Uganda has retained the services of a top Washington lobbying firm to help reset US relations damaged by reports of voter intimidation and violence against the opposition during the presidential election in January.
Mercury Public Affairs is to provide “strategic consulting, government relations, lobbying, and media relations consulting and management services” on behalf of President Yoweri Museveni‘s government. The firm is serving as a subcontractor to London-based Mercury International UK Ltd.
The contract with Mercury UK runs from April 22 to May 21 and renews automatically every month until terminated. The point of contact for the Ugandan government is Proscovia Nalweyiso, a senior presidential adviser and lieutenant general in the Ugandan armed forces.
Uganda’s ambassador to Washington, Mull Sebujja Katende, told Foreign Lobby Report that the lobbying aims in part to challenge the narrative from rights groups and supporters of rival candidate Bobi Wine that the government violently suppressed the opposition to ensure Museveni a sixth term in office.
“Certainly we are not in the best of shape with regard to the way we are understood here in Washington,” Katende said. “And it is in our interest to tell those authorities the truth of what’s happening in Uganda.”
The lobbying push comes as Congress and the Joe Biden administration have been reassessing the US relationship with Uganda, an important counter-terrorism ally in East Africa and major beneficiary of health and security assistance.
On April 16, the State Department announced visa restrictions on unnamed Ugandan officials for their alleged role in “undermining the democratic process in Uganda, including during the country’s Jan. 14 general elections and the campaign period that preceded it.” The statement said Ugandan security forces were responsible for killing dozens of opposition protesters and bystanders.
“The Government of Uganda must significantly improve its record and hold accountable those responsible for flawed election conduct, violence, and intimidation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing the measures. “The US Government will continue to evaluate additional actions against individuals complicit in undermining democracy and human rights in Uganda, as well as their immediate family members.”
Congress has also stepped up its criticism.
On March 4, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) wrote a letter to Blinken asking the State Department to review all non-humanitarian assistance to Uganda and consider human rights sanctions against officials responsible for human rights abuses and corruption.
Meanwhile the panel’s chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), denounced what he called “significant democratic backsliding” in Uganda and several other Africa countries during a May 3 nomination hearing for State Department officials. Last year, Menendez introduced a resolution calling on Kampala to improve the pre-election environment and create conditions for credible democratic elections.
Fueling some of the criticism is an active influence campaign by Wine’s Washington lobbyist Jeffrey Smith, whose firm Vanguard Africa has represented the Ugandan musical artist-turned-politician pro bono since 2018. Nalweyiso, Mercury’s point of contact, reportedly told Uganda’s UBC TV during the electoral campaign that if Museveni’s government had wanted to kill Wine, he’d already be dead.
Smith immediately took to Twitter to denounce Mercury’s registration when it became public on Wednesday.
“Like clockwork,” Smith tweeted. “Dictatorship rigs election, kills the opposition, becomes increasingly violent. Then, the backlash from foreign capitals, NGOs and media. Instead of reform, they spend money on a lobby firm.”
Mercury did not respond to a request for comment.
The firm previously represented the Ugandan government in 2014-2015. While the contract stipulates lobbying to promote trade and investment, disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) show the firm also lobbied the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on “security relations, human rights and congressional delegations.
In addition, Scribe Strategies and Advisors has lobbied for the Ugandan government since 2015. Firm founder Joseph Szlavik and consultant Alexander Beckles are registered as foreign agents on the account.
Katende, the ambassador, said much of the criticism aimed at the country was due to coronavirus-related restrictions during the election that had been “misconstrued.” He said the elections were “free and fair” and Wine and his supporters want to sow doubt about them because he lost.
“The problem we are dealing with is there are so many interest groups that are trying to misguide [the US government],” he said. “They want to nullify the elections because they want to provide alternate leadership. That is not how things should work.”