I spent the Fall 2003 and winter 2004 at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED,) in Washington DC. NED is a bipartisan, private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. One of its programs is the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program, open to democracy activists, scholars, and journalists. I learnt of the Fellowship during my time as Executive Director of RESPOND Uganda and wrote a lengthy essay on my activism and the research I wanted to do. When NED awarded me the scholarship in 2002, I could not join because my job with RESPOND (U) had been terminated and with it my H1B Visa status. They were generous and held the award until I had employment authorization from the USCIS after being granted asylum the following year.
Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows spend five months in residence at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies to conduct research, network, and reflect on a fellowship project that deepens their understanding of democracy and enhances their ability to promote democratic change. My research was on the role of US Foreign Policy in democratization in Africa. I was curious about US think tanks and the State Department giving prominence to the violence in the 2002 elections in Zimbabwe but remaining nearly silent on Uganda's 2001 election which was recorded as the most violent in the country's history. I walked the hallowed halls of the Senate and Congress on Capitol Hill searching for answers to a question whose answer was clearly plastered all over their walls: "Interests, Stupid!" Museveni was not Mugabe, he had not nationalized foreign owned property if anything he had returned departed Asians properties to their rightful owners. He had signed up on the anti-terrorism Bill, supported the US war in Iraq and adopted President Bush' conservative approach to fighting HIV/AIDS - less emphasis on condoms more emphasis on faithfulness.
It was at NED that I was first introduced to Internet Groups and blogging and have been an addict since then. I was carrying out my democracy activism across a continent and an ocean and I needed to remain hooked-up with Kampala and other Reform Agenda activists now spread across Europe and Africa, many of them in exile; and the Internet tools provided the perfect means. NED also facilitated my networking with activists from around the world and I became a member of the Africa Democracy Forum, which was a part of the wider World Movement for Democracy. NED sponsored my travel to Turkey and to South Africa to learn what other civil society groups and activists were doing in their own countries to create free societies. I travelled on a travel document for refugees, which allowed me to go to all countries except Uganda! I started putting the struggle for political freedom in Uganda in perspective as I met activists that were facing even bigger challenges in their own countries.
It was during these interactions that I developed a healthy appetite for nonviolent struggle for freedom that would later feed into my contribution to the 'Walk to Work' campaign in Uganda. I discovered books on non-violent conflict and disseminated videos to activists in Uganda and South Africa to arouse their interest in this form of struggle. The European color revolutions (Orange, Rose, Tulip...) were a source of inspiration. I learnt to write petitions and to transmit them electronically and from then on no public institution from the White House to the Commonwealth Secretariat would be safe from my constant barrage of petitions and letters on Ugandan democracy. More importantly the interactions with activists, and the literature on non-violence helped me to start understanding my troubles in a less personal manner. It was not about me, it was not even just about Uganda. Oppression is as universal as freedom itself and I was just an individual who could only add a single voice to a world wide problem. The realization lifted a huge weight off my tired shoulders.
In Washington DC, the Endowment assisted me to meet officials from government and think tanks that could shed light on the dilemma of US foreign policy in Africa. I met with members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Congress, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, US State Department, United States Institute for Peace, Wilson Center, Center for Strategic International Studies and many others I cannot now recall. I interacted with diplomats who had served in East Africa like Michael Southwick, eminent scholars like Nelson Kasfir and Joel Barkan who were recognized as authorities on Ugandan politics. I made a presentation on my research before celebrated personalities and wherever I went the message was always the same: The work to be done was in Uganda, not abroad.
In November 2003, I went with other Fellows to the US Chamber of Commerce for the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy and saw President Bush in person. His remarks dwelt on the Middle East and Islamism not surprisingly since he was waging a war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only Zimbabwe was singled out as an outpost of oppression in Africa. His remarks which are posted on the NED website were concluded thus:
'We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfillment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom -- the freedom we prize -- is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind. (Applause.) Working for the spread of freedom can be hard. Yet, America has accomplished hard tasks before. Our nation is strong; we're strong of heart. And we're not alone. Freedom is finding allies in every country; freedom finds allies in every culture. And as we meet the terror and violence of the world, we can be certain the author of freedom is not indifferent to the fate of freedom. With all the tests and all the challenges of our age, this is, above all, the age of liberty. Each of you at this Endowment is fully engaged in the great cause of liberty. And I thank you. May God bless your work. And may God continue to bless America. (Applause.)'
At 50 I know that my time at NED helped me understand that US policy abroad is driven by national interest rather than foreign needs regardless of whether the President is Clinton, Bush or Obama.