Uganda’s diaspora wars take aim at Canada

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31 October, 2022
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It was intended to be a weekend of drumming up investment and patriotism for the east African nation dubbed the “Pearl of Africa”: speeches, boat cruises and winery visits near one of Canada’s most famous landmarks. But ignited a Ugandan political storm.

From July 8 to 10, up to 350 representatives of Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) gathered in Niagara Falls. The NRM is the party of President Yoweri Museveni, in power for nearly four decades.

The symposium was the brainchild of Fred Kinene, a Toronto-based Ugandan-Canadian. Kinene, the CEO of a music production company, had flown to Uganda in the lead-up.  At Museveni’s ranch he was given the blessing to stage it, he told Open Canada.

This was just one of several events organized by Ugandan political parties that have been held abroad this year, with the latest power struggle between the NRM and the National Unity Platform (NUP) opposition party now playing out in Canada.

Up to three million Ugandans could be living abroad, according to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures.  Expats sent home over USD 893 million in the previous year, according to a 2019 report in Uganda’s New Vision newspaper. This was almost five percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“Canada has become an important battleground for the diaspora” said Dutch physicist Dr. Nico Schoonderwoerd. The author of Rigged: An Investigation into Violence, Intimidation, Bribery, Ballot Box Stuffing and Fraud During the Ugandan 2021 Elections. A NUP diaspora organizer, he is married to a Ugandan and lives in Amsterdam.

“First of all, Canada is a member of the G7” said Schoonderwoerd. “What makes Canada special is that [Uganda’s High Commissioner Joy Ruth Acheng] is very outspoken, and she supports Muhoozi.”

General Mohoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s son, has recently made headlines for tweeting his presidential aspirations. But the “first son” is also alleged to be behind the horrific torture of Ugandan satirical author Kakwenze Rukirabashaija.  The author was arrested in Kampala in December but later fled to Germany.

Kainerugaba has denied the allegations. For their part, the Uganda High Commission did not respond to Open Canada’s requests for comment.

For his part, Kinene claims that since Museveni came to power in 1986, “there is more peace in the East African region…. Since NRM took over Uganda has a good investment climate.  But we want to support NRM to create a better future for our children.”

When Ponsiano Ndyabahika, Chairperson of the Quebec chapter of the NUP, got wind of the event in March via a Ugandan news site, he was incensed.

“The NRM regime has continued to murder Ugandans, it does not respect human rights, is a very corrupt regime, and is an illegitimate government,” says Ndyabahika.  The Ugandan businessman, 51, one of thousands NUP supporters believed to reside in Canada, is now seeking asylum here after he and other party activists were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and incitement to violence back home. This followed their public campaigning for pop star turned presidential candidate Bobi Wine (aka Robert Kyagulanyi) in December 2018. Ndyabahika claims he was detained for nearly two weeks and tortured in the country around the same time. Still wanted there and fearing for his life in Uganda, the married father of three left his family and sought asylum in Canada.

Museveni, 78, went on to secure a sixth term in January 2021. Global Affairs Canada said soon after it was “deeply concerned by the serious restrictions exhibited during the polls” and that “reports of election irregularities and violations must be investigated promptly, transparently and according to the law.”

Ahead of the NRM symposium, Ndyabahika wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Anju Dhillon, MP for for Dorval—Lachine—LaSalle, requesting that it be scrapped. Other NUP supporters wrote to the Niagara Falls City Mayor and police, demanding the same, said Ndyabahika.  

 “Canada is a great country and cannot be used by dictators to run dictatorial interests,” explained Ndyabahika in his letter. “We came to Canada to seek protection.” He said that the Museveni regime was “working tirelessly to eliminate Ugandans in the diaspora because he thinks they don’t support his dictatorship and dubs them ‘terrorists’ of his government, which is not the case.”

Fuelling speculation about his government’s harassment of dissidents abroad, in May Museveni spoke about the role Uganda’s intelligence agency plays in other countries. Speaking of the “big diaspora” that emerged as a result of Uganda’s “turbulent history,” Museveni said “sometimes they get good political ideas but also very bad ones, so the External Security Organization (ESO) officers there should monitor that” he said. “Maybe link up with them and see how to diffuse the negative and encourage the positive.”

The same month, UK-based Ugandan Youtuber Fazir Mayanja told the BBC that he was being watched by the East African country’s government abroad.  Fred Lumbuye, a prominent NRM social media critic, was arrested in Turkiye, to which he escaped five years ago. “Right now [Museveni] keeps trying to track families back home so that they can arrest them and mistreat them so that we keep quiet” Istanbul-based Lumbuye told Open Canada.

On October 1, New York-based journalist Remmy Bahati, who reports on the situation in Uganda, tweeted family members in the country’s west had been kidnapped.  After nine days, they were released without charge, according to a tweet from Wine. Bahati’s cousin was freed without being charged after three weeks, she said on October 21.

After a video of Uganda’s energy minister landing in Canada on the day of the symposium attracted social media attention, NUP followers staged a small protest at the Sheraton Niagara Falls, sporting wearing their trademark red berets and chanting “People Power!”

“It got switched to the Holiday Inn from the Sheraton because the Sheraton got too much pressure from NUP going there to demonstrate,” said Kinene. About 30 opposition protesters also turned up at the second location, demanding that the event be cancelled, to no avail. Kinene admitted that while the change in venue was “unexpected”, and organisers lost money, it was still a success. On the same weekend, NUP followers staged protests at Sheraton Hotels in London, Amsterdam, and Berlin.

The controversy moved to Toronto in late September. At an expo organized by the Uganda Busoga Cultural Association of Canada, a scuffle erupted between NUP activist William Ntege and Ugandan Minister for the Presidency Milly Babalanda while she was delivering a speech. Acheng later tweeted to “express my disappointment” and that Ntege “will account for his bad actions.”

Kinene pointed out that NRM diaspora members had the same political freedoms as the NUP to congregate, and that the opposition had even been invited to the Niagara Falls symposium. Kampala-based NRM communications director Emmanuel Dombo told Open Canada that there should be “absolutely no problem” with their events in Canada.

The end goal of the NUP protests, said Schoonderwoerd, is to have the NRM outlawed abroad.

“If Uganda was not so important for hosting refugees [from Somalia] the NRM would have already been labelled a terrorist organization” he said. Uganda has more than 6000 troops serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia. It’s also the continent’s top refugee host.

Robert Amsterdam, a high-profile Canadian lawyer who has represented Bobi Wine, told Open Canada that under NRM rule, Ugandan police and army “are behaving in a systematic manner, going after an identifiable group… the opposition, killing and torturing them.”

Dr. Gerald Bareebe, an Assistant Professor in Politics at York University and a Ugandan based in Canada, believes that although NUP supporters had been “arrested, tortured and incarcerated” they don’t “employ large-scale violence against the population or specific social groups although he said there had been exceptions like a 2016 massacre in Kasese in the west of the country. But “Museveni has been a key ally of the U.S.” said Bareebe, which is willing to turn “a blind eye at the NRM’s human rights violations … for its role in regional stability.”

There are precedents for individual venues to deny their premises to groups that engage in human rights abuses. After Rukirabashija wrote the mayor of Munich, Germany, the city blocked a NRM gathering in June. “Of course, a ruthless and brutal regime must not be offered a stage on which it can blatantly conduct its public relations” said Dorothee Schiwy, a city councillor.

Schoonderwoerd wants venues in Canada to follow suit. “The reason that we need to have these [diaspora] wars… we need to inform western countries what really is going on in Uganda so that [they] can adjust their policies.”

Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Sabrina Williams said that “Canada is concerned with the human rights situation in Uganda…. We continue to address concerns through direct outreach to Ugandan officials, joint statements, and other initiatives.” Wililams stressed that Canada does not have a bilateral development assistance program, and provides aid only via “trusted civil society and multilateral partners.”

With a second NRM symposium to be held in Brampton in July 2023, Ndyabahika is writing foreign minister Mélanie Joly asking for it to be cancelled. Uganda’s diaspora wars may just be getting started.

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