Why the US should have blocked Ugandan minister’s UN post

Sam Kutesa’s election as the president of General Assembly could destabilize already volatile eastern Africa

June 10, 2014 12:30AM ET
Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa, left, the U.N. General Assembly’s president-elect, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Eskinder Debebe / UN Photo

The leadership of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), sometimes dubbed a parliament of nations, rotates among five world regions. This year it’s Africa’s turn. Unless Washington acts fast, on June 11, Uganda’s Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa will take over the presidency from John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda — an ascent by a hopelessly tainted leader that could seriously jeopardize the prospects for peace in eastern Africa.

A group of Ugandan-Americans has launched a petition urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revoke Kutesa’s visa, thus preventing him from taking up his post. The petition now has 9,000 supporters, including New York Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer and Rep. Charles Rangel. The Guardian, MSNBC and numerous blogs have covered the story. So far, most of the criticism has focused on Kutesa’s sympathy for those who abhor gay people and his support for Uganda’s harsh anti-homosexuality bill, signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni in March. Less emphasized is Kutesa’s involvement in some of Uganda’s most outrageous corruption scandals and the fact that the regime he represents is partly responsible for much of the carnage that has been ravaging eastern Africa for the past 30 years.

It would not be the first time the U.S. has considered revoking a foreign diplomat’s visa. In 2011 in the wake of revelations that some $100 million intended for the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, held in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, had been misappropriated by high-level government officials, the U.S., the United Kingdom and other Western nations considered barring entry by those officials. According to cables made public by WikiLeaks, Kutesa was foremost among those officials. According to Uganda’s Anti-Corruption Coalition, the embezzled money could have been used to bring clean water to 800,000 Ugandan households, fill Kampala’s roughly 2,400 potholes or pay the nation’s teachers, who haven’t received their salaries — a paltry $100 a month — since February. 

Africa’s corrupt dynasties

The problems run much deeper. Kutesa belongs to one of Africa’s most corrupt dynasties, the Museveni family. Kutesa’s daughter is married to the president’s son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, whom Museveni is said to be grooming to succeed him. Under normal circumstances, there would be nothing wrong with this relationship, except that the Museveni family not only controls many arms of the Ugandan government but also skims vast sums of money off practically everything in the country — from the national workers’ pension fund to the major electricity supplier, the airport and most large hotels in the country.

Family control of government and the economy is nothing new in Africa. President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea receives 80 percent of his nation’s oil revenues, according to Transparency International. The Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development claims that Obiang, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Gabon’s Omar Bongo Ondimba, Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso and countless others have stolen some $180 billion from the continent in recent years.

Kutesa owns Entebbe Handling Services (ENHAS), an airport cargo handling company that operates in eastern and central Africa. According to Black Star News, ENHAS has lucrative contracts with the U.N. in some of Africa’s most dangerous war zones, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Ugandan forces and rebel groups supported by Uganda have been fighting in both countries on and off for years, suggesting a major conflict of interest.

While Kutesa’s boss and brother-in-law wages war abroad, Kutesa’s companies profit, and the U.N. pays the bills. On June 6, a U.N. spokesman told Black Star News editor Milton Allimadi that officials at the organization will look into these charges. Still, the real danger of Kutesa’s presidency is that it could undermine the prospects for peace in eastern Africa.

The UNGA president’s powers are subtle but important. The General Assembly, which consists of representatives from every U.N. member country, is mainly a talking shop. Unlike the Security Council, it seldom directly mediates conflicts or authorizes peacekeeping missions, but it does make recommendations concerning important global issues and sets the tone of the U.N. narrative through which we come to understand the world and its problems. The president doesn’t vote on UNGA decisions, but he controls the agenda, determines how long people are allowed to speak, may prevent them from speaking, adjourns debates and referees points of order. During the coming year, the UNGA may well be faced with issues that pertain directly to conflicts in which the Museveni regime  — and the companies that the president and Kutesa own or control — are involved.

Shortly after taking power in an armed coup in 1986, Museveni helped arm and train rebels in Rwanda whose attempts to take over that country in 1990 and 1994 sparked the worst genocide since the Holocaust. Later in the 1990s, Museveni, along with Rwanda’s new leader, Paul Kagame, sent rebels into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The war they launched has resulted in unspeakable atrocities, including mass rapes, the burning alive of entire villages’ populations and some 5 million people dead. 

John Kerry will be reluctant to confront a long-standing U.S. military ally, but it may be time to rethink that relationship.

Museveni’s army is now propping up the government of South Sudan’s Salva Kiir in his war with rebels loosely controlled by former Vice President Riek Machar. To date, more than 10,000 people have been killed, 1 million have been displaced, and the hopes of the entire international community, which welcomed South Sudan into the U.N. as Africa’s newest independent nation only three years ago, have been dashed. Kiir and Machar are expected to meet this month ahead of talks mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional body. But Machar has objected to the presence of Ugandan troops in South Sudan and made their removal a condition of the cessation of hostilities agreement signed in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, last month.

Museveni’s troops are also fighting in the Central African Republic, purportedly to capture the notorious warlord Joseph Kony. But Uganda’s efforts to end the Kony war in Uganda were long undermined by corrupt army commanders who profited from the conflict — a concern that applies to the hunt for Kony in the C.A.R. as well. In Somalia, Ugandan troops have been deployed with the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, where they have been caught selling guns to the militant group Al-Shabaab.

In Uganda, discontent with Museveni has surged since 2011. Public services have collapsed, and peaceful critics in his party and in the opposition have been jailed, tortured or worse. Meanwhile, according to locals, the Ugandan regime is arming villagers in Museveni’s home region, warning them that if Museveni falls, members of other tribes will take revenge on them. This is exactly what Hutus in Rwanda were told on the eve of the genocide in that country.

Is this really who we want overseeing discussion of some of the most dangerous and prolonged conflicts in the world? No doubt Kerry will be reluctant to confront a long-standing U.S. military ally, but it may be time to rethink that relationship.

Helen Epstein is the author of “The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa” and a current fellow at the Open Society Foundations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Diplomacy, United Nations
John Kerry

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