Last month, January 2018, Bard College Visiting Professor and author, Helen C. Epstein, gave a brief talk on her latest book, Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror. Epstein began the lunchtime event co-organized by SIPA's Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration and the SIPA Humanitarian Affairs Working Group with a disclaimer: "Coming to grips with America's foreign policy can be difficult as an American. I know that was true for me."
Those who were unfamiliar with Uganda's history and current events received a crash course during Epstein's cross-cutting talk. Attendees briefly learned about Uganda's early medical advances: traditional Ugandan healers and midwives of Uganda's largest ethnic group performed successful Cesarean sections as early as the 17th century, a rare operation in Europe before the 20th century; Ugandans pioneered treatment for cancer and malnutrition in the 1950s and 1960s; and Singapore sent a delegation to Uganda when it wanted to reform its healthcare system in the 1960s.
This is hard to swallow, especially when one examines Uganda's current healthcare and social services as a whole- the country's health and livelihood indictors pale in comparison to its immediate neighbors - Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania. Despite the billions of aid dollars that have been funneled into the country, Epstein detailed accounts of dilapidated rural clinics overrun by wildlife and the number of Ugandans increasingly sinking into poverty each year.
Epstein posits that Uganda's current situation and much of the instability East and Central Africa has experienced over the past three decades is linked to Uganda's current President, Yoweri Museveni - in power for nearly 32 years. During his tenure, Museveni has played an active role in a number of conflicts in the region including but not limited to backing rebel invasions in Rwanda, arming Sudanese rebels against its conservative government, and ousting the Congolese (then Zaire) president, Mobuto Sese Seko. And while Museveni was involved in conflicts beyond his borders, he failed to quell 20+ year conflict in northern Uganda which resulted in one of the continent's longest standing humanitarian crises in Africa.
But what does Museveni have to do with America's foreign policy? Surely, the U.S. wouldn't support a head of state who pushed for parliament to scrap the presidential age limit (a bill 80% of Ugandans were against)- allowing him to potentially rule for life. On the contrary, since the Regan era, US administration after US administration has largely enabled or silently ignored Museveni's grip of the country and the region. In Museveni, the US found an East African who would serve as the United States' regional military proxy in exchange for diplomatic support and billions in economic and military aid.
As Epstein concluded her talk, much of the room was silent- many mulling over her words, the state of the world and perhaps their emerging role in it. Known for being an institution where the world connects, SIPA students may very well find themselves in positions of influence - with the ability to enact policies that embolden or hinder leaders like Museveni. Which will it be? Only time will tell.
Want to learn more about this topic? Check out Helen Epstein's Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror.