Sam Kutesa became known to many Ugandans after he was ousted as a junior investment minister by lawmakers over charges he abused his office. Now foreign minister, he has been implicated in at least two more scandals since 1999, including allegations that he accepted bribes from foreign companies seeking oil contracts in Uganda.
Kutesa, who denies all allegations, is Africa’s unanimous choice to become president of the U.N. General Assembly. Critics, however, say Uganda’s controversial figure does not deserve the largely ceremonial but prestigious post.
"He’s a hugely divisive figure because of his checkered history in Uganda’s politics," said Nicholas Opiyo, a prominent Ugandan lawyer who runs a watchdog group called Chapter Four. "He’s not a paragon of virtues and he’s not the best this country can put forward."
At least two senators from New York have criticized Kutesa’s appointment, and more than 9,000 people have signed an online petition urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. member states to block the Ugandan from taking up the post. The petition cites his implication in corruption scandals at home and his alleged role in the enactment of Uganda’s new anti-gay law.
Kutesa and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni are "making a mockery" of U.N. values and it would be a "travesty" if Kutesa were allowed to lead the next session of the U.N. General Assembly, the petition says.
Although Kutesa, 65, is not known for making provocative anti-gay statements, rights activists say he supported the aggressive law that allows jail terms of up to life for those convicted of engaging in gay sex.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has said it would be "disturbing to see the foreign minister of a country that passed an unjust, harsh and discriminatory law" preside over the U.N. General Assembly.
Okello Oryem, Uganda’s deputy foreign minister, said Kutesa’s opponents ignore his "success stories" within Africa’s violence-prone Great Lakes region, including what he said was Uganda’s role in pacifying Somalia. Ugandan soldiers lead African Union troops helping to keep al-Qaida-linked militants at bay.
Kutesa is expected to be elected to the U.N. position on June 11, replacing John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda. The post rotates annually by region.
Kutesa is a wealthy businessman widely seen by critics to have benefited from his close ties with Museveni, an increasingly authoritarian leader who has held power for nearly three decades. Kutesa’s daughter is married to Museveni’s son.
Kutesa has always denied the allegations against him, and told a Ugandan daily he is unfazed by the controversy surrounding his ascent to the U.N. post. His supporters point out that he has never been convicted, insisting he is qualified on the authority of his long career as a lawyer and a diplomat.
Independent lawmaker Gerald Karuhanga in 2011 publicly accused Kutesa of taking bribes from foreign companies jostling for Uganda oil contracts, charges he denied.
Karuhanga said Kutesa is "a terrible choice" for Uganda because those familiar with his record will "question his credibility."