US seeks to enact law that isolates Russian allies in Africa
What you need to know:
- A new legislation that would oblige Washington to punish African governments that abet Russian ‘malign’ activities on the continent is in the offing. Emmanuel Mutaizibwa assesses how the continent, specifically Uganda, will be affected.
During the war on terror, the George Walker Bush administration enunciated the Bush Doctrine, which, among other things, affirmed the legitimacy of an American preventive strike and emphasised the notion that, “If you are not with us, you are against us.”
As Ukrainians writhe in the death throes after Russia invaded their country in a war of attrition, America could invoke this policy— a carrot and stick approach—reward those who condemned Russia’s invasion and punish those who sided with the aggressor.
With the brazen commitment of war crimes and crimes against humanity inside Ukraine, the West and its armada of weaponry continues to isolate Moscow.
On March 2, 2022, the United Nations voted on a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Twenty eight out of the 54 African countries voted to condemn the invasion, while 17, including, Uganda voted to abstain.
Justifying its neutral position, Uganda’s Ambassador to the UN Adonia Ayebare proffered that ‘as incoming chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), neutrality is key. Uganda will continue to play a constructive role in the maintenance of peace and security both regionally and globally.’
Critics though say the decision may bear parallels with the words of freedom fighter Martin Luther King Jr, who said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
A United States (US) Bill that would oblige Washington to punish African governments that abet Russian ‘malign’ activities on the continent is in the offing.
Fears abound that it may have expansive powers to target African countries ‘that sided with the oppressor.’
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The Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act passed through the House of Representatives on April 27 by a huge, bipartisan 419-9 majority, and is now sure to be passed by the Senate and become law soon. It would direct the US Secretary of State ‘to develop and submit to Congress a strategy and implementation plan outlining United States efforts to counter the malign influence and activities of the Russian Federation and its proxies in Africa.’
The Bill broadly defines such malign activities as those that ‘undermine United States objectives and interests.’ The Secretary of State would have to monitor the actions of Russia’s government and its ‘proxies’ – including private military companies (clearly Wagner is in the sights) and oligarchs.
The government would have to counter such activities effectively, including through US foreign aid programmes. It would need to ‘hold accountable the Russian Federation and African governments and their officials who are complicit in aiding such malign influence and activities.’
The Bill was introduced to Congress on March 31, and was clearly a response to Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine.
New York Democrat Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Bill was designed to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to ‘pilfer, manipulate and exploit resources in parts of Africa to evade sanctions and undermine U.S. interests,’ and to finance his war in Ukraine.
Meeks also presented the Bill as supportive of Africa, intended to protect ‘all innocent people who have been victimised by Putin’s mercenaries and agents credibly accused of gross violations of human rights in Africa.
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It is specifically in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali that a Russian-linked mercenary group, Wagner has been accused of committing human rights violations to prop up dubious governments and thwart Western interests.
However, the Institute for Security Studies, a regional human security policy think-tank with a focus on Africa, says some African governments suspect there’s more at play than protecting ‘fragile states in Africa,’ as Meeks put it. ‘Why target Africa?’ one senior African government official wondered. ‘They’re obviously unhappy with the way so many African countries voted in the General Assembly and their relatively non-aligned position.’
Prof Ogenga Otunnu, a history scholar based in the United States, shares the same fears, “Once it becomes law, the intention is to try and contain the interference of Russia in Africa, to try and undermine Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, which in the eyes and minds of western governments, including United States, is likely to be protracted and is likely to spread beyond Ukraine. The sanction regime has not been able to bite as much as they had expected. They thought it would undermine Putin’s popularity at home, it may do once western countries have been able to find alternative to energy sources coming from Russia.”
As the war in the far-flung Ukraine continues to reverberate across the World, it has cast a long shadow on US ties with some of its African allies.
But Prof Ottunu says the law may largely be symbolic. “It will only be applied in a very selective way, in the case of Uganda much of it may not be applied.”
His views are premised on the basis that America’s foreign policy interests are prioritised ahead of human rights.
“Foreign policy has never been constructed based on protection and observation of human rights or promotion of democratic pluralism, it is only if and when the national interests coincide with that they can actually begin to enforce sanction regimes against governments that violate human rights, governments that are not democratic at all,” Prof Otunnu argues. “They will simply say words, they will have resolutions, they will condemn but they will not do anything,” he adds.
Prof Otunnu opines that Uganda’s neutral position may not be pragmatic in light of gross human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia.
“It is a tricky one because I understand that a number of African countries were going to remain non-aligned in this conflict, which is a tricky position because non-alignment doesn’t mean you should not see, you should not hear, you should not condemn injustices, violation of international law, the way the invasion is taking place in terms of a massive extermination, destruction of Ukraine, carnage of ordinary people, those are things that non-alignment does not protect you from condemning,” he proffers.
However, he believes that the United States will likely take a properly weighed decision not to alienate Africa.
“It is a tricky one for the United States, because on the one end, the United States wants to ensure that Russia does not gain a strong foothold in Africa. How do you do it? Maybe we create this regime that threatens some sanctions [and] at the same time the US knows that it is actually losing Africa to China, which is a bigger threat to America and western interests than Russia. So by trying to impose sanction regimes on African countries, you are actually driving them into the arms of the other opponent, which is China,” Prof Otunnu says. With Africa up for grabs by imperial powers, Russia’s charm offensive continues to take shape in Africa.
However, some of Russia’s tactics have raised concern as mercenary bands such as Wagner passes itself off as a private military contractor and the Kremlin denies any connection to it or even, sometimes, that it exists. In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner has gained footholds for Russia in the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Mali.
Russian flags waved in Burkina Faso’s capital following January’s military coup in the West African nation. A statue unveiled in the Central African Republic last fall shows local soldiers, backed by Russian fighters, protecting civilians, as Moscow attempts to counter the West in supremacy fights.
Africa is a foreign policy priority, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the first Russia-Africa summit of political and business leaders in 2019.
“We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth,” he said. “Rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa,” he added.
A second summit is planned for St Petersburg in October. The first, at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, resulted in diplomatic agreements and billions of dollars in deals involving arms, energy, agriculture, and banking.
A report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change shows how Russia is reviving Soviet-era ties with African states to extract resources from the region, and in exchange, become a security provider. Mr Putin now appears to consider Africa an arena of his imperialist ambition, and hopes to lure the continent away from Western influence.
It is not yet clear yet how Uganda will attempt to placate these super powers.
For long spells, President Museveni has been the point-man of the West in the Great Lakes, one of the most restive pockets in the world.
Uganda also crafted a major alliance with the United States in its war against terror when it deployed its troops in the Horn of Africa enclave in March 2007 against the Al-Shabaab insurgents.
This turned into a boon as the United States provided significant development and security assistance to Uganda, with a financial war-chest exceeding $970m (about Shs3.4 trillion) per year.
It also plays a key role in supporting the professionalisation of the military; providing antiretroviral treatment for more than 990,000 Ugandans living with HIV/Aids; and working to boost economic growth and agricultural productivity, improve educational and health outcomes, and support democratic governance through inclusive, accountable institutions.
The US, which is the single biggest donor funder to the country, pools a sizeable chunk of Uganda’s health sector budget. Of the $896m (Shs3.1 trillion) in assistance to Uganda in 2018, $511m (Shs1.8 trillion) went to the health sector, specifically interventions in HIV, malaria, Tuberculosis, maternal and child health, nutrition, and health systems strengthening.
It has also donated millions of vaccines to Uganda to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
But as President Museveni’s halo began to slip, his erstwhile allies prodded him over the ruling party’s governance and human rights record.
The government was prompted to build new alliances in the Far East with China and Russia.
Russia has since then been the major supplier of fighter jets that Uganda has relied on to ramp up its fire-power in the skies. Uganda recently purchased about six Mi-28 “Havoc” combat helicopters from Russia. It is believed to cost about $18m (Shs67b).
In 2011, government raided the reserves and withdrew $740m (Shs2.6 trillion) for the procurement of six Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighters from Russia.
Rostec, one of the lead partners in RT—a state-owned Russian company, is a renowned supplier of military hardware to the Ugandan military.
In 2016, Russian helicopters, a holding company of Rostec, supplied Uganda with a VIP version of the Mi-171E helicopter as part of a contract signed in 2015. Those who support the government military expenditure postulate that given the instability across the Great Lakes and among its neighbours, the Kampala regime must establish a cordon sanitaire to guard its borders from aggressive neighbours.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is using Belarus as a staging ground for his war.
Observers, therefore, say while the NAM narrative offered by the Ugandan government was plausible, it also wanted to curry favour with two eastern European countries that help keep its military machines purring.
The Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) has also relied on Ukraine for repairs and training of its Air Force.
In March 2020, a 14-man team of pilots, engineers, and technicians from Ukraine’s Odessa Aviation Plant (OAP) completed a major repair and upgrades of six of Uganda’s L-39 Albatross training and combat aircraft. Eight Ugandan L-39ZA jets have since then been overhauled and modernised, by the Ukraine firm.
Uganda first received three L-39ZO trainers from Libya in 1987, which are reported to still be in service. In 2002, Uganda also received a further four ex-Bulgarian Air Force L-39Zas, which were overhauled in Ukraine in 2009/2010.
Earlier on in 1997, Uganda purchased junk MI-24 attack helicopters from Belarus, a neighbouring state of Ukraine and Russia. Upon inspection at the Entebbe Air Force base, it was discovered that the helicopters were not overhauled, had worn-out tyres, as well as rusted pipes and were not air-worthy.
The helicopters were meant to be deployed in northern Uganda to fight Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) acolytes.
According to the 2002 findings of a commission of inquiry led by Justice Julia Ssebutinde, who is now a judge at The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ), this deal cost Ugandan taxpayers a substantial loss worth Shs14b.
It is not clear yet how the wide-ranging sanctions imposed on Russia could affect the continent—and specifically Uganda’s—ability to procure and maintain military hardware.