What U.S sanctions on Ugandan officials mean on corruption and diplomatic implications

By: Wabusimba Amiri

In a notable move, the U.S. State Department recently imposed travel and financial sanctions on Anita Among, the Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, as well as Ministers Amos Lugolobi, Agnes Nandutu, and Mary Goretti Kitutu, for alleged misuse of public resources, diverting aid intended for Uganda’s most vulnerable populations.

Relatedly, Lieutenant General Peter Elwelu faces sanctions for his role in a violent clash between Ugandan security forces and a local militant group, which resulted in over 100 deaths and their spouses. These allegations are severe and point to systemic issues within Uganda’s political framework.

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According to the U.S. State Department, these officials have leveraged their positions to engage in activities that undermine public trust and siphon resources away from those in dire need.  “These measures align with the U.S. commitment to combating global corruption and human rights abuses”. 

Sanctions against Ugandan officials are not unprecedented, similar measures have been taken in the past against other government figures, reflecting a pattern of the international community’s response to corruption and human rights abuses.

However, what sets the current sanctions apart is their timing. Speaker Among faces these sanctions relatively early in her tenure, marking a departure from the more prolonged scrutiny typically preceding such actions.

In response to the sanctions, some Ugandan officials have suggested that the measures are politically motivated, with underlying biases against Uganda’s domestic policies, particularly regarding LGBTQ+ rights. However, these assertions are not substantiated by the content of the sanction letters, which explicitly cite corruption and human rights abuses as the primary reasons.

The Ugandan foreign ministry and its diplomatic missions now face the challenge of addressing these sanctions while maintaining international relations. It is imperative for Uganda to engage transparently with the international community, demonstrating a commitment to addressing the issues raised by the sanctions.

Uganda’s history is replete with instances where high-ranking officials have been implicated in corruption scandals. For example, the 2005 Global Fund scandal saw several officials, including then Health Minister Jim Muhwezi, accused of embezzling funds meant for health programs.

These historical precedents underscore a systemic issue that requires comprehensive reforms and stringent enforcement of anti-corruption laws and in 2012, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Ugandan senior military officials involved in fictitious Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) soldier records (Ghost Soldiers) scandal to siphon millions of dollars from government funds intended for military salaries and logistics.

The U.S. and other international bodies imposed travel bans and asset freezes on those involved. This scandal prompted Uganda to implement reforms, including payroll audits and stricter oversight mechanisms.

Corruption in Uganda is not just a matter of perception but is reflected in various global indices. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for 2023, Uganda ranks 142 out of 180 countries, indicating a high level of perceived corruption. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) also highlight issues with political stability and the rule of law, both of which are adversely affected by corruption.

These statistics paint a stark picture of the systemic issues facing Uganda. The country’s governance indicators reflect significant challenges in maintaining stability, enforcing the rule of law, and curbing corruption.

The sanctions imposed on Ugandan officials are part of a broader strategy employed by the U.S. and other countries to combat corruption globally as similar actions have been taken against officials in other nations with notable corruption issues. In 2017, the U.S. sanctioned several top officials in Venezuela, including President Nicolás Maduro, for undermining democracy and engaging in corruption.

The sanctions included asset freezes and travel bans aiming to pressure the regime to restore democratic governance and in 2014 the U.S. and EU imposed sanctions on Russian officials and oligarchs. These measures included asset freezes and travel restrictions subsequently in 2019 sanctioned South Sudan ministers, Kuol Manyang Juuk and Martin Elia Lomuro, for their roles in perpetuating conflict and corruption. The sanctions aimed to push the government towards implementing a peace agreement.

Understanding the sanctions requires a look at the diplomatic and legal framework governing such actions. International sanctions are generally guided by protocols like the Kyoto Protocol, which outlines procedures for imposing sanctions to ensure they are justified and targeted. The U.S. sanctions on Ugandan officials are consistent with these international standards, focusing on specific instances of alleged misconduct rather than broadly targeting the Ugandan government.

Uganda’s foreign policy, particularly through its diplomatic missions, must engage with the specifics outlined in the sanction letters rather than deflecting blame onto unrelated issues, such as accusations of promoting homosexuality. This diversionary tactic will not aid in addressing the core issue of corruption and could further strain international relations.

The Kyoto Protocol and other international agreements provide a framework for imposing sanctions and Uganda must navigate these waters carefully. Diplomatic efforts should focus on transparency, accountability, and a genuine commitment to reform. The foreign ministry, along with Uganda’s diplomatic corps, must rise to the challenge and demonstrate its capability to manage this crisis effectively and diplomatic relations.

The writer is a diplomatic student, communication specialist, journalist and human rights activist.

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