Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror by Helen C. Epstein
Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror by Helen C. Epstein. Columbia Global Reports, 262 pp., $14.99 (paper)
When I was twelve years old, a new man-about-town arrived in Monrovia, the city of my birth. His name was Captain Stevens, he had a mysterious job in the United States military, and he had just been detailed to the American embassy in Mamba Point. He showed up at parties hosted by my aunt and uncle, sipped cognac, and charmed the Liberian ladies, who all whispered about the handsome African-American military officer.
What I would find out two years later was that Captain Stevens was spending much of his time in Liberia meeting with disaffected men in the Liberian military who were plotting to overthrow the government. A century and a half of rule by the descendants of freed American slaves who had established themselves as the ruling elite while the rest of the country made do with scraps meant that Liberia was ripe for a coup, one that would be supported, at least in the beginning, by most of the population.
President William R. Tolbert, the latest heir to the dynasty begun by the freed slaves who founded the country, had been cozying up to the Soviet Union, even approving the opening, in Monrovia, of a Soviet embassy. In 1980, during the height of the cold war, when African countries were seen by American officials as being allies of either the US or Russia, it was anathema indeed to the American government for Liberia to even consider such a thing.
And so it was that on the night of April 12, 1980, when twenty-eight enlisted soldiers in the Armed Forces of Liberia stormed the executive mansion, killed the presidential guards, and disemboweled Tolbert in his pajamas, there was not much outrage coming out of the American embassy. When Tolbert’s minister of foreign affairs, Cecil Dennis, arrived at the embassy a few hours later to ask for sanctuary, he was turned away. He later surrendered to Liberia’s new military government, which executed him—along with twelve other former government officials—on the beach by firing squad ten days later.
And Liberia? The country plunged into eight years of mismanagement, brutality, and tit-for-tat ethnic killings under its new American-backed president, the former master sergeant Samuel K. Doe. The US kept Doe’s government afloat with a flood of American dollars, and when Doe ran out of those, he just ordered his printing presses to issue Liberian dollars. The Liberian currency, once pegged to the dollar, quickly became worthless.
Doe soon turned on many of the men who helped him storm the executive mansion and executed them one by one, accusing them of trying to kill him. When one of his former friends snuck into the country from exile and tried to seize the government, the president had him hunted down and executed; his body was paraded through the streets of Monrovia before being chopped into pieces and put on public display. Then Doe went on a manhunt, finding and killing as many members of his rival’s ethnic group as he could.
Through it all, the United States continued to back Doe. The Reagan administration invited him to the White House. President Reagan mistakenly called him “Moe” instead of “Doe,” causing hilarity among journalists and Liberian expats. But the White House, the State Department, and Congress continued disbursing the checks that kept the Doe regime afloat—right up until 1990, when Doe himself was executed by the warlord Prince Johnson at the start of a civil war that would last more than thirteen years and kill more than 200,000 people in Liberia and neighboring countries.
Epstein’s Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror makes no mention of Liberia—it is preoccupied by events three thousand miles away, in the Uganda of Yoweri Museveni, the strongman who has ruled there for more than thirty years. But Epstein’s absorbing book is a damning indictment of the American hypocrisy that has been on display across Africa since the Europeans packed up and left as colonialism collapsed after World War II.
A public health consultant who has spent many years talking to and writing about many of the dissidents who have opposed strongman rule in East Africa, Epstein has compiled a catalog of almost every arrest, kidnapping, and execution engineered by Museveni and his goons—all while America looked the other way. She examines the billions of dollars that have poured into the country ostensibly to fight AIDS and poverty but that have ended up financing Museveni and his military, professed allies to a series of American administrations, from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush Jr. to Obama.
The East Africa presented by Epstein is a lawless place ruled by corrupt and criminal masterminds, going back to the British. “In Acholiland, Acting Commissioner J. R. P. Postlethwaite, nicknamed ‘chicken thief’ by the Acholi, publicly strung up a rebellious chief and lowered him headfirst into a pit latrine until he died,” Epstein recounts.
In a British-backed operation against the Bavuma people, “such was the enormity of the slaughter,” wrote historian Michael Twaddle, “that, not only were sections of Lake Victoria ‘all blood,’ there were so many dead bodies bobbing up and down in the water that their heads resembled a multitude of upturned cooking pots.”
And that was before Museveni even came to power. Early in his career, he served in rebellions that toppled first Idi Amin and then Milton Obote. His National Resistance Army committed wartime atrocities of its own in the fight against Obote, but American government officials paid attention instead to Obote’s slaughters, and there were many. By the time the war was over, America and the West had endorsed an account of Museveni as a peace-loving national hero of the people, Epstein writes. “A series of glowing tributes to Museveni” appeared in Western newspapers. “Polite Guerrillas End Fourteen years of Torture and Killing” read one headline; “The Pearl of Africa Shines Again” read another. According to his admirers, Museveni was Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and Field Marshal Montgomery all rolled into one.
Museveni swept into office hailed by the West as one of a new generation of African leaders who could be trusted with IMF loans that would secure economic relief for his country. Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, which rose up in opposition to Museveni’s government, were the bad guys—the Obama administration would spend almost $800 million on a futile effort to capture the notorious Kony, deploying Special Operations forces, intelligence, and logistical assistance to Uganda and to the African Union soldiers fighting the group. They were able to diminish his army, which now consists of around one hundred people, down from a former fighting force of three thousand.
But they never found Kony, and in May of this year a group of Ugandan and American military officials flew from Entebbe to the remote town of Obo, in the southeastern part of the Central African Republic, to participate in a ceremony organized by Uganda to mark the end of the mission to capture or kill him—in essence celebrating something that was never accomplished.
For a native African, it is both disheartening and infuriating to see one’s entire continent portrayed by the US government as a dumping ground for produce American farmers can’t sell disguised as food aid (the US Department of Agriculture); a classroom for junior diplomats-in-training to offer up their platitudes about democracy (the State Department); or the next front in the battle against radical Islam (the Pentagon). But really, as Africans, how can we expect better given what we’ve done to ourselves? In the years after the Europeans finally left, we revived all that was bad about the West, from racism to cronyism to privilege, while ostentatiously rejecting the worthier aspects of Western civilization, including support for democratic institutions and a more liberal approach to things like sexual preference and women’s rights.
In many African countries it became accepted as pro-African to reject Western notions of equality for homosexuals. When, in 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced his anti-homosexuality act, which would punish gays with the death penalty, there was hardly a word of criticism from elsewhere on the continent—other
countries were too busy rushing to pass their own anti-sodomy laws.
And it became accepted as proAfrican to reject Western notions of free democratic processes. I can’t quite keep track of the number of times Museveni stood for elections and then pronounced himself the winner, or coerced judges into declaring him so, in spite of obvious improprieties. The United States and Museveni’s other Western backers looked the other way again and again when democracy activists in Uganda were beaten or disappeared completely, usually under mysterious circumstances.
But it’s not as if other Africans stood up against the sham elections. Across the continent, Museveni’s fellow presidents were either too busy rigging their own elections or seeing to their own political survival, at whatever cost, to question election results and the court rulings supporting them that consistently seemed to ignore what actually happened at the polls.
It became perfectly acceptable, in fact, for leaders to stay in office for decades, treating their citizenry as if it were eager to see a despot embodying their national aspirations. Paul Biya, in Cameroon, has been president since 1982. Idriss Déby has ruled Chad since 1990. Robert Mugabe has headed Zimbabwe since 1987.
While Epstein should be lauded for the time she spends in her book taking the Americans—and the British—to task for all that both countries have done to perpetuate the mess in Uganda, I wish she had done more to hold Africans to account for their own misdeeds. These are our countries, our presidents; at the end of the day it’s up to us to figure out how to fix this. The days of blaming all of the continent’s many woes on the European colonizers should be at an end; we’ve done plenty ourselves.
Epstein is a molecular biologist by training, but Another Fine Mess, while dense, is leavened somewhat by the presence of the Ugandan journalist Lawrence Kiwanuka Nsereko as her Ishmael. Epstein calls him by his first name, sharing with the reader their familiarity, and his improbable life reveals the human consequences of the disasters she describes.
At the time Another Fine Mess was written, Lawrence had been chased out of Uganda and was living in Poughkeepsie, New York. But before he boarded a flight to JFK, he was, in Epstein’s words,
a child soldier, a reporter, an editor, a democracy activist, and a political candidate. He’d seen his newspaper offices ransacked, his party headquarters torched, friends and colleagues killed. He’d been arrested and tortured and narrowly escaped assassination himself.
All that occurred before he was forty. Through Lawrence, we join the Uganda Freedom Movement as part of the opposition against Obote, the president who preceded Museveni. We travel with Lawrence to northern Uganda, near the Sudanese border, where, at Kalongo Hospital, we meet a teenage girl whose ears and lower lip have been cut off. This particular mutilation, Lawrence knows, is preferred by Kony’s LRA. But we are puzzled, along with Lawrence, by two things the girl tells us: the men who attacked her were better dressed than Kony’s ragtag rebels, and they didn’t speak Acholi, the language of the LRA. Most likely, the men who attacked her belonged to Museveni. Lawrence rashly mentions what the girl has told him later that night to a group of journalists, one of whom would soon be appointed Museveni’s press secretary. “When Lawrence returned to the hospital the next day,” writes Epstein, “the girl was gone. The nurses said she’d been taken away for further treatment, but they didn’t know where. She remains on his conscience to this day.”
We actually could use a bit more of Lawrence in Another Fine Mess. The passages about him are alive in a way the rest of the book is not. The recitations of Museveni’s evil and American complicity can occasionally become monotonous, reducing the effect of some of their horrors. The rape of local women by Congolese rebels so that the women would produce future child soldiers to fight Tutsis—and Rwandabacked Tutsi rebels mutilating the same women by ramming them with guns to prevent them from ever conceiving again—are described almost offhandedly.
I had to reread Epstein’s paragraph on that subject three times. But perhaps that is her intention—to convey the almost routine prevalence of the horrors these women experienced on a daily basis. The quote she uses to punctuate this story—“As one survivor told journalist Paul Ndiho, ‘I’ve been violated so many times I feel part of me is not my body’”—does not come close to capturing the magnitude of what these women endured. But who could do so? In the end, perhaps Epstein makes the right choice, to detail the never-ending violations inflicted upon innocents without delving too deeply.
When the United States backed Samuel Doe in his coup against the ruling Liberian elite in 1980, it was also implicitly backing the nine years of reprisal killings and rapes that followed, which then led to another fourteen years of civil war.
I remember my mom, who was raped by Doe’s soldiers as she fought to protect me, a thirteen-year-old, and my sisters, sixteen and eight, from a similar fate. I remember her recounting what had happened a few days later, after my family fled from our isolated house to town, where my mom believed the safety of numbers might protect us. At my cousins’ house, where we took refuge, we ran into Captain Stevens again.
It’s been more than thirty years but I can still remember that exchange. My mom, my grandmother, and my uncle, all on the front porch, talking to Captain Stevens. My sisters and cousins and I eavesdropped on them from the living room window.
“The soldiers told me that if I didn’t go downstairs with them, they would rape my daughters,” my mom told Captain Stevens. “There were three of them. At first, one soldier tried to stop the others, but he gave up soon. The last thing he said to me before he raped me was, ‘You think the Americans are going to come and help you? Well, they back us.’”
When she said that part, she looked straight at Captain Stevens. He looked back at her for a moment, and then he looked away.
And yet we ran away to America. It was to the American embassy in Monrovia that my mom went every day to try to get us visas. It took almost a month but eventually she got tourist visas for us. It was a Pan Am plane that we got on, eventually ending up in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Lawrence’s journey to Poughkeepsie is a little more mysterious than mine, in Epstein’s telling. After years in and out of jail, and with Museveni spies tracking his every move, he suddenly turned up on the doorstep of a Catholic priest in Nairobi, Kenya. Back in Uganda, his father was brutally beaten. Lawrence met with US embassy officials who seemed only to care about who had leaked to him a letter his newspaper published that suggested that the US was involved in a plan to topple Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo and a nemesis of Museveni.
Lawrence didn’t reveal his source and somehow, mysteriously, got a ticket to New York, where two men—we’re not told who—drove him to LaGuardia and sent him to Boston, and then Newburgh, New York, where he was met by someone who drove him to Poughkeepsie. He eventually ended up in his own place there, and teaches school. America to the rescue.
President Yoweri Museveni, Entebbe, Uganda, November 2007
Sanniquellie, Liberia, 2006; photograph by Tim Hetherington