In a February 1977 Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, a group of Black civil rights leaders including Dorothy Height, Bayard Rustin, and A. Phillip Randolph denounced Idi Amin’s “reign of terror” in Uganda. They were among the first Black Americans to dismiss Amin’s ersatz Pan-African appeals and publicly condemn his human rights record. Their letter emphasized the basic immorality of Amin’s atrocities, while taking care to avoid generalizations about African governance.
In the run-up to the next US ambassador to Uganda’s confirmation, US foreign policy toward Africa and Ugandans fighting for civil liberties would benefit from a similar ethical commitment on the part of Black civil society.
The question isn’t if Uganda’s president and US security ally, Yoweri Museveni, is an authoritarian. He’s no Amin, but his regime is widely known for suppressing civil liberties, undermining Uganda’s judiciary, persecuting gay Ugandans, and torturing political dissidents. The question is why Black civil rights groups, professional associations, and criminal justice reform organizations should take an interest in shaping US policy toward Uganda.
Today, the sense of shared identity and struggle that animated much of the Black American engagement with Africa during the 20th century is often pilloried as escapist and romantic. The haste to lampoon this Pan-Africanism, however, has overlooked consequences. It has also discouraged a commitment—not based simply on ethnicity but also on ethics and an expansive notion of American citizenship—to demanding that the US act justly in Africa. This is what’s at stake when Black Americans remain silent about US support for the Museveni regime.
No surprise, like strongmen the world over, Museveni loves Trump. He’s said as much, lauding the American president for his frankness after it was revealed that Trump dubbed Africa a continent of “shithole countries.” Over the course of the last three years, despite the occasional spat, the Trump administration has largely toned-down US criticism of Museveni’s brutal and illiberal policies. Museveni, in turn, continues to prioritize Ugandan support for US counterterrorism in Africa, his primary source of leverage in Washington for nearly two decades.
In Somalia, Ugandan troops comprise the largest contingent of African Union peacekeepers and work closely with US special operations forces, sharing intelligence, training the Somali army, and launching raids against the Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabab. Ugandan units have even, reportedly, served as guinea pigs in the development of US military technology, collaborating with US military contractors to test IED detection systems in Somalia prior to their potential use by American soldiers in other conflicts.
Despite a sharp increase in US drone strikes in Somalia, a recent spate of Al Shabab operations, including coordinated strikes against US and EU military advisors and this month’s attack on US reconnaissance forces at Kenya’s Manda Bay airstrip, suggest that the militia is far from a spent force. Meanwhile, Museveni’s opportunistic support for US counterterrorism has made Uganda one of the leading recipients of US security assistance in Africa. This security cooperation has strengthened Museveni’s grip on power at home, where the Ugandan military routinely takes to the streets to quash protests demanding an end to his 34-year rule.
Yet in the US, Black opposition to the underbelly of the US-Uganda security partnership has been muted at best. Black Americans consistently decried US military aid to white-minority-ruled regimes in Africa when parallels between racism in the US and South Africa, for example, were easy to identify. These parallels were not, however, necessary to evoke the outrage of Black Americans witnessing the exploitation of African people by their rulers.
In 1990 Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, Joseph Lowery, and leaders representing a cross-section of Black civil society called for sanctions against the regime of Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, one of America’s key African security allies during the Cold War. A moral impulse and a commitment to democratic freedoms imperiled by the “black oppressors” of the Moi regime, with support from the Bush administration, motivated their outcry. Their denunciation of arap Moi and similar criticisms of Sani Abacha in Nigeria, Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia, and more recently the late Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe were coordinated by Black foreign policy lobbies such as the TransAfrica Forum.
But groups such as TransAfrica have been in decline since the turn of the 21st century, and little has emerged within Black civil society to replace them. Black Americans have largely left the details of Africa advocacy to liberal NGOs, Black elected officials, and newly arrived African immigrant communities. Today’s inattention to US-Africa policy is a departure from the legacy of organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—all of which, during critical moments, spoke out in defense of African people. It’s also bad for the formulation of US foreign policy toward Africa.
Why? Because Black Americans have been consistently more skeptical than other ethnic groups of US military interventions and the capacity of the US to solve other countries’ problems. It is this aversion to paternalism, coupled with the moral aspirations that fuel many of their domestic social movements, that Black civil society can bring to debates about the future of US policy in Africa. Such a perspective would serve as a much-needed check on the worst impulses of liberal humanitarian interventionists and conservative hawks preoccupied with counterterrorism and “near peer competition” in Africa.
What would this look like in the case of Uganda?
First, it would mean avoiding a short-sighted fixation on calls for Museveni to relinquish power under the assumption that the Ugandan opposition is necessarily more committed to just policies. Instead, Black Americans could insist that the next US ambassador intensify pressure on the Museveni regime to roll back Uganda’s social media tax, computer misuse act, and other strictures on free expression it has used to silence social movements and government critics, women and youth activists in particular.
Second, Black Americans can support the calls of Ugandan dissidents for a full suspension of US security assistance to Uganda if the human rights abuses of the Museveni regime continue. And insist that the Trump administration move beyond ineffectual sanctions on Ugandan security officials once they have already fallen from Museveni’s good graces.
These are demands that Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to Uganda, Natalie E. Brown, may be willing to take into account. Brown, a career member of the US foreign service who is now the US chargé d’affaires in Eritrea, has openly acknowledged the benefits she’s derived from the struggles of women and Black Americans to combat discrimination within the US State Department itself.
Yet Black American scrutiny of the US-Uganda alliance wouldn’t just be good for activists in Kampala. It would also be a good means for Black people to reject a stunted conception of American citizenship, a conception that suggests that Black American morality ends at America’s shores or perhaps its border detention centers. This idea of citizenship is at odds with the history of Black civil society groups across the political spectrum that fought for enfranchisement primarily in pursuit of domestic reforms but also to secure a meaningful voice in shaping US policy abroad.
The Black American voice in foreign affairs has never been limited to Africa or rigidly bound by ethnic sentimentality, but until recently it rarely failed to critique US support for repressive African regimes. Nor was this voice silenced by the idea that Black American’s domestic challenges were so pressing that they should abandon an effort to have their values represented in US policy toward Africa.
In 1962, for example, at a conference intended to increase Black American interest in Africa, Dr. King called upon one of his favorite refrains to describe the parochialism this effort aimed to overcome. “There was a time” King noted, “when the intensity of our own problems excluded our awareness that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” For King, the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa offered the potential of “meaningful leverage to shape an American foreign policy on Africa that will be consistent with our democratic principles.”
This effort was not without its detractors. Declassified memos from Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Security Council suggest that the president was strongly opposed to “a separate Negro view of foreign policy” on Africa and wanted to “discourage emergence of any special Negro pressure group (a la the Zionists) which might limit his freedom of maneuver.”
It appears that after more than two centuries of Black American civil society widening its moral ken to include the African continent, Trump need not share Johnson’s concerns. US policy toward Uganda and people of African descent on both sides of the Atlantic are all poorer for it.
Sobukwe Odinga is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies at UCLA. His areas of expertise are International Relations theory, African regionalism and security cooperation, and race and US foreign policy.