Uganda may be a small country but its weight in Washington policy circles has enough heft to convince lawmakers on Capitol Hill to establish a new Congressional Caucus on Uganda â€” only the third such caucus in the history of Congress that focuses on African issues.
That impact has come about because of Ugandaâ€™s tireless Ambassador Edith Ssempala, who has spent the last eight years in Washington pushing for closer ties between her nation and the United States.
An engineer and one of the few women ambassadors in Washington, Ssempala made many friends in Congress as she lobbied for passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the first-ever trade legislation between sub-Saharan Africa and the United States.
The idea for a Uganda caucus arose during a meeting in September between Representative Christopher Smith (Republican of New Jersey) and Ugandan defence minister and Attorney General Amama Mbabazi as a means of strengthening relations between the two nations.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda visited the United States in May 2003 and invited President Bush to make Uganda one of the stops on his visit to Africa in July 2003. During that visit, Bush heralded Museveni as â€œa strong advocate of free trade because you understand the benefits of trade and a strong leader ... using your prestige and your position to help resolve regional disputes.â€
Bush also referred to his administrationâ€™s $15b, five-year-program to help Africans battle disease and cited Museveni as â€œa world leaderâ€. Not just a leader on the continent of Africa, but a world leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS. â€œYou have shown the world what is possible in terms of reducing infection rates. You have been honest and open about the AIDS pandemic and therefore have led your people to seek prevention and treatment.â€
Bush pledged the support of the United States on these issues but especially on AIDS; â€œWe come to assure you and to assure the people of Uganda that when it comes to the struggle against hopelessness, poverty and disease, you have got a friend in the United States.â€
This support for Uganda as a country with good leadership that is adhering to tough political and economic reforms, combined with the wide bipartisan support the country has in Congress, meant that Smithâ€™s proposal for a caucus was received with enthusiasm by his fellow lawmakers.
The new Ugandan caucus will be co-chaired by Representative Edolphus Towns (Democrat of New York). The African-American lawmakerâ€™s district in Brooklyn includes many African immigrants who are particularly concerned with US-African relations.
Smith and Towns sent a letter to Museveni on November 17, telling him of the formation of the new caucus, which will focus on:
l improving relations and communications between the United States and Uganda;
l providing up-to-date information about common interest items to members of Congress and their staffs;
l working to identify good policy ideas in each otherâ€™s country and see how these might be applied elsewhere;
l recognising the common concerns of the two countries, including, but not limited to, mutual efforts to combat terrorism in Africa and around the globe;
l ensuring stability in Northern Uganda as well as in other regions of Africa;
l and fighting against the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Minister Mbabazi issued a statement on learning of the congressional action. â€œI am pleased with the news that a Congressional Caucus on Uganda has been launched. Uganda and the United States share a commitment to eradicate terrorism, especially in Northern Uganda; to combat HIV/AIDS; to circumscribe human trafficking; and to eliminate poverty wherever it may be found. This caucus will effectively assist these efforts,â€ the statement said.
The writer is a Washington File staff writer in the Office of AfricanAffairs
US Congress in talks on Uganda