In Uganda, the West’s moment of leopard disembarkation is nigh

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

If you are shot in the face with a rubber bullet during a protest in Kampala, it is likely the projectile was manufactured in South Africa, but paid for by ‘Western’ taxpayers.

That is a harsh summary. Many Western taxpayers have never heard of Uganda. Even fewer know what their “foreign assistance” is spent on. And assistance, say by the Europeans to the justice, law and order sector, was meant to improve the rule of law, not undermine it.

Yet that smack in the face would illustrate how poor foreign policy design can lead to unwelcome and unintended political consequences – and explain why the West now finds that it has to take the gloves off in trying to manage relations with the Ugandan government.

Resolutions by the European Parliament, such as the recent one seeking to delay the East African Crude Oil Pipeline project by at least a year over rights and governance concerns do not necessarily reflect the realpolitik of self-interest found in bilateral relations. But they reflect the growing frustration by many Africa-facing Western diplomats and policy makers at their direction of travel in politics and governance, as well as their increasing inability to steer the course of that ship.

Like many projects of its kind and size, the pipeline comes with many legitimate social, environmental and governance concerns. But this is not merely tree-hugging. There are fears that once the regime lays its hands on the petrodollars from exporting this oil, Uganda can kiss progressive political reform goodbye.

Once governments do not rely on tax revenues to pay the bills, they care less about the economic well-being of their citizens. Examples from oil producers Angola, Nigeria, Mozambique, Sudan, South Sudan and Equatorial Guinea support this argument.

These are genuine and serious concerns. And Ugandans, primarily and ultimately, will be responsible for either accepting bad governance and its consequences, or doing something about it.

But in understanding how we got here and how to dig ourselves out of the quagmire of political decay, we should reflect on our actions and inactions, as well as those of our “friends”. Foreign actors have played decisive roles in many of our key political moments: British and Israeli support for Idi Amin’s coup in 1971; the Tanzania-backed invasion in 1979 and subsequent meddling in the internal politics; Britain picking NRA before, during, and after the Nairobi Talks; or financial, political, military and diplomatic Anglo-American support, post-1986.

Granted, the old regimes were inept and discredited while the new one talked a good game and unquestioningly drank the Kool Aid of structural adjustment – but the attendant conditions were weak and perfunctory. Thus what appeared like political reform, for instance the making of the 1995 Constitution, merely served to entrench an imperial presidency and fuse the ruling party into the state. Then the guarantors of the ‘reform’ looked the other way when the political rituals birthed by these reforms were bastardised, be it the ballot-stuffing in the 1996 election, or the violence in the ones that followed.

As long as the economy continued growing, the absence of, or half-hearted commitment to, political reform could be ignored. And as long as Uganda remained in the axis of allies, whether it was supporting America in the War on Terror or putting bodies on the line for the EU in Somalia, and kept the economy open to foreign ‘investors’, internal good governance and reform could always be allowed to evolve slowly, if at all.

For instance, after the controversial election in 2002, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth for “undemocratic behaviour”. Uganda, whose own elections in 2001 and 2006 could not even remotely be accused of being free, let alone fair, was rewarded with hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2007, with the Queen in attendance.

Key countries in the West took in a young cub and raised it, believing it would grow into an obedient domestic cat. They fed it, nurtured, and treated it and looked the other way when it left fur on the sofa or scratched the baby. But what looked like a kitten grew into a strong and wily leopard that is difficult to control.

The leopard has new friends and is unafraid to scratch the old. The old friends, having spent decades riding the back of the leopard, now find themselves searching for a point of safe disembarkation. It is not easy: If they stay on, they fall; if they fall off, they will be mauled.

Ugandans have been there, had that done to them. Older ones who smelt the promise of political reform often look back and recall, not the words of their enemies, but the silence of their friends when it really mattered. 

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 

Twitter: @Kalinaki 

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