Akon In Uganda, the Laundering of a Dictatorship

"Museveni inoculating himself against criticism."

Cartoon by Gado.

Akon In Uganda, the Laundering of a Dictatorship

Opinion: By lending his voice to the horrid spectacle underway in Uganda, Akon is in fact endorsing the Museveni regime.

Autocrats across the world have often used artists to sanitize their regime's brutality. One method that has been increasingly employed has been the recruitment of high-profile artists—mainly Western music stars—to work as essential spokespersons for a country's tourism ministry. These artists then work alongside government officials—oftentimes propaganda artists in their own right—to sell a whitewashed image of the country, one that is almost always at odds with realities on the ground.

While the introduction of global celebrities into the authoritarian playbook of reputation laundering is a more recent phenomenon, placing a country's tourism industry front-and-center has long been a go-to tactic to soften a dictatorship's harsh image. The former long-ruling dictator of Zimbabwe, for example, Robert Mugabe, was a trailblazer in this regard. In 2012, he convinced the United Nations World Tourism Organization to appoint him as their international envoy, despite his government's categorically abysmal human rights record.

Years later, Rwanda's strongman, Paul Kagame, signed a multi-million-dollar deal with Arsenal, the popular English football club. For the 2019/2020 season, players sported jerseys with "Visit Rwanda" prominently displayed on their chests and sleeves, all while the country's political opposition, media, and human rights community faced continual decimation through arbitrary detentions, disappearances, extrajudicial executions and alleged state-sanctioned murders.

By cleverly showcasing the seemingly apolitical aspects of their country—by putting tourism front and center—authoritarians can frame any criticism that may arise as an unwarranted attack on their country and its people. The authoritarian therefore seeks to evade scrutiny of his track record by doing what all dictators throughout history have attempted to do: shift the conversation from the substance of the matter while gaslighting victims and their allies in one fell swoop.

An early practitioner of this method was former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh, who, for years , used his country's Homecoming Roots Festival—and Gambia's fame as the birthplace of Kunta Kinte—to sell an idealized version of the country that sharply contrasted with the lived experiences of its citizens, suffering under the yoke of a brutal dictatorship. Oftentimes, the festivalgoers and well-to-do European tourists enjoying Gambia's idyllic beaches would be reveling, quite literally, a stone's throw away from the regime's torture chambers.

Perhaps taking a page from Jammeh's playbook, one dictator in particular has stood out from the pack more recently: Uganda's Yoweri Museveni.

Under Museveni's nearly four-decade reign, the Ugandan public is, by now, no stranger to political violence, farcical elections, as well as state-sanctioned killings and rampant human rights abuses. One would never know this fact by listening to the recent statements made by top-selling performing artist, and recent recipient of BET's Global Good Award, Akon, who has been very publicly traveling the country this past week.

Akon and his wife Rozina Negusei, who is accompanying him on the trip, have been promoting Uganda as a "peaceful" and "beautiful" tourist destination while glad-handing with regime stalwarts and notorious human rights abusers and posing for pictures with Museveni himself – all of which, of course, is being heavily trumpeted by Uganda's state broadcaster and the government's slick propaganda machine. Akon, of course, is not the first big name star to "promote tourism" in Uganda. Recall, the October 2018 visit of Kanye West and then-wife Kim Kardashian, during which the two talked of Uganda in glowing terms, posting on social media that "there is another heaven in Uganda."

Akon's visit to Uganda is being promoted by the country's tourism ministry under the slogan #VisitUganda, which was initially used to publicize the ultimately aborted MTV Africa Music Awards that the country had been due to host in February. That event was "postponed" by MTV executives after backlash, in Uganda and worldwide, in light of the country's deteriorating human rights situation – including the fact that several of its biggest music stars like Bobi Wine, who currently doubles as Uganda's most popular opposition figure, are presently barred from performing in the country. Several of Wine's music collaborators, including Sir Dan Magic and Nubian Li, have also been in prison on trumped up charges, allegedly tortured, and have repeatedly been denied bail since December 2020.

Interestingly, both Akon's visit, and Kanye West's in 2018, came two months after violent elections in Uganda, ones in which Museveni's partisan—and U.S. funded—security forces ran roughshod over the opposition, bulldozed civil society and muzzled the media, including, this January, by shutting down the internet. In the case of the most recent election, a highly detailed and often graphic report issued last month sheds some grim light on the unfolding situation: hundreds of Ugandans have so far been abducted by state authorities; hundreds of civilians have been hauled in and tried before military courts; and dozens more, mainly all known or perceived opposition supporters, have been confirmed murdered by state authorities during the election campaign, a reality corroborated by multiple human rights reports.

Perhaps someone forgot to tell Akon. In fact, in the midst of this violent post-election clampdown, Akon has spun standard lines from the Museveni script, telling an interviewer this week: "Democracy works differently in different places. Every place in the world was not made for democracy." This sort of language is an absolute gift for dictators like Museveni who like to portray their citizens' demands for free and fair elections and respect for democratic rights as somehow antithetical to their country's long-term development. This is, of course, nonsense.

By literally lending his voice to the horrid spectacle underway in Uganda, Akon is endorsing the Museveni regime. He is providing a veil of legitimacy to an otherwise tarnished, murderous government that shows a repeated disdain for human rights. What is more, Akon's visit is clearly being used for domestic propaganda purposes, helping to prop up and whitewash a human rights abuser who has relied on violence and scare tactics to entrench his decades-long rule.

International stars like Akon, a celebrity who has professed support for human rights and social justice, cannot simply ask to be "left out of politics" or feign ignorance on Uganda—recall that his wife was raised in Uganda and must surely be aware of the horrific situation unfolding there. Akon's celebrity endorsement emboldens Museveni. It also devalues life and it discourages Ugandan citizens from standing up to the regime's brutality. It will also, undoubtedly, lead to the further denial of fundamental freedoms and basic human rights in Uganda.

Someone tell Akon.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

Godfrey Mwampembwa (pen name Gado) is a political cartoonist and artist based in Kenya. Follow his work on Twitter: @iGaddo