Congolese traders welcome the move to join the East African Community (EAC), but could Kenya be the real winner from the bloc's expansion? By Issa Sikiti da Silva in Nairobi. 

As the Ugandan president’s son flexes his diplomatic muscles in Rwanda, could a wave of father-son handovers be on the cards in Africa? By Issa Sikiti da Silva in Kampala.

As schools and business finally open after nearly two years, Ugandans find they have sunk into economic hardship as a result of President Museveni’s Covid power grab. By Issa Sikiti da Silva in Kampala.

ICC in the dock 

March 24, 2021

As a former child soldier is convicted of war crimes for his role in Uganda’s brutal conflict, Zachary Ochieng asks whether The Hague is a roadblock to peace in Africa. 

The conviction of former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on February 4 has rekindled the debate on the efficacy and fairness of the court. 

Convicted of 61 counts of committing war crimes and ‘crimes against humanity’ in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005, Ongwen and his defence team are confident that the charges against him will ultimately be dropped on appeal.

This unique case presented a dilemma to the court as Ongwen appeared to be both a victim and an alleged perpetrator, having been abducted by the LRA and forced to be a child soldier, before rising through the rebel ranks to become the deputy to LRA commander Joseph Kony.

‘Straight away we can say without mincing words that we are definitely going to appeal on all the charges,’ Ongwen's lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo said, describing the verdict ‘a bombshell’.

His sentiments were echoed by Dr David Matsanga, a former LRA official and now chairman of the Pan African Forum Limited, who argued that the trial was not fair to Ongwen as he was only obeying orders from senior commanders. 

Sheila Kawamara Mishambi, former Ugandan Member of Parliament at the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) and Executive Director, Eastern African Sub-Regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI), is not convinced.

She argues that while Ongwen may have been forced into the rebel outfit, and was not entirely responsible for his actions, victims of the atrocities deserve justice. 

‘Ongwen, like other perpetrators now reintegrated into the community, should have been subjected to the Acholi alternative justice mechanism known as Mato Oput,’ said Mishambi.

Mato Oput is a type of restorative justice, where the community, criminal and victims work together to achieve restoration, reparations and forgiveness.

She also accused Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and the court of applying double standards, as the Uganda Defence Forces (UPDF), also committed atrocities. 

Kristof Titeca, a senior lecturer at the University of Antwerp and an expert witness during Ongwen’s trial, added that the case had raised a ‘huge grey area that is difficult to determine in international law, which thinks in terms of victims and perpetrators’.

But human rights watchdogs celebrated the conviction of the LRA chief as a milestone in the search for justice for victims. 

‘The conviction of Dominic Ongwen is a crucial step towards accountability for the crimes committed by the LRA in Uganda,’ said Sheila Muwanga, Vice President, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

‘It serves as a strong message to other LRA commanders who are still active and responsible for atrocious crimes committed in the region that they can be held accountable for their actions.’

Ongwen’s conviction has stirred debate as to whether the ICC is a promoter of or a threat to peace, given that the child soldier-turned-rebel commander surrendered in 2015 as part of an anticipated amnesty, following several years on the run.

Negotiators fear that Ongwen’s arrest and conviction, will make it less likely his colleagues still in the bush will now ever surrender for fear of arrest. 

The ICC’s decision to open cases against Ongwen and other LRA leaders in 2005 coincided with a resumption of peace talks in Juba, South Sudan, between the rebel group and the Ugandan government.

Crucially, the final peace agreement was never concluded as Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, did not show up to sign it, fearing his arrest. 

As a result, Uganda and its allies were forced to resume military campaigns against the LRA, eventually pushing the group across the border into South Sudan, the DRC and the Central African Republic.

Matsanga, who was LRA’s chief negotiator in the Juba peace talks, blames the ICC refusal to withdraw arrest warrants against the LRA leaders for the ongoing instability across the region.

He said: ‘The ICC frustrated all peace efforts, even after Ugandans rejected its style and opted for peace talks and reconciliation in the northern Uganda conflict.’

It’s a view shared by President Museveni, who has accused the ICC of undermining efforts to achieve a peace deal with the LRA, and described the Netherlands-based court as ‘neo-colonial and an obstacle to peace in Uganda.’

Museveni faces a potential investigation by the court after the country’s opposition leader, Bobi Wine, referred the president to the ICC following bloody elections in Uganda in January.

The court has also faced criticism over its apparent preoccupation with Africa and its failure to investigate equally severe conflicts elsewhere. 

Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, famously accused it of being a ‘political court’ that is ‘only for poor countries’. 

And his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, who once faced indictment by the ICC over post-election violence, castigated the court as a ‘tool of global power politics and not the justice it was built to dispense.’

Richard Goldstone, a former prosecutor of the ICC’s Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals agrees that the court appears ‘too focused on prosecuting crimes committed on the continent of Africa, while paying scant regard to similar situations elsewhere in the world’.

He observed that although the prosecutor’s office said it had looked at other cases in Afghanistan, Georgia, Palestine and Colombia, no warrants were issued for suspects outside Africa.

The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor has tried to explain away this anomaly by claiming that of the 122 countries that have signed the Rome Statute signing jurisdiction to the court, close to one-third are African states, and thus the ICC is more likely to hold Africa to account.

In other words, the court now mostly tries Africans as other people who ought to be tried cannot as their countries are not members.

Maxine Rubin, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Political Studies, argues that the ICC’s concentration on African cases is, in part, due to Africa’s weak national judicial systems, which make it difficult for them to prosecute powerful people.

This contrasts with countries like Argentina and Chile, which have successfully prosecuted leaders accused of similar crimes. 

This reliance makes the ICC appear to be overly active in Africa, according to Rubin.

Whatever the truth, the perception that the ICC is targeting Africans, has led to the threat of mass withdrawals by African nations.

In October 2016, Burundi and South Africa formally wrote to the United Nations Secretary-General to communicate their decision to withdraw from the ICC. Around the same time, The Gambia also indicated that it would withdraw, only to reverse course almost immediately after a newly elected government assumed power. The African Union has reportedly agreed on a strategy calling for a collective withdrawal from the court.

Despite this, the feared exodus of African countries has not materialized.

But with rebels refusing to ever put down their arms for fear of retribution, the issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Mass arrests, killings and an internet blackout overshadowed Uganda’s presidential poll. But, as Zachary Ochieng reports, the opposition hasn’t given up the fight yet.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni won a historic sixth term in office in January’s controversial elections, garnering 5.85 million votes (58 per cent), against his closest challenger Robert Kyagulanyi, who won 3.48 million votes or 34 per cent of the ballot.

The 38-year-old former pop-star turned opposition leader, who goes by the stage name Bobi Wine, described the January 14 poll as ‘the most fraudulent election in the history of Uganda’.

His chief agent, Benjamin Katana, went even further, describing the poll as a ‘coup’ against the Ugandan people.

The vote took place against the backdrop of the bloodiest campaign in years, during which the National Unity Platform leader and other opposition figures were detained by police.

There were also attacks on the media, a nationwide internet blackout, and at least 54 people were killed by security services in November while protesting the arrests of opposition candidates.

Meanwhile, the European Union’s offer to deploy electoral experts was turned down by the Ugandan government.

The US was also forced to called off its observer mission after Ugandan officials refused to accredit several members of its team ahead of the poll, and there were several arrests of independent monitors during campaigning.

‘The entire process has been conducted in the dark and it lacks transparency,’ Katana said.

‘From the beginning, we were assured by the Electoral Commission that each candidate or their agents will receive copies of the results from the districts before they are transmitted to the national tally centre, so we are able to verify when they are reading here – and that was not done.’

Kyagulanyi, who remained under house arrest and heavy military guard even as the results of the election were being announced, said he had video evidence of electoral fraud, promising he would share the footage with the nation.

He galvanized the youth in one of the world’s youngest nations, where the median age is 16.

Seventy-eight per cent of Ugandans are under the age of 35, meaning they were born after Museveni came to power.

Kyagulani himself is half Museveni’s age and called for change while pledging to end dictatorship and corruption.

Affectionately referred to as the ‘ghetto president’, the opposition leader became an East African music icon in the early 2000s before switching to politics and winning a parliamentary seat in 2017.

Despite missing out on the top job, Kyagulanyi managed to claim several high-profile scalps in the January poll. Fifteen of Museveni’s cabinet ministers, including Vice-President Edward Ssekandi, lost their seats. Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Platform is also now the leading opposition party in the Ugandan parliament.

The election outcome drew mixed reactions among East Africa watchers.

Kenyan historian, journalist and political analyst Fred Oluoch told NewsAfrica that the Museveni win will seriously ‘demoralise’ opposition supporters, adding that they had been energized into action by the charismatic ex-pop star, after their previous hope, Kizza Besigye, declined to run.  

‘Museveni’s win is sending a message that he cannot be removed by the ballot,’ Oluoch mused.

‘The main question is whether the behavior of the security forces before and after elections is a clear breach of the East African Community Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which is meant for partner states to share good common practices and improve democracy and the rule of law in the region.’

Meanwhile, David Matsanga, chairman of the Pan-African Forum, said that it would be difficult to remove Museveni while the opposition remains divided.

‘Had the opposition remained united as the Kenyan opposition did in 2002 to end KANU’s stranglehold on Kenyan politics, Museveni would have been out of power,’ he said.

Matsanga, who was the chief negotiator for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terror group during 2006 peace talks with the Ugandan government, said Museveni should reach out to the opposition for a rapprochement the same way Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta did to Raila Odinga, his main challenger at the 2017 elections.

Despite the house arrests, mass killings and internet blackout, President Museveni described the elections as ‘the most credible since the country attained its independence in 1962’, adding: ‘I think this might turn out to be the most cheating-free election.’

Uganda has never witnessed a peaceful transition of power since independence from Britain in the 1960s.

Museveni came to power 35 years ago after toppling Tito Okello in a 1986 military coup.

There was no lockdown, no recession, and just 21 official deaths in Tanzania – which goes to the polls this month. But with the country’s main trading partners reeling from lockdown-induced job losses, Zachary Ochieng asks whether economic contagion might be the real threat. 

When the world went in to lockdown, Tanzanians went to church.

They were told to by their president, John Magufuli, who implored citizens to flock to churches and mosques to vanquish the ‘satanic’ virus.

Covid-19, insisted the devout Catholic, was nothing to be ‘afraid’ of, adding that the economy was ‘more important than the threat posed by coronavirus’.

So, while Tanzania’s neighbour Kenya introduced curfews, restricted travel, banned all gatherings, and closed all restaurants, bars and schools, life in East Africa’s second largest economy continued almost unchanged.

Schools and airports were briefly closed, and large, secular gatherings banned, but throughout the pandemic, Tanzanians have continued to go to work, travel on public transport, and shop, drink and eat in public pretty much as normal. 

It was a bold move on Magufuli’s part, especially with presidential elections slated for October 28 – but not an entirely novel one, prayer vigils aside. 

Tanzania’s pandemic response loosely mirrored that of Sweden, which did not shut down its economy, hoping that social distancing, home-working, and bans on large gatherings would mitigate the coronavirus’s spread and lead to some form of herd immunity being developed.

But while Sweden has emerged with fewer deaths than many European countries that locked down, including the UK, Spain and Belgium, Covid’s true toll in Tanzania is less clear.

At the height of the pandemic, videos of alleged secret night burials went viral on social media, leading to allegations of a cover-up by the Magufuli regime.

Zitto Kabwe, leader of the opposition ACT-Wazalendo party, claimed that the number of infections was as much as seven times higher than the official figure, which would have placed Tanzania among sub-Saharan Africa’s most affected countries at the time.

The government, through its chief spokesman Hassan Abbas, however, dismissed the night burial allegations as ‘nonsensical’.

Meanwhile, the unexplained deaths of three MPs who presented with symptoms, and the authorities’ subsequent decision to fine or close down media outlets that linked the legislators’ deaths to Covid-19, was seized on by Magufuli’s critics as proof that more than 21 people died with the virus. 

The president similarly trashed a US embassy warning that the hospitals in Dar es Salaam were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients at the start of the pandemic, and instead claimed the rate of infections had been exaggerated and those who were found to have contracted the virus were actually false positives. (The government claimed to have secretly tested a papaya, a goat and a quail for Covid-19, with all results returning positive for the virus.) 

Whether Covid-19 has been eliminated in Tanzania, as the government insists, remains a subject of debate.

The possibility that Tanzania has developed some form of herd immunity after only a few months of spiking cases has been bandied around by some government insiders.

But with most of the Covid-19 testing centres now shut down, and people no longer going for tests, it is very difficult to assess the true Covid-19 situation in Tanzania.

A NewsAfrica insider – with access to Tanzania's ICU departments – reported that ICUs were indeed largely deserted when they visited hospitals recently.

And with ‘official’ death tolls across Africa way below that of Europe and the Americas – thanks in part to the continent’s youthfulness, but perhaps, also, undercounting across the board – Tanzania’s 21 deaths, from a country of 55 million, is not as unusual as it sounds.

Burundi, for instance, is claiming just one official death from Covid-19, despite their president allegedly dying with it.

Nigeria is claiming just over 1,100 deaths in a country of nearly 0.2 billion.

And Tanzania’s neighbours Uganda and Kenya have posted official death tolls of just 79 and 731 respectively, despite having large populations like Tanzania, and, in the case of Kenya, relatively high antibody levels, meaning the virus must have circulated widely despite the lockdown.

But as debates rage about Tanzania’s unconventional response to the pandemic, and whether its true death toll may be closer to Kenya’s, there are signs that Tanzania’s economy, at least, might not be as adversely affected as its lockdown-embracing neighbours.

Projections by the African Development Bank predict, for instance, that Tanzania’s economy will grow by five per cent this year, making it the best performing economy in the East African Community. 

‘The country’s decision to keep the economy open has offered a major relief to the private sector,’ said the East African Business Council’s executive director Peter Mathuki. 

Kenya, on the other hand, has seen more than 1.7 million people lose their jobs during the pandemic, with millions pushed into extreme poverty.

Only 47 per cent of Kenyans still have some form of regular income, according to research company FSD Kenya, while a worrying 17 per cent of Kenyans are now unable to meet basic living standards. 

The situation in Uganda, which had one of the harshest lockdowns on earth, is equally grim.

A report by the Development Initiatives in August estimated that ‘about 23 per cent of the urban poor could have lost 100 per cent of their daily income during and after the lockdown’, and concluded that ‘the socioeconomic consequences of [containing] Covid-19 currently outweigh the positive health impact of limiting its spread.’ 

But while Magufuli’s approach may have spared the country from the sort of mass unemployment seen elsewhere thus far – a big vote winner under normal circumstances – there have been rumblings about his laissez faire economic approach. 

Unlike Kenya, whose government injected an economic stimulus package to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, Tanzania did little to support businesses impacted by Covid-19, particularly those in the hard-hit tourism sector, which accounts for nearly a quarter of foreign exchange earnings. 

Tanzania’s lucrative mineral sector has also been badly damaged by the global economic downtown and disruptions to international supply chains. 

On the other hand, the agricultural sector, which contributed 27 per cent of Tanzania’s GDP in 2019 and employed about 67 per cent of the total workforce, has remained largely unaffected by the pandemic so far, with agricultural growth expected to decline slightly from an average of five per cent in 2019 to a still-healthy three per cent growth this year, according to a May 2020 report by Deloitte.

The levelling off has been blamed on a locust infestation that destroyed crops near Mt Kilimanjaro, coupled with decreased demand for export-focused cash crops, such as coffee, in lockdown-hit Europe and Asia.

In fact, there are signs that the global downturn might store up future problems for Tanzania, with the report warning that ‘the sector’s jobs remain in the balance,’ unless the export of key cash crops picks up again.

Meanwhile, the World Bank warned in June that growth slowdown in Tanzania’s main trading partners would lead to an increase in poverty in Tanzania too by default. 

It warned that an economic slowdown in Europe, Asia and other major trading partners had reduced demand and prices for Tanzania’s agricultural commodities and manufactured goods, and added that international travel bans and fear of contracting the virus are expected to inhibit the recovery of tourism, which had been one of the fastest-growing sectors in the economy before the pandemic.

‘Tanzania’s macroeconomic performance has been strong for the last decade, but the current crisis is an unprecedented shock that requires a sustained, targeted policy response’, the report added. 

It concluded that the volume of exports will shrink by around 10 per cent, as disruption pushes up the costs of imports and transportation, while the hit to tourism, export-oriented manufacturing and related services had already shrunk the disposable income of employees in those sectors and thus affected owners of small- and medium-sized businesses, which represent more than 70 per cent of total businesses. 

In short, the report implied that the decision by almost every other country in the world to lockdown is expected to lead to a global downturn that will act like a contagion, dragging down livelihoods and jobs in countries that didn’t lockdown, including Tanzania and export-reliant Sweden. 

But with tourism already recovering – despite critics claiming the rumours of unreported cases would dissuade tourists from returning to Tanzania’s beaches and game reserves – might talk of an impending economic downturn by contagion or otherwise be overblown? 

The International Growth Centre gave some credence to Magufuli’s economy-first approach, predicting the economic shock would be slightly lower in countries that didn’t lock down, and argued that governments in developing countries could not respond to Covid-19 as solely a health crisis, given the economic and political crises that had also emerged.

Whether Tanzanians at risk of losing their jobs will blame Magufuli for not offering more financial support, or foreign governments for causing a global downturn, remains to be seen.

But with a divided opposition, and the economy still largely intact, the president’s prayers, at least, look set to be answered on election day. 

Uganda’s lethal response to Covid-19 has led to an epidemic of violence, poverty and hunger, reports Zachary Ochieng.

As the world continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic, human rights watchdogs have criticized the Ugandan security forces for using excess force in imposing Covid-19 containment measures.

In its efforts to mitigate the spread of the pandemic, the government imposed a raft of restrictive measures.

This included a ban on transport and non-food markets, which millions of poor Ugandans rely on to make ends meet. All bars were also closed.

Subsequent measures included a nighttime curfew, banning the use of all privately owned vehicles, and closing shopping malls and non-food stores for 14 days. 

The government announced that the police, the army and a community-policing paramilitary group called the Local Defense Unit, coordinated by the Ugandan army, would conduct patrols to help enforce the directive.

But in the process of enforcing these restrictions, security forces used excessive force, including beatings, shootings and arbitrarily detaining people across the country. 

According to Human Rights Watch, police shot two construction workers riding on a motorcycle on March 26 in Mukono, on the outskirts of Kampala.

On March 28, six police officers shot at a group of people in Bududa, in the Eastern region, ostensibly to enforce the ban on public gatherings.

Shockingly, 12 people had been killed by security forces by July, when only one death from coronavirus had been reported.

Such security excesses are not new in Uganda. Successive regimes have used the police and military power to violently oppress political opponents, quell any riots or enforce certain regulations.

On the flip side, Uganda’s military was instrumental in the successful treatment of Covid-19 patients at the country’s national referral hospital, having set up a 100-bed capacity mobile hospital, complete with ICU facilities.

Even so, cases of police brutality in African countries that imposed lockdowns are on the rise. Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Kenya have been cited as some of the countries whose security apparatus used excessive force to impose the Covid-19 containment measures.

But it’s the lockdown’s toll on Uganda’s economy and health service that may really drive up the death count.

Uganda’s finance minister, Matia Kasaija, has estimated that the country’s harsh lockdown will drive some 780,000 people into poverty. While an August report by the Development Initiatives found that one in four of Uganda’s urban poor had lost ‘100 per cent of their daily income during and after the pandemic.’

The report also noted that Uganda has registered an increase in ‘preventable deaths’ during childbirth, as well as increased deaths due to malaria and other diseases due to the disruption caused by lockdown. 

It concluded: ‘The socioeconomic consequences of [containing] Covid-19 currently outweigh the positive health impact of limiting its spread.’ 

Uganda’s economy was projected to grow by 5.3 per cent in 2020 before the lockdown, but predicted growth has since being revised down to 3.5 per cent, by Deloitte, as disruptions to global trade and job losses at home take their economic toll. 

Douglas Opio, the CEO of the Federation of Uganda Employers, said that more than 5,000 companies had already gone to the wall because of the lockdown, with ‘over 400,000 workers’ affected by conservative estimates.

He added: ‘We are not sure how many more will lose their jobs’. 

Denis Jjuuko, a communications consultant and Rotarian, from Kampala, said: ‘Job losses have been many, and incomes have been halved for those still lucky to have jobs.’ He added: ‘There has also been a surge in teenage pregnancies and forced marriages.’