Last week the US announced extensive sanctions on Uganda’s former Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura, for his alleged role in gross violations of human rights and corruption.
The move caused quite some excitement in Ugandan and regional media and political circles. Some Ugandans saw it as an ominous sign for President Museveni’s rule. Museveni himself responded, saying the USA is not heaven, and one doesn’t need it to get by in this world.
Kayihura was merely a brutal enforcer for Museveni, so we don’t need to dwell on him. We shall only say that in the frenzy that has followed, many forgot a curious fact – most of the USA’s recent sanctions as far as Uganda is concerned were mostly against Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, his lieutenants, and his sons. Essentially, America has thrown Kayihura in the same basket with Kony & Co. That’s truly remarkable.
Our elders’ wisdom might help us here. As those who are familiar with their story will tell you, when the elders are around a pot drinking and one of them breaks wind, they quickly look around and blame the nearest child or dog.
The US sanctions therefore have to be seen as a shot across Museveni’s bow. In the end, they have little to do with Kayihura. Ever since Donald Trump came to power at the start of 2017, President Museveni has worked quite hard to humour him, likely to maintain his role as a key power broker in the wider East African region.
He wrote a long missive, denouncing Western liberals for their loathing of Trump. After Trump called several African nations “shit hole”, in the face of continental and global outrage, Museveni the great pan-Africanist came to his defence, saying he loved Trump for being frank with Africans.
“America has got one of the best presidents ever,” Museveni said at the opening of the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) in Kampala last year. “I love Trump because he tells Africans frankly. The Africans need to solve their problems, the Africans are weak”, he said.
Museveni is right that Africans need to solve their problems, but from his response to Kayihura’s woes, he clearly doesn’t like it when Trump speaks the truth about the violence of his government, and the weaknesses of his rule.
This is unrequited love; the love that is not reciprocated by the beloved. So why isn’t Trump’s America loving Museveni back?
The answer is far away from democracy and human rights and corruption, because Trump doesn’t give a hoot about Ugandans’ - and Africans’ - human rights.
Among other things, Museveni’s old geopolitical currency has depreciated. Part of it has nothing to do with his failures, but just how regional geopolitics has changed.
In recent years, Kampala’s clout has come from its defining role, among others, in 2007 in Somalia as the “first mover” contingent in the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). The irony here is that part of Museveni’s problems come from the fact that the UPDF succeeded in Somali.
It – and later the Burundi army - weakened al-Shabaab sufficiently, that it lowered the risk of Somali entry for everyone, from 2012 onward. Turkey, the Gulf States, other African countries, and the US soon all moved in on the ground, as the international rivalries of the global powers in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden arena intensified to the soundtrack of the Yemen war, and Sunni-Shia states feuds in the Middle East.
The Trump government has not only dramatically increased airstrikes against al-Shabaab, but for the first time since its disastrous 1993 Somalia intervention, has boots on the ground there.
Museveni likes to tell opponents that the NRM hunted the animal, and therefore it’s entitled to feast on the carcass; now the big boys want him to leave the Somalia carcass he hunted to them.
The second plank of this was Kampala’s sway over South Sudan. That has been weakened not just by the Salva Kiir regime being hock to Nairobi because of its dependence on Kenyan capital, but the rise of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in Ethiopia.
Abiy’s key role in the pre- and post-Omar al-Bashir settlement, aided the Kiir government by removing a key backer of rival Riek Machar, which in turn was propelled by the fact that Abiy’s diplomatic make up with Bashir ally, Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, knocked a leg out of the Sudan strongman’s political chair. Uganda now has hardly a hand to play in that region.
But, Yoweri will be Yoweri. Diplomatic sources say that the UPDF now has a “significant” presence in Equatorial Guinea, since the failed coup in December 2018 by “mercenaries” against President Teodoro Obiang’s government. In a theatre where other powers would like to influence outcomes, Museveni is likely seen as having overreached. Someone seems to have decided that it’s time to impale Museveni on his own imperial sword.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com.