President Joseph Biden has invited 49 African national leaders and the head of the African Union to the White House this month for a summit emphasizing America’s “enduring” commitment to the continent and continued collaboration on such global priorities as democracy, human rights and peace and security.
Four countries have not been invited: Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan, all of which have undergone military coups in the last few years and been suspended from the African Union. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia was not invited, but the country’s president, Sahle-Work Zewde, as head of state was. Eritrea, which has been an antagonist in the Ethiopian civil war, was also not invited.
The US says the main point of the summit is to engage with African leaders, but the conference has been criticized for its invitations to leaders who disregard human rights.
“The goal of the summit is rooted in a recognition that the continent is a global player and also will help shape the future, not just for the continent but for the world,” said Dana Banks, the National Security Council senior adviser for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which is being held Dec. 13-15.
In Uganda, the invitation to President Yoweri Museveni has particularly rankled certain civil society members and politicians. Some Ugandans and the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman months ago called for the White House to exclude Museveni, saying that his administration deprives the public of civil and political liberties and is mired in corruption. His invitation to the Washington summit has been confirmed by the Ugandan State House.
Museveni, 78, was sworn in for a sixth consecutive term in May 2021. He has been in power since May 1986.
In a letter dated March 28, written by Senator Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (D-New Jersey), addressed to Biden and copied to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Menendez asked Biden to isolate Museveni from the summit, saying that his “disregard of basic democratic and human rights norms is inconsistent with U.S. values and foreign policy goals.” Despite Museveni’s “troubling track record,” he noted, Uganda “remains one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid and security assistance.”
“Extending invitations to leaders who benefit from corruption, show a lack of commitment to democracy, or trample human rights norms will undermine the important work this administration is doing in Africa and around the world to promote democracy, combat corruption, defend human rights, and advance the values and interests of the United States,” Menendez added.
He also highlighted that “Museveni has twice changed the Ugandan constitution to remain in power in perpetuity, impeded democratic processes, turned a blind eye to rampant corruption, and subjected civil society activists and opposition party members to illegal detention, violence, and torture with impunity.”
The main Uganda opposition political party — the National Unity Platform, led by Robert Kyagulanyi, who is also known for his stage name, Bobi Wine — has been calling for justice, accountability and rule of law in the country, as well as justice for torture victims, like the exiled Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija and Francis Zaake, a Parliament member.
“We are indeed not asking the United States to come save us, we are only saying stop sponsoring our oppression,” Kyagulanyi said in an online interview with the Resistance Bureau, a global show on human rights.
While the US has issued statements and expressions of concern over human-rights violations in Uganda, such remarks have not sparked change. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield traveled to Uganda on Aug. 4, where she met Museveni, telling the media in Kampala, the capital, afterward: “I just had a productive and frank meeting where we discussed a broad range of issues, including the security situation in the region, food insecurity, and strengthening democratic institutions and an independent press.”
Her trip came days after one by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to meet Museveni, aiming to refute Western accusations that Russia was responsible for skyrocketing food and fuel prices globally. (Museveni was quoted at the time as saying that he would not “inherit enemies.”) Blinken visited South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda soon after Thomas-Greenfield’s trip.
Some observers contend that her goal was to coax Uganda and the other African countries she visited to vote in the major UN bodies with the US and its allies against Russia’s war in Ukraine. (Lavrov’s trip was also viewed by media and pundits as a counterbalance to America’s influence.) Thomas-Greenfield said that she was going to Uganda, Ghana and Cape Verde to talk about the “food security crisis” in those countries, among other issues. (Ghana is an elected member of the Security Council.) Uganda has consistently abstained in General Assembly votes regarding Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Some European diplomats say that abstentions by countries in such public balloting may reflect an uneasiness to go against Russia while not alienating the West.
In an early-August media briefing previewing her overseas travel to Africa, Thomas-Greenfield said specifically it was to discuss the “security situation in the region, food insecurity, and strengthening democratic institutions and an independent press.”
She later explained in her media briefing in Kampala the thinking behind the Washington summit in December, saying, “We are in the process of planning the summit and the plan is to invite all countries that are not under sanctions and are in good standing with the African Union.”
She added, “We have heard from different groups who say their presidents should not be invited, but we think this is a good opportunity to engage.”
Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat with 35 years in the US Foreign Service, served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, where she led America’s policy on the sub-Saharan region. She was ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012. She announced during her trip to Uganda in August that Usaid was planning to donate $20 million in aid to the country to help ease its food security problems.
Robert Scott, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs, described in a media briefing on Nov. 22 the layout of the Biden summit in December, replete with forums on African and diaspora youth leaders as well as a meeting on civil society and on peace, security and governance. The second day is focused on a US-Africa business forum and the third day is when Biden meets with the African leaders. Scott emphasized Africa’s impact on the global economy but also its power at the UN, saying, “You’re looking at a continent — fastest-growing population, largest free trade area, largest voting bloc in the United Nations.”
Yet Uganda’s disturbing human-rights record cannot be overlooked, say civil society and opposition politicians there.
“I have gradually come to the conclusion that widespread, sustained violations of human rights by the dictatorship and the collapse of the rule of law are actually the required conditions for successful implementation of the US foreign policy interests in Africa,” Isaac Semakadde, the chief executive of Legal Brains Trust, a Uganda-based independent nonprofit organization, said in a phone interview with PassBlue.
When a reporter asked Thomas-Greenfield in her August preview of her visit to Africa about the effects of US sanctions against Ugandan officials for rights violations, she said: “And in regard to our sanctions and some of the visa restrictions that we have imposed on individuals, I would direct you to the Department of Defense and the Africa Bureau on how impactful those sanctions have been. But again, these are issues that have been part of our ongoing concerns in Uganda, but again, issues that we will discuss bilaterally.”
According to a statement released by the US State Department, the US-Africa Leaders Summit will enable Biden to meet leaders from the continent amid the current geopolitical divides with the West and China and Russia. That split is reflected visibly at the UN, such as during a recent General Assembly vote on Oct. 12 condemning Russia’s illegal attempt to annex four regions of Ukraine. Uganda abstained with 34 other countries, including China. But 143 countries voted yes and only 5 voted no — Russia among them.
On March 2, during a UN historic vote condemning Russia for invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 and demanding that it withdraw its military forces from its neighbor, Uganda and 34 other nations abstained, while 141 countries voted in favor of the nonbinding resolution.
Museveni last visited the US in 2014 for President Barack Obama’s US-Africa leaders summit. In 2018, the US Department of Justice convicted a Chinese national for bribing Sam Kutesa, who was Uganda’s foreign affairs minister and a president of the UN General Assembly during its 2014-2015 session, and President Museveni in a multiyear, multimillion-dollar plan in exchange for business favors from the Hong Kong operative, working on behalf of a Shanghai oil and gas company. The scheme violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and on Dec. 18, 2018, the US convicted Chi Ping Patrick Ho for bribing Kutesa and Museveni. (Ho was also convicted of bribing the president of Chad.)
Uganda remains a top recipient of US foreign aid. Besides major development money, the American funds go to health programs, including for fighting AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and improving maternal and child well-being. The total aid budget exceeds $950 million a year, according to the US State Department. Moreover, Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, taking in more than one million people.
“In terms of Uganda, we’re approaching the 60th anniversary of our relationship, and we’re proud to continue to work with the Ugandans to help build a more peaceful and a more prosperous and a healthy and democratic future,” Thomas-Greenfield said in August, clarifying her visit to Uganda.
This article was updated to include new information about which countries were not invited to the summit.
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