Democratic U.S. Senators Chris Coons and Chris Van Hollen last week endorsed taking action to head off a possible Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lauded an innovative Ugandan approach to resettling war refugees, and called for greater political openness in Uganda.
The senators spoke to VOA after traveling to Uganda earlier this month. The Aug. 12-15 trip occurred as Ebola was spreading in the neighboring DRC. During the last pandemic, Coons said, "we made a critical investment in protecting Liberia, West Africa and frankly the world, and we could and should do that again in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today."
The two also met with refugees fleeing South Sudanese and Congolese conflicts, and Coons praised Uganda's response to the refugee influx. Refugees in Uganda live in settlements resembling villages and are granted small land plots and the immediate right to work. They are also more deliberately integrated into local communities, which includes access to local schools. This is in contrast to most parts of the world, where refugees are housed in camps.
"This is a compelling model that reduces tensions between the refugees and the host communities," Coons said of settlements he toured in Bidi Bidi and Lobule in northern Uganda. Such arrangements "make it possible for refugee families to grow and develop until there's a time when their host countries are safe enough for them to return. And it's a model that's being made possible by some significant support from the United States."
In between rain showers, Coons and Van Hollen toured the Lobule refugee settlement, where refugees were receiving cash vouchers through the World Food Program to be used in local markets. In its use of vouchers, increasingly employed as an alternative to the delivery of bulk food, the WFP has been building on a pilot program implemented in 2014 of providing cash vouchers to refugees.
According to an email from Stephan Deutscher, a program policy officer for cash-based transfers at the WFP, as of this month, WFP Uganda was providing "monthly unconditional unrestricted cash transfers to more than 360,000 refugees in eight settlements across the country," including Lobule, with the hope of reaching up to 500,000 refugees by the end of the year.
"The cash transfer value is equivalent to the value of the food basket refugees would otherwise receive in kind," Deutscher wrote, currently 31,000 Ugandan shillings (about $8.40) per month.
With that money, refugees were able to immediately gain access to — and invest in buying and reselling of — produce in local markets. One group of women standing around a stand that sold fish and vegetables, several yards from where the cash vouchers were distributed, said that while the money was not enough, it helped.
Coons said he was encouraged at how the food assistance had developed even since he visited Uganda in 2017 with former Republican Senator Bob Corker.
Coons praised the program, calling it "a more flexible, more cost-effective, more sustainable model for delivering food assistance."
In addition to meeting with refugees in the northern Ugandan settlements at Lobule and Bidi Bidi, one of the world's largest refugee settlements, Coons and Van Hollen met with Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, raising the issue of criticism of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been widely criticized domestically and globally for overstaying his time in office and suppressing opposition.
Coons called the relationship with the Ugandan government, which works with Washington in the fight against al-Shabab, "complex."
"There have been significant actions by the government, by President Museveni, who has been president for decades, to constrain civil society, to harass or threaten political opponents, to shut down news outlets, and to pass legislation that narrows the space for civil society in Uganda," Coons said.
"While it certainly is not the most oppressive regime in Africa, it clearly needs to create more open political space in the country for dissenting voices and opposition views," Van Hollen said. "I raised that issue with the prime minister, especially as it related to providing the growing youth population an opportunity to express themselves politically, and they have adopted this new law that says that people can engage in protests, but in order to do so, they have to get these government permits, and the government uses that device to suppress dissent."
Earlier this month, the academic Stella Nyanzi was sentenced to jail for 18 months for "cyber harassing and offensive communication" for a poem she wrote and posted on Facebook last year, in which she wished that the president had burned up in his mother's birth canal.
Pop star, minister of parliament and presidential hopeful Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was charged this month with "annoying" the president after Wine and other opposition leaders allegedly stoned the president's convoy in August 2018.
"I thought it was important that we met with Bobi Wine," Van Hollen said of a brief meeting toward the beginning of the trip, "and not because the United States should take a position or support any particular candidate. We should not do that, but we should support a process that creates more political space and room for dissent within the democratic process."
In a separate encounter later that week, Van Hollen added that while debarking in Nairobi on a flight from Uganda, he and Coons ran into Wine, who was in Kenya to record music.
"He was worried that the Ugandan authorities would crack down on the music studio if he tried to record it in Uganda," Van Hollen said.
"That's just another example of fear of government suppression, and it's not without reason."