Flawed interpretation of neutrality will be costly

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (L) walks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 26, 2022. 

What you need to know:

  • The ramifications of pulling such a difficult balancing act off will tread through Uganda with unintended sinister repercussions. 

Russia’s top diplomat, Mr Sergei Lavrov left Uganda yesterday after holding high-level talks with the President. This was the third leg of the Russian Foreign Minister’s tour of African countries, having made earlier stopovers in Egypt and Congo-Brazzaville.

The visit comes as the Russia-Ukraine war sputters along without conclusion. The bloody standoff enters a 154th day today with enormous losses incurred by not just the belligerents but also the global economy. Mr Lavrov’s visit provides confirmation—if ever it was needed—that Uganda isn’t among the nearly 50 countries on the Russian government’s expanded list of “unfriendly states.”

This is perhaps hardly surprising given that Uganda was among the 17 African nations that showcased a reluctance to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine during a UN general assembly resolution in February.  The resolution passed by 141 to five, with Uganda amongst the 35 abstentions. Barely hours after the vote, Mr Adonia Ayebare—Uganda’s UN representative—said neutrality was of the essence for Kampala if anything because it is the incoming chair of the Non-Alignment Movement.

Mr Lavrov’s visit, however, gives the not unreasonable impression that Kampala has cast its lot with Moscow. It’s also worth noting that Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba—President Museveni’s son who is seen in some quarters as heir apparent—threw his weight behind Russia back in March. Gen Muhoozi tweeted in no uncertain terms that “the majority of mankind (non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine.”

While President Museveni has not made the mistake of openly suggesting anything but a neutral position (and he repeated the stance yesterday), Mr Lavrov’s visit changes things. Shortly after Russia vetoed the February 27 resolution that condemned its invasion of Ukraine, Mr Museveni tweeted thus: “We must build a centre of gravity for Africa. Many countries in the world have centres of gravity: USA for the Europeans; Russia for the Balkans; China for the Far East; China for South Asia. Where is Africa’s centre of gravity?” We are hesitant to come to the conclusion that Mr Lavrov’s visit is a dead giveaway insofar as the position of Uganda’s centre of gravity. While defending the mutual interests with Russia, Mr Museveni yesterday declared that Uganda is not in the business of “creating enemies.” He added that Kampala “want[s] to trade with all countries of the world.”

Yet it is abundantly clear that an open wound is being touched by a country that lays claim to being neutral. Mr Lavrov’s visit looks set to become the totemic face of what can—rightly or wrongly—be construed as tacit support for Moscow. It also feeds into narratives suggestive of Kampala doing a shabby balancing act between forces on either side of the divide.  We reckon the implications of what at face value looks like a dangerous game of poker—even Russian roulette—could be quite damaging. As conventional wisdom has it, you cannot appease the interests of two superpowers. The calculus Kampala is using for its centre of gravity is, in a word, flawed.

Kampala cannot expect to be the exception to a time-honoured rule. It simply cannot—excuse the cliché—have its cake and eat it too. The ramifications of pulling such a difficult balancing act off will tread through Uganda with unintended sinister repercussions. It’s therefore in Kampala’s best interests that it comes off as manifestly neutral. Current developments suggest that this is not the case, and this will prove costly.