Is being linked to Western powers a stunt or sign of the MP’s potential to cause regime change in Uganda?
COMMENT | IAN KATUSIIME | Since Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi together with his Canadian lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, had what they dubbed “an international press conference”, in Washington D.C., U.S. on Sept.6, some supporters of the singer-turned-politician have hailed it as a mark of his growing stature. It is a huge leap for someone emerging to become the poster boy of opposition to the long rule of President Yoweri Museveni.
The tongue-wagging went into overdrive when he posted pictures early this year while attending a one week course on ‘Leadership in the 21st century at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, USA.
Since he won a hotly contested by-election in 2017, Kyagulanyi has been a sensation on the political scene- he has been vital in three wins against the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party in by elections in Rukungiri, Bugiri and Arua. As an independent MP, he has steered clear of the intrigue surrounding party politics not to mention his youth and musical background.
After he was arrested in Arua and allegedly tortured by soldiers of the Special Forces Command (SFC), the unit that provides security to President Museveni, his case gained prominence and Kyagulanyi became a symbol of fighting repression. On Twitter and Facebook, #FreeBobiWine was all the rage and the young politician made a mark on the international scene going by the outpouring of support he received from across the world.
In the last few days, Amsterdam has been the face of Kyagulanyi’s international campaign against Museveni. At the press conference, the two addressed journalists from BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera among other foreign media.
To his critics, Bobi Wine’s press conference came off as a stunt of someone who is being used as a front by Western powers aiming to cause regime change in Uganda. And the statements by Kyagulanyi and Amsterdam tended in that direction.
Amsterdam whose law firm has offices in Washington and London said that he would hold meetings with members of the U.S. Congress, and officials in the U.S. Department of State and table evidence of the alleged brutality and human rights violations perpetrated by the Ugandan government.
In what looked like a carefully choreographed moment, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman tweeted a photo of his meeting with Kyagulanyi, and the latter’s wife Barbie Kyagulanyi with a caption: “Today, I met with @HEBobiWine and his wife, Barbara. During our meeting he underlined the importance of the democratic process as well as those who have and continue to suffer from political oppression in #Uganda. #PeoplePower #FreeZaake #Arua33”.
Although such events are sometimes mere photo-ops with hardly any follow up, the press conference and later international TV interviews, fuelled the narrative from pro-government voices of how Bobi Wine was in the U.S. to meet with his funders and not seeking specialised treatment for torture traumas as he claimed.
Amsterdam was clearly pitching to the international audience about his client’s tormentors.
“The military equipment we (referring to the U.S.) are supplying to Uganda is being used in a war of terror against Uganda’s citizens,” he said and threatened those involved in torture of opposition politicians with being barred from travelling abroad or holding property outside Uganda under the provisions of the Global Magnitsky Act. This is an American law aimed at those who violate human rights across the world.
Government spokespeople, including Ofwono Opondo, did rounds of interviews soon after to counter claims made by the two at the press conference.
Responding to questions on Amsterdam, Opondo told The Independent in another interview that Amsterdam was “not an issue”. “We have read in some media that he works for criminal groups in former Soviet Republics. We know that there are always fronts of such negative forces but he is not an issue.”
Social media has been awash with commentary that Kyagulanyi appears to be a puppet of a foreign power going by the utterances of his lawyer, Amsterdam who said America has the ultimate control of Uganda.
In a phone interview with The Independent, Amsterdam said he met Bobi Wine through Freedom Now, a U.S-based non-profit organisation that works to free individual prisoners of conscience through focused legal, political, and public relations advocacy efforts. Amsterdam’s law firm, Amsterdam & Partners LLP, established a website BobiWine.com which sums up the politician’s current troubles with the Ugandan government.
On why he set up the Bobi Wine website, Amsterdam said: “We helped him get medical care. We also want to expose how the U.S. is aiding Museveni’s illegalities. Frankly, U.S. is funding Museveni’s army and we also want to expose to the world the human rights violations that the government is committing”.
Asked whether he is an agent for a foreign power to make Kyagulanyi’s case, Amsterdam laughed it off. “They have got it all pathetically wrong. The government of Uganda should stop slandering me and Bobi. I have represented Rupiah Banda who is a good friend of Museveni. So it is amusing.”
He said he could not name anyone yet of those who could be targets of the travel ban due to their possible implication in torture but vowed action.
According to a statement on his website, Amsterdam provides strategic counsel to corporations and individuals in “politically challenging and crisis-prone environments.” Regarding the increasingly repressive political environment in Uganda where journalists have been assaulted and over 33 people detained after the Arua by-election, it may not be surprising how Kyagulanyi ended up on Amsterdam’s radar.
Some of his other clients include Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian political prisoner and Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Prime Minister of Thailand among others across the world.
Those defending the young MP against accusations of schmoozing with the West say there is no bigger agent of Western powers than Museveni. They cite Museveni’s wars in Somalia funded by the U.S. under their counterterrorism agenda and the several forms of aid Uganda has been receiving from the U.S. since Museveni took power.
“How about the meeting in Beijing where African leaders paraded?” one person asked on Twitter. Whatever the case, Joseph Bbossa, veteran UPC politician, says Ugandans must be vigilant. “At the end of the day, the direction will depend on Ugandans. If Ugandans take anybody wholesale like they took Museveni, they will end up naked,” he said, “Whether the initial support comes from China or America, you have to be vigilant.”
Bbosa cautions Ugandans not to give a blank cheque to any leader. “That is planting seeds of dictatorship and breeding a sense of entitlement.”
Ian Katusiime is a journalist at The Independent