Uganda: Museveni Still the West’s Man?

Heavily armed members of Uganda’s elite anti-terrorism police stand guard along the neatly manicured perimeter of the US Embassy in Kampala. Occasionally they shout commands and point their guns.

For security reasons you are not allowed to stop or park a car within a certain radius of the US Embassy on plot 1577 Ggaba Road, Kampala. Offenders tend to be first time visa applicants.

Security in Uganda, and especially in the capital city, Kampala, is ubiquitous. Armed men and women can be found every 100 meters on the airport road when the country is hosting visiting dignitaries. Ggaba road, where the embassy sits, is a busy road with privileged traffic. Ear-splitting sirens hustle ordinary commuters out of the way as armed convoys shuttle big men to and from the nearby Speke Resort Hotel, a posh conference centre sitting on the edge of Lake Victoria.

The conference centre regularly hosts meetings of African heads of state and other ‘dignitaries’, such as the African Union summit in 2010, the Commonwealth meeting in 2007, and in 2013, the peace negotiations of the DRC’s warring factions. Uganda too has found herself at the center of political and military negotiations, with her president of 27 years, Yoweri Museveni, frequently playing the key role of intermediary.

It is a role that has made him indispensible to those seeking a reliable anchor in a region that is no stranger to violent conflict. In the last few years Kenya buckled under ethnic violence and was followed this year by South Sudan – traditional trouble spots like Congo have now been overtaken by the total breakdown of the Central African Republic.

Recently, Mr. Museveni made himself the centre of a global debate on the rights of gay people by signing into law new legislation imposing harsh sentences for homosexuality. However, at the nerve centre of this public theatre is not the gay debate, but Mr. Museveni’s increasingly public show of independence from traditional western partners who have, until now, enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with him. This has been driven mainly by peace and security concerns in the Great Lakes region.

That the West is losing influence here is not simply a fact, but within Uganda’s political transition it is also a necessity. Museveni epitomizes a generic formulation within Western foreign policy making in Africa dating back to the cold war, where strong (pro-western) leaders are supported as anchorage for a wide range of interests centred on security and stability.

When he runs for re-election in 2016, Museveni will have been a sitting president for three decades, a period accounting for more than half the political life of most independent African states, and one of the longest reigns in recent history. The Ugandan establishment is essentially a military one. Mr. Museveni’s armed convoys, disruptive as they are overwhelming- a show of power, lead the way for Uganda’s political gliterrati. The armed escorts are also a status symbol — the new bling for the privileged classes whose upper echelons are senior military loyalists.

There are hardly any exit routes from a system with Mr. Museveni at its head. In February, ruling party MPs led by a younger fringe known within their ranks as “the new face of the resistance” forced the rest to acknowledge Mr. Museveni as the sole candidate of the NRM. His Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, the only credible alternative, is being picketed within the party, setting the stage for what appears to be a showdown between the two men. Publicly Mr. Mbabazi says he will follow party rules for choosing a successor, but insiders are concerned that despite his influence with voting delegates any challenge mounted by him can succeed only if Uganda’s security establishment endorses it. And here Mr. Museveni has a distinct advantage. The more likely scenario is that the “old man with the hat” intends to anoint a successor, not be forced to concede to one.

Outside the NRM, the party faces virtually no significant political opposition while Uganda’s laws make it increasingly difficult for ordinary citizens to question the government. A new post-Arab spring ‘Public Order’ management law (it initially mooted police permission for any gatherings of 2 or more people) and other laws limiting freedom of association and expression have virtually outlawed criticism of the government. It’s this edifice of incumbency that poses a practical challenge for both foreign governments and domestic political forces seeking to define a future beyond Mr. Museveni.

The Ugandan military establishment has governed through the leadership of five US presidents, what will be a total of almost eight presidential terms by 2016, when the US and Uganda will both hold their next elections. This establishment has not just survived, but thrived in power, and the regime has employed a strategy of giving to the West what the West wants – a reliable partner in regional security. Defense spending has soared – in 2011 the country spent over a billion dollars (the highest in East Africa). The money was drawn from Consolidated Fund of Uganda – described by one commentator as the ATM machine of the president. No prior parliamentary approval was sought, nor did it meet with broad disapproval. Donors including the US were silent. Many would be persuaded that change here may be more disruptive than business as usual, especially considering the chaos of post-revolution North Africa or Syria.

Uganda anchors US policy in central Africa, which is dominated by security concerns and, after 9/11, by terrorism. Kampala has supplied her soldiers for ‘peacekeeping’ operations in Somalia where the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) did the heavy lifting against Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Just north in Sudan, Uganda has also backed US policy, being long-time allies of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. Since 1986, Ugandan troops have seen action in Rwanda, where Paul Kagame, a former senior officer in the Ugandan army, now leads, in the DRC, Burundi, the Central African Republic and Sudan. Kampala is the political equivalent of a brokerage firm for rebels, rebellions and peace missions. It has more troops abroad than any other country aside from the US itself. The head of that firm is Mr. Museveni. The West is his biggest client with a resource hungry China waiting anxiously outside. In fact, China’s investments backed by sovereign wealth funds have already replaced aid as the main source of government revenue – including rents for the political elite.

At plot 1577, the real emphasis is the DoD’s relationship with the Ugandan military. The US military considers the UPDF one of the most professional African armies. But the fusion between the military and the government means that diplomats speak with forked tongues about generic US interests of promoting democracy and prosperity. Uganda’s mainstream opposition, itself comprised of Mr. Museveni’s former military colleagues, accuses Washington of not using its leverage to loosen Mr. Museveni’s grip on power.

In the wake of the anti-gay kerfuffle Obama warned Mr. Museveni that relations with America would suffer, but unless and until the security relationship is recalibrated Washington’s options won’t improve.

That is because Uganda’s position also comes with considerable reverse leverage. And it shows. For example, despite being one of the first governments to support the International Criminal Court, Uganda led mobilization of African governments against the court, throwing its weight behind Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, an Amherst graduate accused of war crimes (it earlier signed an exception for American servicemen if accused of war crimes, of course). The case against Kenyatta is now indefinitely postponed.

President Barack Obama, while arguing that what Africa needs are strong institutions and not strong men, nonetheless deployed American combat troops in cooperation with the Ugandan military establishment, to hunt down Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the most famous ICC suspect. That hunt is led by US-trained Special Forces commanded by Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Mr. Museveni’s son, himself a graduate of Fort Leavenworth. As seen from the response of Ugandans to the perceived bullying of the country in the wake of the anti-gay law, many are supportive of any measure of dignity and ‘independence’ that Museveni can achieve on the regional and global stage. At home they look to the predictability of his years in government.

Angelo Izama is a Ugandan journalist and former OSI Fellow. He is working on a book manuscript on the politics of Uganda’s newly discovered oil resources.