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Uganda election

When I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s Yoweri Museveni came to power in Uganda, and brought relative stability, economic growth and progress on issues like maternal health and the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The trouble is, he’s still in power to this day. He has just won his sixth election amid accusations of vote rigging and intimidation.

Many years ago I went on a Dail trip to Uganda with Brendan Howlin. We were looking at Irish Aid programmes there in the western part of the country, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

We flew into a regional town called Fort Portal at the foothills of the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains and were driven to a teacher training college supported by the Irish Government.

The impact of teacher training was exceptional and clearly a source of enormous pride to both the local college administrators and Irish Aid.

As you may know Brendan Howlin is a very clear and articulate orator and gave a great speech to the assembled students, teachers and administrators. I vividly recall the Head of school telling the assembly that that was the way English should be spoken. His own English was a bit patchy. He had introduced Deputy Howlin as ‘extinguished Member of Parliament’.

I agreed with Brendan that he meant ‘distinguished’ and that he probably had no particular insight into whether or not Brendan might retain his seat in Wexford.

More recently, in 2015, I returned to Uganda as CEO of GOAL and this time we travelled north to the Karamoja region, the least developed part of the country in the far north. This had been the heart of the Lord’s Resistance Army lead by Joseph Kony.

The Karamojong are a fierce and determined people who have seen no end of hardship. GOAL’s programme there was fairly revolutionary. Instead of a standard aid programme, the idea was to try to develop markets by bringing technology, investors and local agricultural co-operatives together to improve standards, knowledge and scale.

At one village, GOAL wasn’t even mentioned by the community leaders who described the improvement in their lives in recent times, which we took to be an incredibly positive sign.

The changes in Uganda have been fairly positive over the years. One notable change as we flew out from Uganda’s main airport, Entebbe, at the end of the trip was that we were on the very last British Airways direct flight to London. Meanwhile there are three flights a week to Guangzhou.

With this background knowledge, I have recently been following the fortunes of Bobi Wine, a candidate in last week’s Presidential election, in particular his twitter account which has over 1 million followers.

Bobi Wine, if you haven’t heard of him is a popular rap singer turned politician who is enormously popular in the urban slums around Kampala, the capital. However, Uganda is still a very rural country and his support in these areas is not so great.

Wine called the election ‘the most fraudulent in the history of Uganda’ and there is no doubt that he has been subjected to enormous intimidation having been shot at and arrested many times. After the election, he tweeted photos of Army units posted outside his home - not for his protection, it goes without saying.

EU election monitors were not accredited and the Government shut down the internet to avoid any oversight of the election.

The dilemma this poses to donors like Irish Aid and to the EU is fairly obvious. Museveni takes the attitude that he won’t take any lectures from anyone, particularly the US right now. So do we cut off aid? Is foreign aid allowing Museveni to spend on the security apparatus? The better solution is to direct aid to capacity building.

Cutting off aid could harm the most vulnerable without achieving anything positive. It is better to channel aid through international and local NGOs who can apply it while following the Paris Declaration on Aid effectiveness. And, of course, it hardly needs to be said, but experimenting with aid sanctions during a pandemic would be madness.

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