Museveni vs the West: A journey down the complicated relationship 

President Museveni inspects a guard of honour during his inauguration on Wednesday. PHOTO | PPU

What you need to know:

  • It was revealed recently how Uganda’s public debt has surged to Shs65.82 trillion, forcing government officials to say they are attempting to sweet talk Uganda’s creditors, who include Western institutions such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But when this week he was swearing in for another term, President Museveni attacked the West that has largely bankrolled his government. Derrick Kiyonga & Joel Mukisa look at how this complicated relationship started and how it will pan out.

Shortly after President Museveni took what now looks to be a ritual of swearing-in at Kololo Independence Grounds – to lead Uganda for at least another five years – his military moved to flex muscle, sending a message to anonymous adversaries.

With a number of Western ambassadors and at least 10 African presidents watching, a Russian-made military helicopter theatrically popped up and stopped mid-air, giving a chance to a number of commandos to use the helicopter rope suspension technique to land while holding flags, at different intervals.

“Ugandans watch these are your own boys,” quipped Ms Esther Mbayo, the minister for Presidency, who was one of the masters of ceremonies. “You see how modern your army is.”

For years, Western countries such as the US, Israel, France and Britain have been arming and most importantly training the much-feared Special Forces Command (SFC) which is commanded by Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the President’s son, in urban combat techniques ever since Mr Museveni made a commitment to deploy Ugandan forces in Somalia to fight the al-Shabaab, a terrorist, jihadist fundamentalist group.

In her book Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror, American journalist and researcher Helen Epstein, who has done research about Uganda and the Great Lakes region, narrates how Mr Museveni exploited the West following the Uganda People’s Defence Force’s (UPDF) placement in war-torn Somalia in the early 2000s.

In September 2009, Ms Epstein says, when al-Shabaab-inspired suicide bombers posing as UN workers killed seven Amisom soldiers, including the Burundian Amisom deputy commander, Mr Museveni saw an opportunity out of this mess.   

“After that disaster, Museveni held a series of meetings with US officials in Entebbe and on the sidelines of the UN Security Council. Joining him were [former US president Barack] Obama’s ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, US ambassador to Uganda Jerry Lanier, and Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African Affairs. 

“Give me more weapons, more money, more troops and a mandate to fight al-Shabaab,” Mr Museveni reportedly told the Americans, according to Ms Epstein, or “I’ll pull my men out of Somalia.”  

The Americans were still contemplating over this ultimatum, according to Ms Epstein, when on July 11, 2010, al-Shabaab suicide bombers blew themselves up at Kyadondo Rugby Grounds and the Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kampala where crowds were watching the World Cup soccer final, killing at least 70 people.  

“The Americans and Europeans ponied up. Funding for Amisom greatly increased and its mandate changed from ‘peacekeeping’ to ‘peace enforcement’,” Ms Epstein says.

In fact, in 2014, Obama’s administration authorised  military aid for Uganda and consequently, a US congressional committee received a letter from the Us Department of Defence which indicated that Uganda was eligible to receive military backing worth $12.6m (about Shs44.5b today) for what they termed as “counterterrorism programmes”.

But when the helicopter left Kololo airstrip, Mr Museveni, who won the largely disputed elections by 58 per cent, took to the podium and from there he sent an unambiguous message to some of the countries that have been training and funding his soldiers, but have recently cast doubts on his democratic credentials and want to recast their relationship.

“It is, therefore, quite comic and laughable to hear some actors in the world giving us a lecture about democracy,” Mr Museveni – who has been in power since 1986 and in the process has won six disputed elections – said.   

The four-star General whose supporters have floated the idea of him becoming a Field Marshal – the highest rank in the military – proceed to ask: “You give me a lecture about democracy? What are your credentials?”   

After the disputed 2016 presidential elections in which Mr Museveni was declared winner, having got the better of Dr Kizza Besigye, the European Union (EU) for the first time came out to question the credibility of the elections.   

Mr Eduard Kukan, who headed the EU’s election observation mission to Uganda, at a press conference criticised the whole process, citing the Electoral Commission’s delay in dispatching voting materials to Opposition strongholds and also rubbished the tallying process, saying it was shrouded in a mystery.     

Five years later, it seems the EU and the Americans seem to have changed tactic in the way they’ve been dealing with Mr Museveni.  

The 2021 general elections were marred by violence as security agencies disrupted Opposition rallies under the guise of enforcing Covid-19 guidelines and both the EU and the Americans for the first time refused to participate in observing the elections.  

“It is with profound disappointment that I announce US Mission in Uganda’s decision to cancel our diplomatic observation of Uganda’s January 14 elections due to the decision by the Electoral Commission of Uganda to deny more than 75 per cent of the US election observer accreditations requested,” Ms Natalie Brown, the US ambassador to Uganda, said in January.  

“With only 15 accreditations approved, it is not possible for the United States to meaningfully observe the conduct of Uganda’s elections at polling sites across the country,” she added. 

For its part, the EU through Attilio Pacifici, head of the delegation to Uganda, said they wouldn’t participate in observing Uganda’s elections because the regime in Kampala hadn’t implemented the recommendations they had made after the 2016 elections. 

After the elections, both the EU and US upped their rhetoric when they called for investigations into the violence that marred the election period. The call for investigations came after security personnel turned away Ms Brown who had gone to see Mr Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, Museveni’s opponent, who had been put under house arrest in the aftermath of the disputed elections.    

“The elections were marred by the harassment of Opposition candidates, campaign staff, and supporters; suppression of the media and civil society organisation activities; and a nationwide internet shutdown before, during, and after voting day,” a statement released by the US embassy said in late January. 

“These unlawful actions and the effective house arrest of a presidential candidate continue a worrying trend on the course of Uganda’s democracy.” 

With Mr Museveni’s swearing in drawing closer, the Europeans seemed to have moved to de-escalate the standoff with Kampala. The German embassy in Kampala, rather belatedly, released online a congratulatory message from Chancellor Angela Merkel which they later hastily deleted following a barrage of abuses directed at them by annoyed Opposition supporters who accused the Germans of supporting what they called “a dictator”.   

“I would like to congratulate you on your re-election as President of the Republic of Uganda,” Merkel’s message went, adding that Mr Museveni’s new term in office was an opportunity to continue advancing the democratic and economic development of the country and strengthening the rule of law in the interests of all Ugandans.

Having kept quiet as it carefully watched events unfold in its former colony, the UK moved to congratulate Mr Museveni when its Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in a letter said he is looking ahead to work with the NRM government.     

“Thank you for inviting me to your inauguration. Unfortunately, I cannot attend, but I look forward to continuing to work with you during your new term in office and I hope we can see each other in person again soon,” he said.  “I hope that this year we will continue to work together towards our shared objectives of delivering quality education for all children at the Global Education Summit in London in July, and a strong set of climate commitments at COP26 in Glasgow in November.”

If the Europeans have tried to strike a reconciliatory tone towards the NRM government, the US has taken a different path with the Joe Biden administration insisting it’s about time to rethink the super power’s foreign policy to see that governments that violate human rights are punished.  

To show that they aren’t mere barking dogs, in mid-April, the US Department of State announced a blanket travel ban on Ugandan government officials, that they didn’t reveal but accuse of getting involved in gross human rights violations and undermining democracy during and after the January 14 general election.

“Opposition candidates were routinely harassed, arrested, and held illegally without charge. Ugandan security forces were responsible for the deaths and injuries of dozens of innocent bystanders and Opposition supporters, as well as violence against journalists that occurred before, during, and after the elections,” Mr Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, said in a statement.

It has been Museveni’s officials such as Ofwono Opondo, the executive director of the Uganda Media Centre, and Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa who have been responding, but at his swearing-in ceremony in Kololo, Museveni took it upon himself to put the record straight. 

Dishing figures of elected representative at various levels, Mr Museveni boasted of how Ugandans hadn’t tested any meaningful democracy until his NRM won the guerrilla war in the Luweero jungles.   

“Ugandans had not known democracy during the time of colonialism and during much of the post-colonial time, except for four years between 1962 and 1966. That’s how and why we designed an elaborate democratic structure involving 96,860 elective positions in the whole country. In Parliament, we have 353 directly elective constituencies, open for all Ugandans that have A-Level education and are above the age of 18 years old,” Mr Museveni bragged.

In touting his democratic credentials, Mr Museveni said his government had empowered women.

 “On account of the reasons of culture,” he said, “Out of this number, only a small number of women always make it through this ‘law of survival for the fittest.’ In the outgoing Parliament, such women were only 19 and in the incoming Parliament they are only 14. At independence in 1962, out of a Parliament of 92 MPs, only two were women - Florence Alice Lubega and Sugra Visram (an Indian lady). It’s on this account of this structural marginalisation of some sectors of our society that we added special seats for women – one per district,” Mr Museveni said. 

According to analysts, Mr Museveni has been able to stay in power for all these decades, largely because for years he has been able to restrain himself from implementing a full-blown dictatorship – something that the West was fine with as long as he ensured stability in this volatile region of Africa.    

“Although Museveni had promised his people democracy when he took over the country in 1986, he never intended to follow through. Instead, he constructed a façade of emancipation, while keeping most of the brutality and repression offstage,” Ms Epstein says.

“He allowed political parties like the Democratic Party and the remnants of Obote’s Uganda Peoples Congress to exist, but forbade them from holding rallies, fundraisers, or radio campaigns. He allowed independent newspapers to operate, but shut them down and jailed their editors when they became too critical. He often allowed the courts to hand down independent judgments, but if a case had the smallest political wrinkle, the ruling was governed by orders from above.”  

Expectations

While tensions between Mr Museveni and his Western allies are clearly at their highest, it’s not expected that they will ditch him as long as he is still serving their interests like deploying the army in Somalia and also in South Sudan. 

This is exhibited in how the US has continued to fund Mr Museveni’s regime, with the State Department indicating on its website that it gives Uganda $970 million (about Shs3.5 trillion) per annum in development and security aid, and also Western institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have recently been giving hundreds of dollars to Uganda in an effort to cushion it from the after-effects of Covid-19, though it was recently revealed that the monies were abused by government officials.

The relationship between the West and Mr Museveni has been likened to that one forged between Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and the same powers in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  

Though the US and its allies were tired of Mr Mobutu’s thieving and autocratic regime, they kept on funding him as long as he didn’t ally with their adversary, the Soviet Union, now known as Russia.   

“As the years passed and Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo] was progressively pauperised, the bystander might be forgiven for concluding that the outside world was being kept in blissful ignorance of Mobutu’s venality, how else to explain the level of aid the country continued to enjoy?” asked Michela Wrong, a British journalist and author who has covered the Great Lakes region in her book In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo.  

“Between the start of the Zairean economic crisis in 1975 and Mobutu’s departure in 1997, Zaire received a total of $9.3b in foreign aid. Between 1975 and 1984, the sums averaged $331 million a year, rising to an annual $542m from 1985 to 1994,” she writes.

“Given that the World Bank and IMF remained on working terms with Mobutu from soon after his takeover until the early 1990s, despite the repeated failure of the economic stabilisation programmes launched in Zaire, the natural assumption might be that they were unaware of the ghastly truth throughout these years. In fact, Mobutu’s foreign backers knew all too well.”

During Wednesday’s speech, Mr Museveni drew more comparisons with Mr Mobutu when asking African leaders to unite in light of what he thinks is Western intervention or neocolonialism. 

When he became Congo’s president in 1965, though he was getting aid from the West, Mobutu, who died in 1997, moved to Africanise the names in his country. In 1966, Léopoldville, Congo’s capital, was renamed Kinshasa. In 1971, he renamed his country Zaire, ditching the name Congo, as the Belgians had labelled it. 

He also dumped his Western names, Joseph-Desire, and took on Mobutu Sese Seko Ngebendu Wa Za Banga (the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.”

Though he did it differently, Mr Museveni, who recently added Tibuhaburwa to his names, perhaps having realised that the West has had enough of him, rallied African leaders to unite and also took jibes at the West by opening old wounds.    

“First of all, the situation in Libya was created by arrogant and irresponsible actions of some actors that took actions that were against the express position of the African Union. I can reveal to you now that those actors had a narrow escape,” Mr Museveni said, subtly referring to Nato’s 2011 intervention in Libya that led to the ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi as the Arab Spring swept across North Africa.  

Mr Museveni, whose son Muhoozi trained at the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, added: “When some actors started attacking Libya against the decision of the African Union, I contacted HE Jacob Zuma of South Africa for African armies, that so decided to intervene in Libya and confront and teach a lesson to those aggressors. We were let down by Muammar Gaddafi who abandoned Tripoli without fight."

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