It isn’t common for African countries -perhaps with the exception of South Africa- to be represented in the Netherlands by an ambassador who speaks Dutch. Mirjam Blaak is the exception: born in the Netherlands, she has switched nationality and she has been representing Uganda as an ambassador since 2003. In the Dutch book ‘Oeganda onder President Museveni’ she tells her remarkable life story.
The story starts in the early 1980’s, when Mirjam Blaak, in her mid-twenties, first visits Africa as a KLM flight attendant. After graduating in International Law, Ms. Blaak took up a job in Kenya at UNHCR, the United Nations body that takes care of refugees. ‘I started working there in 1982 at the age of 26,’ Ms. Blaak recalls. ‘There were thousands of Ugandan refugees entering Kenya at that time and that is when I first heard about a young rebel leader called Yoweri Museveni. The refugees told me that he was trying to liberate Uganda from murderous regimes.’
Mirjam Blaak describes how she became sympathetic to the Ugandan refugees, some of them linked to Mr. Museveni’s rebel organization, known as the National Resistance Army. While fighting his rebellion, Museveni’s wife Janet and their children stayed in Nairobi, the city where Blaak was based. In November 1983 Kenyan security forces raided the house of Janet and the children, while they were away. The story of how Blaak helps Janet and the children flee to Sweden is then described in the book by Ms. Blaak, while Janet Museveni’s side of the story is retrieved from her autobiography.
In the same month, Mirjam helped two young members of the NRA’s ‘external committee’ flee the country. Both men later became senior politicians, with one of them, Ruhakana Rugunda, currently serving as Prime Minister. Mirjam Blaak also informally established contacts with Western embassies on behalf of the NRA, showing her diplomatic skills. ‘At that time very few people knew what was going on in Uganda. When I was given a video tape showing images of the war in Uganda, I showed it to the Kenyan authorities and to diplomats, who for the first time saw video footage of Museveni.’
After five years of fighting, the NRA managed to capture the capital city of Kampala and Yoweri Museveni was sworn in as the Ugandan president in 1986. At that time, he stated that leaders who overstay in power are one of the reasons that certain countries in Africa lag behind. ‘I first met Museveni in 1985. He thanked me for helping his family leave Nairobi,’ Ms. Blaak said. ‘I was later asked to establish diplomatic contacts on behalf of the young government.’ Although Mirjam was working as a consultant at that time, she didn’t send an invoice for that. ‘I did that because I believed in the principles of the NRA.’
Mirjam Blaak maintained close ties to the presidential family and the ruling party, partly because of her relationship with the then minister of state of Defense. A few years after the couple separated Mirjam Blaak wanted to go back to the Netherlands. ‘When the president heard that, he asked me to become his ambassador. So, I gave up my Dutch nationality and was posted to the Ugandan embassy in Brussels as the ambassador responsible for the Netherlands in 2003,’ said Mirjam Blaak. Her position included being the contact person for the Hague-based International Criminal Court, which picked the then ongoing conflict in northern Uganda as a first case to take on.
Ambassador Blaak was appointed head of mission in 2012 and has since been responsible for Uganda’s diplomatic relations with the other Benelux countries and the European Union as well. In the book, the ambassador reveals how her embassy building in Brussels was suffering from a leaking roof, following years of insufficient funds for maintenance. Currently a drastic renovation of the embassy is ongoing.
Although the book initially focuses on the positive turnaround that was caused by the NRA-after taking power in 1986, there is also attention for the increasing discontent with the current regime staying in power this long. Ugandan Members of Parliament belonging to the ruling party have adjusted the constitution twice, scrapping the maximum of two terms a president can stay in office, as well as the age limit. Mr. Museveni, now 76 years old, was reelected in disputed elections in January 2021.
‘With this victory, Mr. Museveni has extended his rule to 2026, exactly 40 years after capturing power,’ said author Arne Doornebal. ‘He is facing increasing criticism, not only because of his long rule but also because of the violent crackdown on the opposition before and after the January election. Ambassador Blaak will need all her diplomatic skills explaining these things to the EU and the governments of the Benelux,’ said Mr. Doornebal.