What will be Western policy towards Uganda after Ukraine?

President Museveni (centre) meets Russian ambassador Vladlen Semivolos (left) at State House this week. Right is Foreign Affairs minister Jeje Odongo. PHOTO | PPU

What you need to know:

  • It’s quite possible that in the West’s eyes a vote of abstention at the UN by Uganda is a subtle statement of opposition to the West and quiet support of Russia. This might influence the way the West now views Uganda.

For the last 25 or so years, there has been a general belief that the West knows the corruption, election rigging and incompetence of the NRM government.

However, turmoil has raged in the Great Lakes region of central Africa since the mid-1990s and, starting in 2001 the US-led campaign against militant Islamic groups in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.

President Museveni’s influence and deployment of peacekeeping troops are seen as assets by the West, which needs him as a crucial partner and sub-contractor in these regional security threats.

For this reason, went the thinking, the West was willing to turn a blind eye to the NRM government’s domestic contradictions and incompetence because it needed Museveni in regional matters.

The diplomatic documents published by the WikiLeaks website a decade ago clearly showed that the West knows fully well the excesses of the NRM government, but pragmatism overrides principle.

In just one week in February 2022, the world has suddenly changed following the Russian military operations in neighbouring Ukraine.

For the last 30 years, with the threat of a nuclear Cold War now gone, the West found itself without much urgency and turned increasingly to arts and culture.

Environmental conservation, sexual identity, alternative lifestyles, multiculturalism, sub-cultures, a redress of real or perceived historical injustices, advocacy for the vulnerable and gender equality became priority goals.

Personal and trivial issues

Western European governments were often more worried by the safety of homosexuals in Uganda than in the safety and wellbeing of the majority of the population.

The news in the West in recent years was dominated by increasingly personal and trivial issues -- royal family squabbles and divorces; first openly gay cabinet ministers or football stars; first Black this, first Black that; first woman prime minister or first indigenous Member of Parliament.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine changed all that in just a week.

Russia has snapped the West out of this woke and cancel culture and forced it to focus on the most important and most consequential matters of state -- peace and security.

Topics that were previously taboo were openly discussed and their discussion did not make news.

Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe on February 27 called upon the United States to abandon its strategy of ambiguity over Taiwan and make it clear that it would come to the island’s defence were China to invade it.

Sending weapons to Ukraine

On February 27, the European Union’s foreign ministers voted to send weapons to Ukraine to help it stand up to the Russian invasion. This was the first time in its 65-year history that the EU had sent lethal weapons to a country in conflict.

Also on February 27, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would increase defence spending by $112.7 billion and that Germany would increase defence spending to at least two percent of GDP.

From Singapore to India, Latvia to Italy, all talk is now about increased military spending.

Even the softie, egalitarian Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden are suddenly awake to the international peace and security environment.

The West has gone native against Russia, slapping sanctions on everything Russian, sometimes bordering on the absurd and contradicting traditional Western tolerance and even threatening their own economies in the process.

The question for Uganda, then, is: What effect will all of this have on the West’s position on President Museveni?

At the United Nations General Assembly sitting last week to discuss the Russia-Ukraine war, Uganda was one of 35 countries that abstained in the voting.

In September 2001, in the days after the militant attacks on the United States, Uganda along with Eritrea and Ethiopia were the only three African countries to immediately announce they were supporting America in its “war on terror”.

So this vote of abstention at the UN shows that Uganda’s position is now more ambivalent than it was 20 years ago. President Museveni’s government, by abstaining, signalled that it still regards the West as an important security and economic ally, but at the same time there are enough Russian interests and involvement in Uganda for Uganda to not wish to antagonise Russia either.

Uganda, like many other African countries, defaulted to the 1960s Non-Aligned Movement position of neutrality in East-West geopolitical rivalry.

Given the near-hysterical response by the West to Russia’s Ukraine incursion, it’s quite possible that in the West’s eyes a vote of abstention at the UN is a subtle statement of opposition to the West and quiet support of Russia.

This might influence the way the West now views Uganda. It could be a little more willing to look with a critical eye at everything from rampant corruption to human rights violations and wasted aid projects.

More importantly, the Russian campaign in Ukraine has shocked the West and jolted it out of its 70-year life of ease and complacency.

It has forced them into a moral frame of mind. It’s no longer enough to calculate interests over moral conviction. Wrong is wrong and should be condemned and punished, has been the West’s response to Russia.

It doesn’t matter how much petroleum and natural gas Russia exports to Europe, it doesn’t matter that Russia is heavily nuclear-armed, it doesn’t matter that Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with the power of a veto. Wrong is wrong.

Will the West take a similar moral-first approach in its dealings with the Uganda government and other African governments?

More important

After all, Russia is infinitely more important a country in military, diplomatic and economic terms than Uganda and yet the West has been willing to punish and isolate Russia over what the West views as a grave moral transgression.

Will European governments now insist that a rigged election in Uganda is a rigged election and the Electoral Commission should call fresh elections?

Certainly, the West took a tough position last month over the arrest and torture of the writer and human rights activist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija.

The longer the Ukraine crisis goes on and the closer the Russian armed forces get to taking over Ukraine, the more frightened the West will be and the more it will think in moral right and wrong terms.