Museveni’s West-East delicate balancing act

President  Museveni shares a moment with Russian President  Vladmir Putin during a Russia – Uganda Business meeting on December 10,  2012 in Russia. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Uganda, a key ally of Washington in the restive Great Lakes region, was one of the few countries to support the invasion of Iraq in March of 2002. 

Uganda’s “abstain” vote during the UN General Assembly’s emergency session on Wednesday elicited mixed reactions from the public, with some puzzled about the government’s neutrality amidst a full blown conflict between Russia and its former Soviet territory, Ukraine.

The emergency session was called by the UN Security Council (UNSC)—the world body’s most powerful organ—to sample the appetite for an immediate cessation of violence and withdrawal of the Russian military from Ukraine.

Four days earlier, the resolution sponsored by the US and Albania to reprimand Russia failed to catch fire at the Security Council meeting. 

There are 15 members of the UNSC, five of whom are permanent (US, UK, Russia, France, and China) and the rest non-permanent (UAE, Albania, Gabon, Ghana, Brazil, India, Kenya, Norway, Ireland, and Mexico).
Eleven of the 15 members supported the Security Council resolution vetoed by Russia while UAE, China and India abstained.

Immediately, the US vowed to bounce the matter to the General Assembly where all 193 UN member countries have voice, and resolutions require support of a two-thirds majority. 

One hundred forty-one (141) countries voted in favour of the resolution, 35—Uganda inclusive—abstained, and five—Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea—voted against.

Shortly after the vote, Uganda’s ambassador to the United Nations Adonia Ayebare explained in a tweet that abstaining from voting at the UN Assembly was for strategic reasons.

He wrote: “Uganda abstained on the UN General Assembly vote on the Ukraine crisis. As incoming chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), neutrality is key.”

The NAM conference will be hosted in November of 2023, with Russia and China expected to send representatives in an observer status.

Once bitten, twice shy?
The State Minister for International Relations, Mr Henry Oryem Okello , in a separate interview with NTV Uganda described the issue as a “very serious matter” whose genesis needed to be understood.
“In taking a decision to vote you should understand the issue thoroughly and not take any chances,” Mr Oryem averred. “When Iraq was attacked, when there was so much destruction and so much loss of life, the weapons of mass destruction were not found.”

Uganda, a key ally of Washington in the restive Great Lakes region, was one of the few countries to support the invasion of Iraq in March of 2002. 

The Central Intelligence Agency claimed that then Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be untrue.

Later on October 12, 2003, President Museveni admitted that he “blindly” backed the American invasion of Iraq.

“I supported the Americans in Iraq, but I didn’t even know what they were fighting for,” Mr Museveni—who five years earlier had been touted by Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton as among the handful of “new breed” of African leaders—said while inaugurating the  Senior Staff and Command College in Kimaka, Jinja.

He added: “What I knew is that Saddam [Hussein] was a friend of [then Sudan president, Omar] Bashir, and Bashir was my enemy.”

There was a time, between 1995 to around 2012, when President Museveni and now former Sudanese strongman Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir could not see eye to eye. At the height of the tensions in 1995, Uganda drove military tanks into the Sudanese embassy in Kampala and diplomatic ties were cut off.

It was a public secret that Uganda was supporting Bashir’s adversaries—the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA ) in their struggle for autonomy. This climaxed into the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and ultimately South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Before that, Sudan was also extending financial and logistical support to Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which wreaked havoc in northern Uganda and parts of DR Congo.

Geopolitical struggle
At the onset of the sabre-rattling between the West and the Kremlin—after the latter’s annexation of Crimea in February 2014—Uganda’c communication clearing house (Uganda Media Centre) issued a missive. In it, Uganda joined a few countries in accusing the West of “arrogance.” The first African country to do this, the move would later prove costly.

The Ugandan government had in 2013 started the search process for a lead investor to undertake construction of the 60,000 barrels per day (bpd) refinery. Close to 75 companies expressed interest by picking the Request for Qualification document. Only eight made it to the last hurdle, with four pulling out for various reasons.

The four that reached the last round in 2014 included: RT Global Resources from Russia, Japan’s Maruben Corporation, China’s Petroleum Pipeline Bureau (CPPB), and the South Korean SK Group.

In February 2015, Uganda awarded the refinery tender to RT Global Resources, a consortium led by Russia’s Rostec—a defence and technology corporation whose businesses include manufacturers of weapons such as the AK-47/Kalashnikov rifles.

Rostec’s chief executive, Sergei Chemezov, was a former officer in the Russian spy agency, KGB. He is also a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US imposed sanctions on Mr Chemezov—freezing assets and barring US companies from dealing with him.

A week after Uganda made the grand announcement, then US ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi told journalists in Kampala that it was “not a done deal.”

He added: “They may be because of the sanctions imposed upon the parent company. There may be problems in terms of financing, inability to operate, but we will see how all that plays out.”

Ambassador DeLisi also said that while “it is not my job to tell the government of Uganda with whom they can engage…it is my job to share with the government the US policy, its concerns, if there are any, and to define the nature of our partnership.”

Then Russian ambassador to Uganda, Sergey Shishkin, shot back saying Uganda has a right to “cooperate with all partners who are ready to come here and invest.”

One year later, during the last leg of negotiations over the refinery, RT Global Resources packed its bags and left, scuttling Uganda’s plans to start commercial oil production in 2020.

Keeping enemies closer

The Energy ministry went back to the drawing board to search for a new investor. The due diligence team—in one confidential brief to the President—recommended the Intra-continental Asset Holdings consortium, which includes Yaatra Ventures LLC and General Electric (GE) Africa from America as well as Italy’s Saipem SpA, which had been pipped by the Chinese consortium on the basis of striking a balance of foreign interests in the oil sector.

President Museveni had in the recent past continually scolded Western countries for what he called arrogance, and said China and Russia were available as alternatives because they do not meddle in the internal politics of other countries.

And seemingly well conversant with the fickle alliances, the President has always been on a charm offensive with both the West and East. His relationship between US and UK dates back to the 1981-86 rebel war he waged against the Obote II government.

The former New Vision editor-in-chief, William Pike, in his book titled: Combatants: A memoir of the Bush War and Press in Uganda, reveals that Museveni occasionally sought support from the West. The recently declassified CIA cables also illuminate this.

But over the years the West started getting under his skin with questions about his governance record and long stay in power. This scrutiny intensified when plans to remove term limits from the Constitution in 2005 became apparent.

Former US ambassador to Uganda (1991-1994) Johnnie Carson, who also later served as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, once wrote about Mr Museveni’s thirst for power in the Boston Globe on May 1, 2005. This was shortly after President Clinton acclaimed Mr Museveni as a “new breed” leader.

Mr Carson noted that the corrupted removal of presidential term limits—the safeguard for peaceful transfer of power in a country that has only known violent regime change—“cast Museveni as just another African president unwilling to give up power” much like former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe.

Two years later in 2007, President Museveni volunteered to venture into the restive Somalia, where American commandos suffered a humiliating defeat during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. This expedition changed the West’s view of Mr Museveni. Today, Uganda has the biggest peacekeeping contingent of UPDF soldiers there.

Balancing act
Uganda is among the 40 African countries with which Moscow maintains diplomatic presence. Three days after getting independence from Britain in 1962, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) established diplomatic relations with Uganda. Two years later, the USSR signed two bilateral pacts on trade and economic/technical cooperation with Uganda that became the basis for cooperation with former President Milton Obote’s government. They also contributed to his toppling after the British supported a coup that Idi Amin successfully led.

Relations with the USSR and later Russia remained insignificant until when—in 2011—the executive raided the Treasury and forked out $740 million (about Shs2.7 trillion) for the procurement of six Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighter jets from Russia.

President Museveni Museveni—who is known to have a Marxist background—first met Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2004 on the fringes of the G8 Summit held at Sea Island. 

In 2008, Russia’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrey Denisov, visited Kampala. 
Mr Denisov signed a Memorandum of Consultations between the Foreign Affairs  ministry of his country and Uganda, reinvigorating relations between the two countries.

In the summer of 2009, President Museveni made a private visit to Moscow where he held talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Yevgeny Primakov on prospects of Uganda.

He returned to Moscow in December of 2012 on a state visit and held bilateral talks with President Putin on among others prospects energy, engineering, geologic exploration, construction, finances and military supplies.

It is here, sources familiar with the matter say, that the decision to have a Russian firm construct Uganda’s refinery was first mooted. Earlier, President Museveni had been scouting for investors in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The two leaders also agreed to the establishment of an Inter-governmental Commission on Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation between the countries.  The establishment was actualised in May 2015 when junior Foreign Affairs minister, Oryem, and Mr Volin signed the agreement for the commission that will eliminate obstacles of doing business and open up Uganda to Russian companies.

The first ministerial meeting of the commission was held in October of 2014, with the signing of more bilateral frameworks between the two countries. Mr Volin described the agreements as “important for Russia.”

In 2019, President Museveni was among the dozen African leaders invited for the maiden Russia-Africa Summit held in the Black Sea coastal city of Sochi. 

At the summit, President Putin called upon both sides to strive to grow trade “to at least” $40b (Shs144trillion) in the next few years from $20 billion (Shs72 billion) as at 2018.

President Putin said Moscow’s relationship with Africa is “based on long-standing traditions of friendship and solidarity” having assisted several countries on the continent during independence struggles of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

This past week President Museveni held back-to-back meetings with US and Russian envoys in what observers have described as a delicate balancing act. It remains to be seen if he can keep either superpower at different ends of the aisle happy.

Bilateral deals with Russian Federation
Beyond military cooperation, Russia has had prospective interest in supporting Uganda’s development of nuclear energy. 

The Parliament of Uganda is currently investigating how government functionaries handpicked a Russian firm for the contract to instal spy chips on cars and motorcycles. In fact, education scholarships and technology cooperation bolts Russia and Uganda hip-to-hip.

Elsewhere, there are dozens of Ugandan pilots, aircraft maintainable engineers and navigators training in Russia. Most of them due to complete their courses. 

Russian experts also have been permanent fixtures at Entebbe military airbase, training pilots, aviation engineers, flying jets and brokering military procurement deals.