UPDF buys choppers amidst arms race talk

The Mi-28 “Havoc” combat helicopter. The UPDF is reported to have added the aircraft to its stockpile. It is believed to cost about $18m (Shs67b). PHOTO / COURTESY. 

What you need to know:

  • With a spectre of violence returning to haunt the volatile Great Lakes, armies in the region are ramping up their firepower in a growing arms race. Uganda appears to be punching above its weight as it is nearly at par with Kenya on military spending. 

As belligerents across the expanse of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continue to beat war drums, fears that another large-scale conflict could break out in the green heart of Africa appears to be precipitating an arms race.

Defence Web, a South African-based website which monitors military purchases on the continent, claims that the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) appears to be a new operator of the Mil Mi-28 attack helicopter.

This follows its spotting for the first time in UPDF markings. The online publication revealed that “three Mi-28s were seen at Entebbe Air Base on June 15 during a visit by President Museveni, who was there to thank members of the Air Force for their assistance in defeating Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels during Operation Shujaa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

While the UPDF recently had troops in the eastern DRC on a joint operation with their Congolese counterparts to flash out ADF rebels, attacks in the recent past by a Tutsi-led militia—M23—has placed the region on the precipice after insurgents captured Bunagana. The town is a border intersection for Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC, which serves as a major trade route.

With a spectre of violence returning to haunt the volatile Great Lakes, armies in the region are ramping up their firepower in a growing arms race. Uganda appears to be punching above its weight as it is nearly at par with Kenya on military spending. This comes after Nairobi cut its defence budget for two years in a row, while Kampala crossed the billion-dollar mark last year.

Uganda’s military expenditure reached $1.066 billion last year, an 8.3 percent increase from $984.7m in 2020, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri)—a Sweden-based independent global security think tank.

The Mi-28 “Havoc” combat helicopter the UPDF is reported to have added to its stockpile was developed by Mil Moscow Helicopter plant. It is believed to cost about $18m (Shs67b).

It is armed with a mixture of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, unguided rockets and podded guns. It is also equipped with anti-tank missiles, and can fly at a speed of 300km per hour.

Speaking to Saturday Monitor, the army spokesperson, Brig Felix Kulayigye, said on phone on Thursday that he is “not aware of those [helicopter] purchases.”

Moscow ties

If Defence Web’s reporting is to be believed, the latest purchase shows that Moscow remains the major hub for Uganda’s arms deals.

In January, Mr Museveni commissioned a helicopter maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility. The facility at Nakosongola Air Base refurbishes UPDF mi-24 helicopters. It is a joint venture by the UPDF’s commercial arm, the National Enterprise Corporation (NEC), and Pro-heli International, a Russian company.

There are scores of Ugandan pilots, aircraft engineers and navigators training in Russia. Saturday Monitor understands that others recently completed their courses.

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

A report by Sipri earlier this year indicated that Russia was the largest supplier of weapons for African countries for the period ranging from 2017-2021.

Russia’s weapons sales to Africa, according to the report, accounted for 44 percent of imports of major arms to the continent, followed by the US (17 percent), China (10 percent) and France (6.1 percent).

The biggest buyers of armaments from Russia—and most long-standing importers—in Africa are Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco and Uganda, the Sipri report further revealed.

It is not clear yet how the wide-ranging sanctions imposed on Russia could affect the continent’s—and specifically Uganda’s—ability to procure and maintain military hardware.

Congo strife

Earlier this week, the East African Community (EAC) leaders ordered M23 to immediately withdraw from captured positions in the DRC and a cessation of hostilities.

The directive was reached during the third conclave, which was attended by President Museveni, and his counterparts Félix Tshisekedi (DRC), Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), Évariste Ndayishimiye (Burundi), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), and Salva Kiir (South Sudan) in Nairobi, Kenya. But M23 remains holed up in Bunagana. Uganda, whose troops are deployed in eastern DRC, will be keen to see how its mission to rout out the ADF—a rebel group that has committed atrocities in Uganda and the DRC—is not thrown into a quandary.

With a growing tide of flak from Kinshasa, the Ugandan army had initially announced that the UPDF deployment in the DRC would end on May 31.

Mr Moses Khisa, a political science lecturer and security expert on the Great Lakes region, argues: “Every time one country’s military intervenes in another country, it’s bound to be seen as an invading force, however well intentioned. It’s one thing for the political class in the DRC to have an agreement with Uganda; it’s another for how the Congolese perceive the UPDF’s presence in their country, especially in light of the past.”

On June 17, Brig Kulayigye said: “The [UPDF military] activities have been halted and it will resume when the authorities decide and this follows what was discussed during the East African summit.”

The decision came barely after protests broke out in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. Congolese nationals expressed their displeasure with Uganda and Rwanda, who are accused of backing M23 rebels. But a day after this announcement, the army said the operations hadn’t been halted, underpinning the uncertainty likely to face the mission.

Mixed scorecard

Operation Shujaa’s trajectory has whipsawed from expectations of a quick victory to an intractable battle inside the unforgiving terrain and forested depths of the DRC that serve as sanctuaries for the ADF. This is captured in a report co-authored by two Congolese research institutes. The report titled Uganda’s Operation Shujaa in the DRC: Fighting the ADF or Securing Economic Interests? is blunt in its expression of disapproval that the operation is the success that it has been made out to be.

“It is clear the military operations are not the success they are portrayed to be in the Ugandan press,” the report by the Congo Research Group (CRG) at New York University and Ebuteli, reads in part.

It reads further: “While the operation did succeed in creating isolated pockets of security, it has not managed to structurally weaken the ADF.”

The report also reveals the complex interplay, fusing politics, violence, and the political economy as Uganda’s firm Dott Services was awarded a $335m (Shs1.2 trillion) to construct paved roads in eastern DRC.

The researchers argue that for the road construction and economic integration to succeed, military protection is needed.

“Even the timeline of the operations and road construction have been connected: the UPDF officially initiated attacks against the ADF on November 30, 2021; road construction started just a few days later, on December 3, 2021, with an official ceremony involving the two respective ministers, and during which the Congolese government officially ‘handed over crucial sites’ over to the company.

“Dott Services is an illustration of the importance of political connections in Uganda’s business sector in general,” reads the report in part.

The report cites how in December 2020, Dott services signed a mining contract with Congolese state-owned mining company Sakima (Société Aurifère du Kivu et du Maniema), acquiring important mining sites in Maniema province. The province is rich in tin, tantalum, tungsten, as well as gold.

Khisa postulates: “No surprises! Historically, since at least the second Congo War—1998-2003—it has been known that Uganda’s presence in the DRC benefits individual business interests and not national interests in the strict sense of the word. Ideally, construction of roads in eastern Congo can serve to enhance Ugandan business activities, but when the actual individual actors are unearthed, there are more skeptical questions to contend with.”

Uncertain future

In February, the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Uganda to pay $325m (Shs1.2 trillion) in compensation to the DRC after its army was accused of human rights violation and plunder during its deployment in the eastern part of the country.

The reparations—a middle-of-the-road settlement—were far short of the $11 billion (Shs41 trillion) in reparations demanded by Kinshasa over a conflict that is believed to have killed hundreds of people.

Barely after the judgment, many actors, including Opposition doyen Dr Kizza Besigye, said the $325m debt should not be transferred to the taxpayer but individuals who looted the DRC’s resources.

With conflict threatening to cause a humanitarian crisis and disrupt commerce in a region whose economies are in a tailspin, the leaders are pushing for the deployment of a regional force.

“In doing so, the heads of State instructed that the regional force should, in cooperation with the military and administrative forces of the DRC, seek to stabilise and secure the peace in the DRC. The regional force should also cooperate in implementation of the disarmament and demobilisation process,” the communiqué agreed upon during the Nairobi meeting reads in part.

Brig Kulayigye says the UPDF are members of the Eastern African standby force and “we have a battalion. Details are yet to be given.”

How will this force overcome suspicions within the region and work as a cohesive force to restore peace in this restive part of the DRC?

“In my view, it is the best solution, at least for the meantime. The UN can’t. Rwanda on its own can’t resolve the problem. The DRC is woefully incapable,” Khisa opines.

Uganda purchases junk choppers from Belarus

In 1997, Uganda purchased two combat helicopters from Belarus’s state-owned arms company. When Ugandan forces tried to field the helicopters, they found them “in a sorry state,” according to a report by a judicial commission of inquiry chaired by Julia Ssebutinde, who is currently a judge at the Hague-based International Court of Justice, (ICJ).

The commission, appointed in 2000, found that the government lost $6.8m (about Shs25b) to middlemen in the deal.

Previous purchases

Uganda raids coffers to purchase modern fighter jets

In 2011, the government raided its reserves to purchase six Sukhoi SU-MK30 fighter jets at $740 million (Shs2.8 trillion) from Russia.

The purchase of the SU-30s comes five years after Uganda discovered it possessed oil reserves, which lie in the Albertine Rift Basin along its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In 2011, the Ugandan shilling hit volatility after then Central Bank Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile told the Financial Times that President Museveni had ignored technical advice against using Uganda’s paltry foreign exchange reserves to buy fighter jets.

Three combat helicopters crash in Mt Kenya

In August 2012, Uganda lost a fleet of three Mi-24 combat helicopters after they crashed.

The combat helicopters flew well between Soroti Flying School and Nanyuki, but could not negotiate the Mt Kenya 17,000-foot altitude between Nanyuki and Garissa. They crashed on August 12, 2012, leaving seven dead and 21 survivors.