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    Thursday, December 7, 2023

    Uganda: 348 MPs Face USA Visa Sanctions

    Jeff Mbanga

    More than 300 members of parliament, and their immediate family members, face travel restrictions to the United States of America for voting in favour of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, according to the latest crackdown.

    On that list, add any other politician - whether in the current cabinet or past - who is found to have been complicit in the disputed general elections of 2021, where government security operatives were accused of abducting, beating and killing those who were opposed to President Museveni's candidature.

    Notably, the speaker of parliament, Anita Amongi, became the first victim of this stringent measure, experiencing the cancellation of her US and UK visas immediately the bill was passed into law in May, 2023. The repercussions have now extended to over 300 MPs and their immediate family members who supported the Anti- Homosexuality Act.

    Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, in a December 4, 2023 statement, said: "Today, I am announcing the expansion of the visa restriction policy to include current or former Ugandan officials or others who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda or for policies or actions aimed at repressing members of marginalised or vulnerable populations. The groups include, but are not limited to, environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists, LGBTQI+ persons, and civil society organisers. The immediate family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions."

    The United States of America's latest reaction to what it terms as "flawed electoral processes, violence, and intimidation," is the most sweeping visa restriction on Uganda's government officials in recent memory, looping in immediate family members - the first time that such a widespread clampdown on close relatives of the accused has been publicly stated.

    It is the inclusion of family members that is likely to strike a raw nerve among those politicians on the list. Reached out for comment, a US embassy official who preferred anonymity, was cagey about the development but insisted cryptically that "decisions in your parliament have consequences worldwide" before hanging up.

    This impliedly places all the MPs who voted for the Anti-Homosexuality Act at risk. Several MPs reached out declined to comment on the matter until it is brought to their attention officially. Normally, the US does not release the list of banned officials until they apply for a US visa. Now that their immediate family members have been added to the list, it is likely to create a spiral effect.


    On April 16, 2021, less than three months after President Museveni was declared the winner of the presidential elections with 60 per cent of the vote, Blinken announced that the US had agreed to slap visa restriction on those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda, including during the country's January 14 general elections and the campaign period that preceded it."

    He added that the "electoral process was neither free nor fair."

    Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, the main opposition candidate in the 2021 presidential election, has for the last two years been on tours in the United States and Europe, rallying the Western world to come hard on Uganda. Part of his argument at these foreign tours is that the survival of Uganda's regime is mainly fuelled by the heaps of cash at its disposal. Cutting off some of the money supplies would cripple the regime, Kyagulanyi told his largely white audiences.

    Compared to other blocks such as the European Union or bodies such as the World Bank, the United States has not sent that much development aid to Uganda. That even if the United States reduced its funding to Uganda, the impact would not be felt, according to some political analysts aligned with the regime.

    If slashing development aid could not make that much impact, the United States decided that targeting more Ugandan individuals, and their family members, would hit a raw nerve. But for the US to do that, they needed a trigger.

    That trigger came on May 2, 2023. On that day, just over two years after Blinken's first raft of travel restrictions, members of parliament voted on the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023 - a radical piece of legislation with stringent punishment for those who engage in homosexuality, plus those who fail to report any incidents of the act to the authorities.

    The vote count showed overwhelming support - both from government and opposition members of parliament - of a bill that many said was meant to stop the erosion of Uganda's cultural values.

    The passing of the bill sparked off a series of criticism from global leaders, many of whom said Uganda had backtracked on its already fragile human rights record. Many warned that there would be repercussions for the government.

    In June 2023, the US passed what it called the Fallon Smart Policy in memory of a young girl in Portland, who was killed in 2015 in a hit-and-run, but where the prime suspect was helped to skip bail, and later whisked out of the country. The girl's family has never received justice.

    To try and get Fallon Smart - the young Portland girl - justice, the US announced that any family member of those who have not faced justice would face visa restrictions. The Fallon Smart policy allowed the US to publicly include family members of those who are accused of committing crimes on its travel restrictions red list.

    Blinken's latest announcement on Uganda, which, he said, expands on the April 2021 restrictions, could hurt family members of the accused who wish to study or attend any engagements in the United States.

    While many of the politicians and their family members on this list might feel they have other choices outside the United States, there is a high chance that other Western countries will follow in the footsteps of the US as part of streamlining their diplomatic interests.

    The fallout from these travel restrictions is anticipated to affect the education and employment opportunities of the accused officials' family members, especially in the United States. As other Western countries may follow suit, these individuals could find their diplomatic and professional prospects significantly curtailed.

    While Uganda's government has yet to release an official response to the US announcement, the impact of these far-reaching measures is poised to reshape the dynamics of diplomatic relations and influence within the East African nation. By press time, government had not yet put out an official position to the US' announcement.


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