CSIS delivered again this afternoon, with extremely compelling remarks (references to Ugandan President Yowerei Museveni as a militaristic dictator set the tone) by Bishop Dr. D. Zac Niringiye, currently a Fellow at the Human Rights and Peace Centre of Makerere University. Bishop Zac, as he seems to be known, spent a lengthy career in ecumenical service, recently retiring as Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Kampala to focus on political and human rights activism, an activity that has drawn the vigorous ire of the State. His academic pedigree is just as impressive as his oratory skills (although I am not of the proper generation, I could not help but think of the black American civil rights leaders based in the Church when hearing him speak). His first degree was in physics (Makerere), he received a master’s degree in the US (Wheaton), and his doctoral/divinity degree in the UK (Edinburgh).
The Deputy Director of CSIS, Richard Downie, stated in his introduction to the talk on the theme of ‘Politics & Protest in Uganda’ that the country is generally seen in ‘glowing’ terms in DC. Bishop Zac certainly served as an efficient spokesperson for the campaign seeking to undermine that consensus, arguing that Museveni, far from being a source of stability in the region, actually contributes to instability across east and central Africa. He remarked that Uganda is in a ‘post-Museveni mode’ and that the country’s neighbors are ready for his departure as well.
Bishop Zac marshaled an impressive array of statistics and anecdotes to buttress his critique of the Museveni regime. Youth unemployment in Uganda is 83%, only 25% of children complete primary school (compared to 75% in nearby Burundi), and Uganda apparently suffers from the highest teen pregnancy rates in all of sub-Saharan Africa. He spoke of the harassment he and others suffered at the hands of a State in ‘survival mode’ that relies on ‘brute force’ and argued that corruption was persuasive and has led to a ‘collapse’ in the institutions of the State.
Bishop Zac spoke of the walk to work protests (of which I knew) and also black Monday protests (of which I knew not) where individuals would wear black, both to mourn the scourge of corruption but also to celebrate the dignity of the African race. As he pointed out, these protests have not yet gained a critical mass of momentum that poses an imminent threat to the State. Although he did not specifically address this issue in his remarks, Bishop Zac seemed to convey a sense that at some point relatively soon, both Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement would fall from power.
By the conclusion of the talk, I found myself completely won over by Bishop Zac. I was earnestly wishing that Invisible Children had focused its target a year ago on an individual that was not Joseph Kony. I wish that more individuals could speak as bluntly and specifically as Dr. Zac did today. If DC got more speakers like this, I think that positive influences on our African policy would be immense.
Bishop Zac was followed by Maria Burnett of Human Rights Watch, a senior researcher focusing on civil rights. While I had to leave before her remarks concluded (my day job called), she seemed to focus on the collapse of Uganda’s public institutions and the failures of the international community to effectively pressure the incumbent regime in Uganda, much of which she chalked up to sheer ignorance.
CSIS has received a grant from the Luce Foundation to work on the issue of religion and politics in Africa. Uganda is one of their six case studies and CSIS apparently sent a team there in January. Judging by the event today, it seems like they are off to a good start with that work.