Uganda and North Africa

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has, it seems, been paying attention to the “Arab spring” since it began. During the Ugandan presidential elections in February, in which Museveni won a fourth official term, government authorities banned the use of certain words in text messaging. These included “Egypt”, “bullet,” “people power,” “Tunisia”, “Mubarak”, “dictator”, “teargas”, “army”, “police”, “gun”, “Ben Ali” and “UPDF,” the last term being the acronym of the Ugandan armed forces.

Not too long afterward, NATION intervened in Libya, and Museveni was upset. In late March, he wrote a widely circulated article for Foreign Policy in which he cited double standards in the West’s treatment of Libya (versus, for example, Bahrain), lamented what he saw as the bypassing of the African Union in the decisionmaking process, and expressed concern about the potentially long-lasting, negative consequences of the intervention. Whether one agrees with Museveni or not (and I do on some issues), the point is that Museveni seems to fear how the “Arab spring” might reshape African politics.

During the spring, Uganda saw the “Walk to Work” movement, in which opposition leader Kizza Besigye mobilized hundreds to protest high food and fuel prices. These protests were primarily related to domestic troubles, rather than foreign influences, but the harshness of the government crackdown hinted that “the nearby Arab Spring revolutions can’t be far from Museveni’s mind.”

This week, Ugandan activists made explicit reference to the North African revolutions:

Pressure group Activists 4 Change wants to hold a rally in the capital Kampala on Friday to “celebrate people power in North Africa” following the overthrow of the leaders of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

The group has emailed invitations accompanied by a flyer featuring photos of the toppled rulers crossed out — with Uganda’s long-serving President Yoweri Museveni lined up as the next to go.

Police banned the rally. If activists push forward, as they have in the past, there could be bloodshed again.

Talk of an “African spring” has largely crested and fallen. President Blaise Compaore retained power in Burkina Faso, the sub-Saharan African country which experienced perhaps the most serious protests this year. Gabon’s President Ali Bongo withstood major protests there. Museveni is unlikely to fall any time soon. And leaders who look vulnerable, like Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, are not under threat so much because of contagion from North Africa, but because pent-up local grievances are coming to the fore amid (pre-)electoral campaigning.

Still, the “Arab spring” has changed the way activists in countries like Uganda frame their demands and view heads of state. And it has changed how heads of state view their own position. Going forward, both sides will likely continue to mull over the lessons of the North African revolutions, with each side trying to stay once step ahead of the other on the organizational, technological, and political levels.

Goodluck Jonathan and Ali Bongo to Washington, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama to Africa

Next week major leaders from African countries will travel to Washington as major leaders from the United States prepare to travel to Africa. In both directions, the visits are sure to occasion commentary.

In Washington, President Barack Obama will receive Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Wednesday and Gabonese President Ali Bongo on Thursday. Obama and Jonathan met around this time last year, after Jonathan was sworn in for the first time. I may be mistaken, but I believe Jonathan’s first visit following each of his inaugurations has been to the United States.

Commentary on the visit in Nigeria and in the Africa-focused press may be more curious than critical. The meeting with Ali Bongo may evoke more criticism. Despite a relative lack of international media attention, Gabon was the site of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest protest movements earlier this year, and Bongo’s security forces carried out a serious crackdown on the protesters. I doubt that many in the US will be paying attention to these visits, but we may see some criticism of Bongo’s visit this week on Twitter and blogs.

While Jonathan and Bongo are in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be getting ready for her upcoming trip to Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Here’s a peek at the itinerary:

Clinton, following a trip to the United Arab Emirates, will visit Zambia’s capital Lusaka on June 10 for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Ministerial Forum, Clinton’s deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

[…]In Zambia, Clinton will also meet Zambian President Rupiah Banda, who is seeking re-election this year, and “participate in events to highlight US government initiatives to improve the lives of the Zambian people,” Toner said.

Afterward, he said, Clinton will travel to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but gave no precise dates.

The chief US diplomat will meet with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

“In Tanzania, she will highlight our successful bilateral engagement, including a host of programs, including Feed the Future,” Toner said.

In Ethiopia, Clinton will “focus on regional issues,” visiting the African Union headquarters and meeting with AU Chairman Jean Ping in addition to holding bilateral meetings with Ethiopian officials.

Later this month, First Lady Michelle Obama will also travel (without the President, but with her mother and daughters) to South Africa and Botswana. This will be an official visit focused on health issues. Read the White House statement here.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Michelle Obama currently holds elected office, but both are political figures, and they are two of the most popular (at times, I believe, the two most popular, as measured by approval ratings) national political figures in the US. I imagine that popularity will hold in Africa to an extent as well, and that both will get enthusiastic receptions on their trips – though Clinton’s meetings with African leaders will not necessarily be entirely smooth. I will cover Clinton’s trip here, as I did when she visited the continent in 2009; Obama’s is well outside of my usual geographic coverage, so I may only offer a few links as relevant.