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Recent kidnapping highlights trouble with American involvement in Uganda

The recent kidnapping of Sue Endicott, an American woman on safari in Uganda, for a $500,000 ransom has gained a great deal of attention in the media lately.  Endicott and her guide were rescued, bringing the story to a happy conclusion.  Unfortunately, most of the media coverage looks at the kidnapping as either an isolated instance or a sign of how dangerous Uganda is for tourists.  Few delve into the deeper problems in a country full of corruption with many recent kidnappings of locals. The issues are deeper than the instance of one American being kidnapped and involve our own government, our own tourist and tax dollars, as well as problems in the Ugandan government.    

Tourism is big business, especially in Africa.  According to a report by the World Bank, 8.8% of the world’s jobs are supported in some way by tourism.  Sub-Saharan Africa attracted 6.7 million visitors in 1990, but grew that number to 33.8 million visitors in 2012.  Income from tourism in sub-Saharan Africa in 2012 amounted to greater than US$36 billion, accounting for 2.8% of the region’s GDP directly.  According to the Brookings Institute, Africa is projected to reach $261.77 Billion in tourism profit by 2030.  Uganda is one of the African nations profiting from tourism.

Uganda is known for its spectacular African wildlife. It is also one of the places where tourists can pay to visit gorillas in the wild.  The Los Angeles Times quoted official sources claiming that Uganda made US$1.37 Billion from tourism in 2016, this is one of Uganda’s greatest sources of foreign income.  Gorilla tourism is an important part of tourism in Uganda as a whole. According to a report from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP):

“Gorilla tourism, is the single most important asset over which Uganda has an absolute comparative advantage when compared to Kenya and Tanzania.”

It is estimated that if developed to full capacity in Uganda, gorilla tourism is worth $7-33 million annually.  Uganda has bigger problems than catering to tourists, though. The country has been plagued recently with a large amount of kidnappings, usually of women and sometimes children for ransoms.

CNN reported in June of last year that protestors were carrying mock coffins to protest government inaction over the rise in kidnappings.  In fact, according to police, 42 kidnappings were reported in 4 months. At least one woman was reported to have been raped and killed after her family didn’t pay her ransom.  In total, eight victims of kidnappings died by last summer. A police spokesman told CNN that many people have been staging their own kidnappings in order to get money. Kidnappings of civilians is only one small part of the greater problems of corruption and ineptitude in the government of Uganda.  

President Yoweri Museveni has been in power in Uganda since 1986 and recently removed legal restrictions limiting the upper age limit of president, allowing him to run again in 2021.  A member of the Ugandan Parliament and vocal critic of the president, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (AKA Bobi Wine), released a press statement through his American lawyer calling on the US to stop military aid to Uganda.  He said that the Ugandan government tortured him and another member of parliament for their opposition of the government.  The statement told American taxpayers that their tax dollars pay for the torture of political advisories in Uganda. Reuters reports that the US is a major supplier of military aid to Uganda, giving cash, equipment and training.  President Museveni warned against outside influence of his government.

Tourists taking a boat trip on Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda, Image Credit: Shutterstock

In September of last year, while pressure grew for the US to cut off military aid to Uganda, President Museveni made a speech calling on foreign nations to allow him to handle Ugandan problems, in response to the press release by Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, according to Reuters.  So far the US has turned a blind eye on it’s indirect involvement in human rights violations in Uganda.  Nothing stands in the way of Museveni running for president again in 2021, the same year that oil production is set to begin in Uganda.  US involvement in this region of Africa is nothing new.

In 1999, The Chicago Tribune reported that Rwandan rebels kidnapped and killed eight foreign tourists in Uganda to see wild mountain gorillas.  Six other tourists escaped alive. The rebels were specifically targeting American and British tourists, reportedly because of those government’s interference in local issues.  The rebels started by killing rangers and searching camps for tourists. Those killed were hacked and mutilated with machetes and left with notes saying, “Americans and British, we don’t want you on our land. You support our enemy.” This was the last kidnapping of an American in Uganda until the one that just ended recently, about two decades later.  

It’s still not clear who kidnapped Sue Endicott and her guide.  If there’s an ulterior motive besides the ransom, officials aren’t talking about it.  Endicott in the end was rescued by a joint security forces and it seems the US played a minor role in rescuing her.  It’s not clear if any of the ransom was paid or who may have paid it. What is clear is that the US continues to meddle in Ugandan and African affairs with little regard for the wellbeing of locals or tourists.  It’s also clear that despite the kidnappings of so many local people, it took the kidnapping of an American woman for Ugandan officials to take the situation seriously and for western media to pay attention. All too often we act like the whole of a place like Africa is but the backdrop for our own vacations or volunteer trips.  

Perhaps danger to foreign tourists will make Americans and hopefully officials pay closer attention to our own culpability in maintaining a status quo of dysfunction in Africa.  As for the gorillas Endicott wanted so badly to see, they suffer along with the people. Years of violence impact wildlife and humans alike, allowing in poachers and creating unstable government protections of habitat and wildlife.      

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer      

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Main Image Credit: Cheryl Ramalho/Shutterstock

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