Living in Uganda and working in a government that provides durability and progress in a complex and sometimes insecure region, I look forward to a time when the international community’s common perception of Africa allows for recognition that stability and democracy go hand-in-hand, and to meddle in one can surely upend the other.
Africa today is home to close to one-and-half billion people — comparable with China or India. I am convinced those Western diplomats and representatives dedicated to observing our continent of 54 different nations and thousands of languages are working as hard as they can. Yet I remain astonished by how scant is resource assigned by Western nations led by the United States to support, collaborate and — most importantly — understand our multitude of cultures, attitudes and governments.
The fact remains that in this new age of rising tensions between the world’s great powers, there is increasing attention focused by the West on nations in the east. With resources elsewhere, there are too few knowledgeable Africa-watching policy experts or trained Western media located on the ground to accurately understand and report back.
This leaves the flow — and control — of information on Africa matters reaching the ears of policy makers increasingly in the hands of Western-funded NGOs and special interests in Washington, D.C., and London. They do not come armed with neutrality but their own special agendas. In turn, with a dearth of responsible Western media reporting, what counts as African news is to blindly trust anyone with a cellphone and a Twitter handle as a credible source.
I have long suspected different standards in reporting are applied to African governments. For example,last year the government of Uganda, faced with an escalating spike in coronavirus cases, took the decision to implement a full national lockdown. This decision was not taken lightly, but with the experience of Uganda’s highly successful deployment of lockdowns to cauterize Ebola virus outbreaks in the past.
Later in the year, however, the story was all over Twitter and the Internet that the government was using coronavirus restrictions only to halt campaigning by the opposition. This is untrue. As a country we had a choice: go ahead with the election whilst simultaneously lift all COVID restrictions; postpone the vote; or try to find a middle way — where campaigning continued with limitations to contain the virus.
In fact, the day before official campaigning commenced, the threshold for public gatherings was raised from 70 to 200 to allow some semblance of normality during the contest. But this trade-off still had unfortunate consequences: a spike in infections clearly coincided with the cycle of the election.
These facts appear to have been ignored. And when opposition leaders purposely broke restrictions and held public rallies to draw attention to themselves, the twitterati accidently failed to mention that foolish government party candidates had also, rightly, been arrested for breaking the same restrictions when they campaigned.
Ably supported by Beltway special interest groups,the opposition have promulgated a narrative that the election was somehow stolen because they were hobbled from campaigning. The fact is, all and every candidate and party were limited and in equal measure — as they should have been, in the midst of a global pandemic. Not even their accusations of local media bias ring true when a mere 0.3% of Ugandans buy newspapers, whilst adult cellphone usage is close to 100% of the population, and around 3 million citizens daily use social media — which the opposition use to their maximum advantage.
Yet the damage caused by special interest groups’ whispering to Washington officialdom is disproportionate to the casualness of the decisions they have produced. The final tally between the winner of Uganda’s general election earlier this year and the second-place loser was nearly 2.5 million votes — some quarter of the total cast in the contest.
In Arizona in 2020, where the losing presidential candidate argued over a margin of difference equal to 0.4% of that in Uganda, no one serious questioned the result. But last week the U.S. secretary of State announced visa restrictions on unnamed Ugandan officials for apparently “interfering in the political process.”
While we strongly refute the reasons behind this decision, we will not lose sleep over it. We hope it will instead lead to improved interest and more detailed understanding of the affairs of Africa and Uganda; because many of us across the continent believe these have been neglected in Washington for well beyond the last four years.
To be clear, we welcome criticism and we encourage the United States, its officials and its professional media to scrutinize decision-making, the robustness of our elections and the standards of our governance. We have nothing to hide and everything to gain by a better and deeper understanding as we continue to build our institutions and economy.
However, we insist that Uganda and our continent is treated to the same level of balance that is expected, and respected, when U.S. foreign affairs decision-making is focused elsewhere.
• Sam Kutesa is foreign minister of Uganda. He was president of the U.N. General Assembly 2014-15.