BOSTON — The news this month that the Ugandan government has hired an international public relations firm to whitewash its image has upset many Ugandans.
President Yoweri Museveni's government is paying over $1 million to the Ireland-based firm, Glenevin Operational Risk and Security Consultancy, to improve its image, which has been tarnished by charges of police brutality and corruption.
The charges of police violence have been ongoing since May 2011, when police used force to against a peaceful anti-government demonstrations. Activists for Change (A4C), a local pressure group, called on the public to walk to work to protest rising fuel and food costs.
The protests were meant to encourage the Museveni government to intervene in the declining economy. But the police force used violence against the demonstrators, firing live ammunition, tear gas and cannons of water, resulting in the deaths and injuries. Several arrests have been made but the courts have dismissed the allegations against the politicians.
The demonstrations are believed to have been hijacked by opposition leaders, including Kizza Besigye, who are calling for a change of government. The security apparatus is therefore looking at these protests as a tactic by the opposition to overthrow the government.
It is important to note that Uganda's police has a reputation for being militarized. The Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura is a lieutenant general in the Ugandan army. Critics of the government’s tough response to the walk to work protests have blamed the police brutality on the general’s military background and increased presence of military personnel in the police force.
In response to these criticisms, Kayihura said the militarization of the police force would strengthen its capacity to deal with riots, terrorism and insurgency.
The international public relations firm therefore has been called in to streamline information emanating from government spokespersons and has reportedly advised the government to allow the opposition freely assemble. This advice has not been taken, as reports coming in from Kampala say key opposition leaders at an A4C rally were injured when police forcefully dispersed the gathering on Feb. 21. The police force has previously been accused of shooting at journalists covering the protests.
The Museveni government does not need a public relations firm to improve its image.
Instead it needs to adequately address the issues that people are angry about. In addition to addressing the issues leading to the growing popular unrest, the government needs to reform the police force. Officers guilty of using unnecessary force should be arraigned before court. This way the public will see the government’s commitment to change.
The Uganda government has previously hired public relations firms to improve its image overseas and has produced promotions such as the "Gifted by Nature" advertisement shown on CNN to attract tourists to the country.
The point the Museveni government seems to miss when it hires international PR firms is that it is ignoring its people. Failure to provide adequate education and health care and to foster economic reforms and fight corruption are the triggers that will keep protesters on the streets. The growing disenfranchisement of Uganda's youths is a walking time bomb that needs to be defused before it blows.
No international PR firms can stop the Ugandan people's demands for change.
The Ugandan government has joined the trend of other African countries by hiring PR firms to manage their images. Rwanda, according to the Globe and Mail, hired RacePoint Group, a Boston based PR firm for a monthly fee of $50,000 plus expenses, to improve the country’s image.
RacePoint Group is credited with improving Rwanda's image, running a sophisticated media campaign and drowning the various opposition voices on the web. The PF group reportedly filled the web with positive stories about Rwanda in an effort to phase out the genocide stories that have been highly searched on the internet.
The Globe and Mail highlights other African governments that have used PR firms to boost their images in the West. Equatorial Guinea paid Quorvis Communication $60,000 a month between 2010-2011 and in 2008 Angola signed a $675,000 annual contract with Samuel International Associates.
Before his ouster in 2011, Tunisia’s Ben Ali hired Washington Media Group for $425,000 per year, according to the report. Ethiopia paid three US firms $2.5 million between 2007 and 2008, reported the story.
Lastly Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade hired Mckenna Long &Aldridge $150,000 and a monthly retainer of $50,000 to prepare a paper on the third term question that would be shared with officials in Washington. Senegal has been hit by riots since a court cleared the octogenarian president to run for re-election thus dismissing the constitutional ban.
The best way to strengthen Africa's democracies is by improving health and education, not hiring foreign PR firms.
Jackee Batanda is the 2011-2012 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies.