Uganda hires US firm to polish its international image

Ugandan protestors outside the PR firm's offices in Washington DC

Threatened by a fast-fading good image internationally, the Ugandan government has hired the services of a UK-based PR firm to brush up its image and avert the possibility of being slapped with more sanctions.

Uganda Radion Network (URN), a Kampala-based news agency has accessed documents that show that government hired Mercury International UK Limited which later passed over the job to its Washington DC–based parent company; Mercury Public Affairs LLC.

This is not the first time that Museveni is contracting the firm to market a good image of Uganda internationally. In August 2014, the firm was contracted at a total of $600,000 (approximately Shs 1.56 billion) a year.

Earlier in 2005, the government spent £350,000 (about Shs 1.7 billion) on Hill & Knowlton, one of the world’s biggest PR firms.

President Museveni has been recipient of bad publicity both at home and internationally over alleged human rights violations before, during and after the January 14, 2021, general elections.

Mercury Public Affairs submitted its agreement with its UK subsidiary to the United States (US) Justice department on April 26, 2021, almost a week after the US Secretary of State; Antony Blinken announced visa restrictions on Ugandan government officials.

In the US, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires lobbyists of foreign governments “who are engaged in political activities or other activities specified under the statute to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”

It’s the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section (CES) unit of the National Security Division (NSD) in the Department of Justice that oversee lobbyists of foreign governments.

“Registrant is providing strategic consulting, government relations, lobbying, and media relations consulting and management services,” the contract says. “The term of this Agreement shall begin on April 22, 2021, and will continue in effect until May 21, 2021. The term of this agreement shall automatically continue every month thereafter unless terminated in accordance herewith,” it further reads.

The UK firm will be paying the US firm on monthly basis for services rendered, the agreement says. It doesn’t reveal the amount that Uganda will be paying.

The government through (Mercury International Relations UK Ltd) is listed as the foreign principal. The listed address of the foreign principal is 25497 Kampala Road, Kampala Uganda which address belongs to the Ugandan State House.

This was a haste move, coming a week after US Secretary of State, Antony John Blinken slapped visa restrictions against unnamed Uganda officials over human rights violations orchestrated during and after the 2021 elections.

“The government of Uganda must significantly improve its record and hold accountable those responsible for the flawed election conduct, violence and intimidation,” Blinken said. He further warned; “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.”

Though the government has been bullish in public, hastily hiring an international PR firm is indicative that privately, it’s upping its tactics of restoring its reputation that has been in free-fall during election season.
After the visa restrictions were announced, Foreign Affairs state minister Okello Oryem said “we will not lose sleep, be shaken or demoralized.”

And when asked about hiring the PR firm for lobbying, Oryem argued that it’s not strange.

“My brother, all countries across the world hire private companies and institutions to do work for them including what you’re saying (lobbying). There is nothing unusual,” he said.

Uganda’s government faced a barrage of criticisms from international human rights organizations and donor governments over the electoral process and abductions of opposition supporters. But also Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, who was the leading opposition presidential candidate got favourable coverage in the foreign press.

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