Sunday May 11 2014

Waiting to hear more Opposition thinking on Uganda in the region

By Bernard Tabaire

The political Opposition wants electoral reforms enacted to create a free and fair atmosphere within which to have credible elections. Once in power, Opposition leaders have variously promised to fight corruption, to cut government waste, to modernise agriculture, to create more jobs, plus a lot more. That much is clear.

What is less clear to me is the Opposition’s thinking on the foreign front, particularly Uganda’s place in the Eastern African/Great Lakes region.

Ahead of 2011, presidential contenders Kizza Besigye and Olara Otunnu backed the UPDF presence in Somalia, a presence that started in March 2007. But Dr Besigye for one has been scathing of the UPDF’s latest adventure – its December 2013 intervention in the South Sudan civil war. He called the Ugandan army a “mercenary” force in an opinion piece in the Daily Monitor in February.

What Dr Besigye does not do in the piece, and has not done elsewhere to my knowledge, is square his support for the UPDF intervention in Somalia with his opposition to the UPDF intervention in South Sudan.

It is unclear from the opinion piece, but I sense that he would have no problem if the UPDF intervened in South Sudan under the auspices of an international body such as IGAD or the AU; the UPDF is in Somalia under the AU umbrella.

There does not seem to exist a cogently articulated regional strategy by the Opposition, or by individual leaders such as Dr Besigye for that matter.

For President Museveni, we know his approach: push relentlessly for East African political federation, and intervene militarily wherever intervention opportunity opens up without any plan for getting Ugandans to benefit once the peace has come. Apparently the overarching goal is service to pan-Africanism. End of story.

If I were to cut him some slack, however, I would say that in more strictly military terms Uganda has gained or is gaining strategic depth – keeping potential enemies such as Khartoum/Kony, ADF and the Al-Shabaab as far way as possible from Kampala. But hard money matters. Yet, as already noted, Ugandans get to struggle all by themselves to make money from – until recently – peaceful South Sudan. No government plan or support whatsoever, unless paying lip service counts.

Uganda batted for South Sudan before that country’s independence and got nothing in serious economic terms; it is now batting for Juba again and the economic story is likely to repeat itself after the fact.

So, what is the Opposition’s big plan for Uganda in the region? When should Uganda intervene in a country in the region? Can it ever do so unilaterally? Or must it only do so under some umbrella organisation as Dr Besigye appears to suggest?

How about the East African Community? President Museveni wants South Sudan (and possibly The Sudan) and Somalia in. Is this a good thing?

To the obvious irritation of many elites, especially in Dar, Mr Museveni wants a country called East African Federation yesterday. All the FDC manifesto of 2011-2016 says is that the party is for political federation. What, however, is preferable – deeper and deeper economic integration, period; or deeper economic integration followed very gradually with political federation; or a quick hop to political federation Museveni-style?

A related point is how we should position ourselves to “eat” from the community. Uganda should be the distribution hub, Uganda should be the food basket, Uganda should be the academic centre of excellence, Uganda should be the eco-tourism mecca, on and on. Do we want to be some of these things or all of these things and more? What does it mean being any or all of these things?

What is the minimum we expect from the community beyond which we refuse to deal? What is our exit strategy should the history of 1977 return?

Whether the EAC endures or not, one significant fact remains: Uganda is landlocked, one of a minority of countries in the world. Whatever happens, we must assure ourselves of access to the sea. The best way, of course, is maintaining good relations with Kenya and Tanzania forever and ever. How do we do that? Indeed, how do we ensure that we are on permanent fraternal terms with all our immediate neighbours: Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, DR Congo and Rwanda?

The other key issue is the Nile waters. To what extent can we work in concert with other (black) Nile Basin countries against the Arabs of Sudan and Egypt in repudiating colonial treaties restricting use of the Nile waters for our development in favour of Cairo, even Khartoum? To what extent can we act unilaterally?

Mr Museveni has done serious things regionally, but what next? A neat public lecture or treatise that ties all these different strands together into a coherent enforceable strategy by a senior Opposition figure would be a beautiful beginning.

Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala