defied their orders, launching a hectic round of congressional and diplomatic meetings to escalate pressure on the autocratic government in Uganda, where crackdowns on the opposition have been intensifying under President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for more than 32 years.
“For the first time, the world is up in arms against the oppression that Ugandans have been facing,” Mr. Kyagulanyi told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
Mr. Kyagulanyi, who was charged with treason last month after protesters allegedly pelted stones at a presidential convoy, has given a gruesome account of the torture he says he endured from Ugandan soldiers after an opposition rally. He says the soldiers kicked him, punched him, pulled his ears with pliers, hit his ankles with pistol butts, beat and squeezed his genitals with unknown objects and did “unspeakable things” to him. “No part of my body was spared.”
His driver, sitting in the car seat where Mr. Kyagulanyi had been sitting just minutes earlier, was shot to death. The government had plotted to assassinate him, according to his Washington-based lawyer, Robert Amsterdam.
The combination of his personal fame and his ordeal – which has already triggered a protest letter from scores of renowned musicians and other global celebrities – could put heavy pressure on Western governments that have traditionally supported Uganda as a bulwark against Islamist militias in East Africa.
The United States is providing about US$170-million in annual military assistance to Uganda, including a vast array of weapons and extensive military training. Canada has provided $10-million to support a Ugandan police unit in Somalia, and last year it announced plans to deploy a Hercules C-130 military transport plane in Uganda to help international peace-support missions.
Critics are increasingly questioning the Western aid to Uganda.
Maria Burnett, an associate director for Africa at Human Rights Watch, said the United States has provided US$12.7-million in weaponry and equipment to Uganda’s Special Forces Command – the same unit that allegedly arrested and tortured Mr. Kyagulanyi.
On social media, she posted a photo of the Ugandan Special Forces Command patrolling at street protests with M4 rifles – the same type of gun the United States supplied to Uganda. The U.S. government should be asking more questions about the Ugandan military’s involvement in human-rights abuses and the possible role of U.S. weapons in those abuses, she said.
One of Mr. Kyagulanyi’s lawyers, Mr. Amsterdam, went much further in his denunciation of U.S. support for the Ugandan military. “We want the American taxpayer to know that the American taxpayer is funding this,” he said at a news conference with Mr. Kyagulanyi in Washington on Thursday.
“The military equipment we are supplying to Uganda is being used in a war of terror against Uganda’s citizens,” he said.
Mr. Amsterdam called for the suspension of military aid to Uganda under a law prohibiting the U.S. funding of foreign military forces that violate human rights. He also threatened to invoke other laws to seek U.S. travel restrictions on Ugandan leaders. And he said he will campaign for oil companies, banks and other foreign investors to restrict their investment in Uganda.
In Canada, the Global Affairs Department is speaking out against Ugandan human-rights abuses. “Canada is concerned by recent events, including reports of beatings of opposition members and others at the hands of Ugandan security forces,” said Amy Mills, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, in a statement to The Globe.
Chris Roberts, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said the political deterioration in Uganda is further evidence Canada should not deploy the Hercules cargo plane to that country.
In his interview with The Globe, Mr. Kyagulanyi gave an account of the plight of dozens of his fellow Ugandan prisoners. Among those arrested and tortured after the protests last month, he said, was a woman who had just given birth through a cesarean delivery. He said she was beaten so badly by security forces that she was still bleeding when he last saw her.
“So many people have gone through this,” he said. “I’m not the first to go through this. I’m only humbled to be able to speak for the thousands of people who have gone through brutality.”