Soundbytes in Uganda: How White House Messaging Plays Abroad

By: Rebecca Hanks

Often, with a change in governance comes a change in communication stratagems and policies, and the United States’ recent political shift from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump is no exception. But how will these changes influence how the United States is perceived, and subsequently treated, abroad?

We can begin to answer this question by exploring current political and social contexts in Uganda. President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni first assumed office on January 29th, 1986 and, although this will be his fifth term in office as of Uganda’s most recent election on February 20th of last year, he still looks to the future. Standing in his way is not only the Ugandan constitution — which places age limits on elected officials — but also, perhaps, the Ugandan people. Although President Museveni is a relatively popular leader, vast numbers took to the streets in protest after the Ugandan parliament announced potential legislation that would remove the current age limit of 75 years for elected officials. A recent Afrobarometer survey shows that some 75% of Ugandans believe these constraints should hold. In this sense, these protests reflect not only a broader desire by the Ugandan people for electoral and political reforms but a deeper frustration and even anger toward the Ugandan President specifically that emanates from a group referred to as “generation Museveni”. These are young citizens, ranging in age from their mid-teens to mid-thirties, who have not yet seen a single transfer of political power.

It is no surprise, then, that many young Ugandans would offer support for any international body or figure willing to hold Museveni accountable — including, in this case, the White House and President Donald Trump. During his campaign this February, Trump was erroneously quoted as saying that he “will not condone any dictatorial tendencies exhibited by dictators around the world, especially the two old men from Zimbabwe and Uganda” and that, upon becoming president, he would put the two leaders into prison. And although President Trump did not actually make this claim, he made no effort to deny it post-election. This lack of clarification as well as Trump’s campaign promises to fight back against a corrupt establishment and a stagnated economy combined to create an ultimately unreciprocated sense of harmony within large parts of Eastern Africa towards the future U.S. President. Even though some Ugandans looked to Trump’s election as the beginnings of international resistance against Museveni, it would be an understatement to say that the President has fallen short of expectations.

We are left, then, with tensions between the Ugandan and United States governments (or at the very least, between their leaders), uncertainty around Uganda’s political future, and the continued hope by some East Africans that Trump will be the international support they need to put pressure on long-standing regimes. Although the United States’s influence should always be estimated with caution, this particular situation could have interesting implications for Trump’s international stature. Domestic media often chooses to mock the President’s constant, almost stream-of-consciousness messaging strategy — reflected here in the absence of any follow up on an utterly false quote — but fails to recognize the position of power from which these utterances come. When Trump speaks, citizens and politicians around the world will listen.

The ways in which confusion and misunderstanding fester in this fast-paced, touch-and-go messaging approach is supported not only by developments in Eastern Africa but also other recent events both foreign and domestic. Last January, for instance, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was forced to publicly counter rumors created by these spur of the moment tactics and assure citizens of both Mexico and the United States that he would not, in fact, pay for a border wall between the two countries despite what President Trump may have suggested. Another example would be the nation-wide mayhem caused in July when President Trump tweeted that the United States government would “not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US military.” Shocked into motion by the suddenness of such a drastic policy change, citizens and organizations of all political opinion exploded in the following weeks into emotional and passionate mobilization for or against the anticipated legislation. It was only after a few days, when military officials had still not substantiated the President’s claim, that things began to settle down.

The President’s messaging approach resonates strongly within domestic institutions as well. In his recent article “Rex Tillerson and the Unraveling of the State Department,” Jason Zengerle includes a troubling statement by the Secretary of State which more than hints at the internal miscommunication these strategies cultivate: “I take what the president tweets out as his form of communicating, and I build it into my strategies and my tactics. How can I use that? How do I want to use that?… So I think about, O.K., that’s a new condition… It certainly kind of comes out that even I would say, ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’”

What we see in these examples is that when the President speaks, his words carry power even if they lack direct ties to political or social change. As a result, the United States has in recent months come across as uncertain, untrustworthy, reactionary, and manipulative on an international level. Furthermore, despite the implications and consequences both at home and abroad of such a reputation, the President’s approach shows no signs of changing. The future is murky and uncertain, and in a way the present — evidenced by the multinational confusion described in this article — equally so. It does seem likely that some level of communication reform may help to glean a better perspective on both; even so, given the present chaos within the logistics of the White House alone, one can’t help but be concerned about what we’ll see.

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