Watching the World Cup finale in New York City on Sunday, conversation inevitably turned to South Africa's performance as host. While the media had forecast terror attacks, crime waves and infrastructure disasters, football fans at the bar all agreed that South Africa deserved praise for doing Africa proud on the world stage. Sadly, the much-predicted terror finally occurred — on the last day of the monthlong tournament —a few thousand miles north of Johannesburg in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
Any visitor to the East African country knows that Ugandans are football-mad. The English Premier League is debated endlessly. And major international tournaments can bring the country to a standstill as Ugandans of all types gather in restaurants, bars and makeshift viewing rooms to watch the ''beautiful game.''
This World Cup was no different. Thousands of Ugandans and foreign nationals had flocked to venues around the capital Sunday night to witness the finale between the Netherlands and Spain. During the match, three bombs went off in two locations, killing at least 74 people and injuring many more. Among the dead or wounded were Ethiopians, Eritreans, Congolese, Indians, Americans, but mostly Ugandans — many too young to remember the turmoil that roiled the country during the 1980s.
Despite the persistent violence in neighboring countries and in Uganda's north, Kampala has long been an oasis in a troubled region. Aid organizations and foreign corporations love to set up shop amid Kampala's scenic hills with views of Lake Victoria in the distance. The city has a cosmopolitan vibe and a languid pace, with diverse communities from countries close and far mingling peacefully. Indeed, both locations targeted by the attacks, the Ethiopian Village restaurant and the Kyadondo Rugby Club, are popular gathering places among locals and expatriates.
There are many parallels between the Kampala bombings and the 1998 attacks on two other East African capitals, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Synchronized bombings of the U.S. embassies in the two countries killed more than 200 and injured several thousand. When an al-Qaida affiliate quickly took responsibility, the attacks brought Osama bin Laden and his terror network to the world's attention for the first time. Though the attacks were aimed at American policy in the Middle East, only 12 of the dead were U.S. nationals, with the vast majority of victims Africans. Despite the devastation in East Africa, most Americans felt little concern — a fact that precipitated an escalation of al-Qaida attacks on American targets, leading to the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001.
As with the 1998 bombings, suspicion in the Kampala attack immediately fell on another al-Qaida affiliate, al-Shabab, an Islamist group based in Somalia. By Monday morning, the organization claimed responsibility. But why attack Kampala, almost 1,000 miles away from Somalia? The short answer is that Uganda is paying the price for promoting American interests in Africa. Somalia has been on the U.S. radar since 1992, when the first President Bush sent troops into the war-torn country for ostensibly humanitarian purposes. In late 1993, Bill Clinton, only in office a few months, faced a dramatic crisis as 18 U.S. troops were killed while fighting with a Somalia militia leader. Since then, the country has lacked a central government.
In 2006 an Islamist group known as the Union of Islamic Courts managed to gain control of much of Somalia. Although it lacked any relationship to al-Qaida, the second President Bush feared the country was turning into a haven for Islamic terrorism. The United States backed an Ethiopian invasion of the country. A transitional government so weak that it recruits child soldiers into its army was set up with direct aid from the United States, a policy continued by the Obama administration. A small African Union force made up mainly of troops from Uganda and Burundi, both close American allies, was also sent in to provide some necessary muscle. But even with this support, the transitional government has failed to extend its control beyond a tiny sliver of this vast country.
Until now, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has benefited from his position as one of America's most trusted African autocrats, a rogue's gallery that also includes the former liberation leaders turned lifelong authoritarians in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Eritrea. America's patronage has ensured protection for Museveni and prosperity for Uganda, even as he shut down pro-democracy activists, supported the death penalty for homosexuals, pursued a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the north, and plundered the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).
But with the rubble still being cleared, Ugandans are waking up to the costs of their alliance with America. With elections looming next year, Museveni is likely to come under scrutiny for his military adventurism in Somalia and beyond. As a Ugandan friend who asked to remain anonymous told me, ''People don't even know what our under-prepared military is even doing in Somalia.''
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has done little to clarify its incoherent Somalia policy, relying instead on covert actions that only seed further resentment. Indeed, despite hopes that Obama's election would turn a page in U.S.-Africa relations, the administration's misguided approach has not deviated from the militarized one promoted by his predecessor. Sadly, until al-Shabab inevitably sets its sights on American soil, it is likely that ordinary Africans will continue to bear the costs.
Zachariah Mampilly is an assistant professor of political science and Africana studies at Vassar College.