Understanding Uganda’s Military Adventurism Under Museveni

On January 15th 2014 President Yoweri Museveni finally admitted that Uganda People’s Defence Force troops are engaging in combat operations within South Sudan. Right after the political fallout in Juba and escalation of hostilities between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those behind his former deputy Riek Machar, Mr. Museveni threatened Machar with military action if he did not come to the table to negotiate with Kiir. Museveni’s military involvement in the conflict has caused concern in Nairobi and other capitals in the region. For one, Uganda’s military intervention in the conflict may yet jeopardize the ceasefire agreement that was signed on January 23, 2014 in Addis Ababa. The regional body IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) is supposed to be a neutral arbiter and monitor in the conflict. Museveni’s clear leanings towards the government in Juba may bring to question IGAD’s neutrality in the mediation effort.

For historical reasons (see below) Khartoum fears Kampala’s military involvement in South Sudan. But this time the situation is slightly different, and a little more complex. Bashir has already shown his hand in support of Juba against Machar, possibly for two reasons: (i) Khartoum needs Juba’s help in weakening the rebellion by the rump SPLA (SPLA-North) that is still active in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, regions that border South Sudan; and (ii) Bashir needs to keep the oil flowing in order to ward off internal turmoil within Sudan due to rapidly deteriorating economic conditions (see here). Kiir’s willingness to throw SPLA-N under the bus comes as no surprise since it is an offshoot of the “Garang Boys” (mostly PhDs) who occupied a special place, unlike Kiir and others, in John Garang’s SPLA. SPLM-N’s leader Malik Aggar, shared Garang’s vision of one united reformed Sudan, as opposed to secession by the South. At the same time, however, Khartoum does not want a super strong South Sudan free of rebels. Total cessation of conflict in South Sudan would rob Khartoum of proxies to keep Juba in check. Uganda’s involvement could tip the balance in Juba’s favor vis-à-vis potential Bashir allies.

Meanwhile in Nairobi and Addis Ababa concern is growing over Uganda’s claim that the IGAD should foot the bill of UPDF’s adventures in South Sudan. Both Ethiopia and Kenya prefer settling the conflict at the negotiating table, partly because both have their security forces stretched by domestic armed groups and bandits and the war in Somalia. Kenya has said categorically that it will not send troops to South Sudan, even under IGAD. The wariness in Nairobi and Addis to send troops or cash for a military cause in South Sudan contrasts sharply with Kampala’s choice of military action from the moment the current flare up started in Juba. This despite the fact that Uganda also has troops serving in Somalia.

Which raises the question: What explains Uganda’s international military adventurism under Museveni? The answer lies in the confluence of history, international geopolitics, and Uganda’s internal politics.

Uganda is one of the more militarized states in Africa, with the military having direct representation in parliament (10 seats). It is also interventionist, with a history of combat engagement and support for rebel groups in six neighboring states – Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Somalia, and South Sudan. More recently, the nation has been a key advocate for greater integration within the East African Community (EAC). Indeed, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni fancies himself as a possible head of an EAC political federation should it ever materialize. Uganda is also a key player in the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), a proposed standby force with capacity to rapidly deploy troops to trouble spots in Africa (other key supporters include South Africa, Chad, and Tanzania).

Museveni and his kagogo (little) soldiers

Museveni and his kadogo (little) soldiers

President Yoweri Museveni’s military adventurism and internationalist outlook have deep roots. As a young student in Tanzania, Museveni was involved in exile organizations opposed to Iddi Amin. Indeed, Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA), started off as the Popular Resistance Army (PRA) in Tanzania (As testament to its Tanzanian roots, NRA borrowed the idea of political commissars from the Tanzanian military to educate civilians in “liberated” Luweero Triangle). In Tanzania and even after returning to Uganda Museveni made regional connections that he maintained even after he ascended to power in 1986 – including Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Sudan’s John Garang’, and leaders of Mozambique’s FRELIMO. Before rebelling against Kigali, Kagame was Museveni’s Chief of Military Intelligence. Museveni supported Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

Once in power, Museveni styled himself as the guarantor of peace and stability in Uganda. Many (both at home and abroad) evaluated his performance relative to the disastrous years under Amin and the ensuing civil war. The resulting peace dividend (albeit restricted to the south of the country) was marked by relative macro-economic stability, with growth averaging about 6% for much of the 1990s. This made Museveni a darling of Western donors and international financial institutions. However, Museveni’s record with regard to democracy and human rights remained dubious. This put him in awkward position vis-à-vis the West, especially since the 1990s was the zenith of Western promotion of liberal democracy.

To this Museveni reacted cleverly, and worked hard to position Uganda as a strategic player in the wider region’s geopolitics. In order to maintain his international stature and secure his position domestically, Museveni labored to bolster Uganda’s relevance to the West.

Museveni enters Kampala (Source)

Museveni enters Kampala (Source)

Beginning in the early 1990s, Uganda got militarily involved in a number of neighboring states. Support for Garang’s SPLA drew the ire of Khartoum, which in turn supported the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. Subsequently, the Ugandan military conducted raids against LRA bases in Sudan while also offering combat assistance to the SPLA. For instance, the 1997 battle at Yei featured Ugandan soldiers alongside the SPLA against the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). It is around this time that the seed was planted for future military involvement abroad at the turn of the century (this time in Somalia under the Western-funded AU mission, AMISOM, to help stabilize the country). After US President Bill Clinton designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terror, Uganda positioned itself as an ally in the frontline of “Global War on Terror.” Kampala served as an intermediary for US aid to SPLA, thereby further strengthening US-Uganda military ties. It is telling that in 2003 Uganda was among only a handful of African states that supported the US-led Iraq War. About 20,000 Ugandans worked in US military bases in Iraq (this was also an excellent job creation tool; and a way of earning Forex).

So far Uganda’s most complex military adventure was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A mix of strategic geopolitical positioning, the need to secure markets for Ugandan goods, private greed and domestic politics drove Uganda’s invasion of the DRC. The first Congo War (1996-97) was swift, aimed at helping Laurent Kabila oust Mobutu Seseseko (Rwanda and Angola also helped). Soon after Uganda and Rwanda fell out with Kabila, occasioning the Second Congo war (1998-2003), which involved four other African states. It is then that the façade of intervention for regional stability completely broke down. Ugandan and Rwandan commanders exploited existing and new cross-border smuggling and semi-legitimate trade networks to orchestrate massive pillaging of natural resources in eastern DRC (Competition between the two militaries later intensified, resulting in the “Kisangani Wars.”)

For instance, in the year 2000 despite only producing 0.00441 tonnes of gold, Uganda exported 11 tonnes. A UN report indicates that well-connected generals (including Museveni’s half-brother) created entities headquartered in Kampala to facilitate the illicit trade. It’s important to note that Museveni’s tolerance of the semi-autonomous activities by his generals was strategic (it generated revenue through Kampala-based entities and kept the generals happy) and did not lead to fracturing within the military. Indeed, many of those involved were later promoted.

Museveni meets Somali President, Shayk Sharif Ahmed in Mogadishu in 2010

 

Incidentally, the present involvement in South Sudan also reflects the multifaceted logic of Ugandan international military adventurism. Historical alliances with the SPLA against the LRA and SAF make Kampala and Juba natural bedfellows. But the intervention is also about securing markets for Ugandan goods. According to figures from the Bank of Uganda, in 2012 the country’s exports to South Sudan totaled an estimated USD 1.3 billion. About 150,000 Ugandan traders operate across the border, not to mention countless more primary producers in agriculture who benefit from cross-border trade with their northern neighbor.

The above account explains Museveni’s efforts in the recent past to build an image as the regional powerbroker: heading peace talks between the DRC, Rwanda and eastern DRC rebels; intervening in Somalia to prop up the government in Mogadishu; and in the latest episode siding militarily with President Salva Kiir in South Sudan’s domestic political cum military conflict. Domestically, Museveni’s grip on power is as strong as ever. Recent reshuffles in the military removed powerful Historicals (the original “bush war heroes”) thereby leaving Museveni (and his son) firmly in control of Uganda’s armed forces. There is no end in sight for Uganda’s international military adventurism.

In many ways Uganda’s international adventurism has been a case of agency in tight corners. The country is a landlocked; has neighbors with sparsely governed borderlands that provide rear-bases for Ugandan armed groups; and Kampala needs Western aid to maintain the regime, a situation that necessitates acts of geopolitical positioning – especially with regard to the “Global War on Terror” and maintenance of regional peace and stability. Furthermore, oil discovery along the conflict-prone DRC border on Lake Albert and the need for pipelines to the sea to export Ugandan oil will necessitate even greater regional involvement. So while Uganda’s present outward adventurism is primarily because of Museveni’s peculiar personal history, it is correct to say that even after Museveni (still far into the future) the country will continue to be forced to look beyond its borders for economic opportunities, security, and regional stature.

What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.

Tough trying to be good in a bad neighborhood

A few days ago a Kenyan judge ordered the government to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir if he ever sets foot in Kenya. Mr. Bashir has an outstanding arrest warrant against him from the ICC for crimes against humanity committed since 2003 in Darfur.

The ruling has since metastasized into a full blown diplomatic row; Khartoum expelled the Kenyan ambassador before rescinding the expulsion, and is now threatening to cut all trade ties with Kenya, expel Kenyans living in Sudan and deny any planes leaving or going to Kenya from flying in its airspace – if the government does not take back the ruling in two weeks.

The diplomatic row aside, the case has implications for the reform process in Kenya. The case is a test of the depth of the Kenyan judiciary’s new found independence from the executive.

According to Khartoum:

“al-Bashir expects Nairobi to scrap the arrest warrant within the next two weeks and not simply file an appeal.”

That is not how the judicial process works in a democracy. The executive cannot just scrap a judicial ruling. Within Kenya, for the sake of precedence the government must be seen to be complying with court rulings. The Chief Justice has already warned the executive against ignoring the court ruling saying that

“If a country chooses to live by anarchy, it must be ready to face the consequences of disregarding the law.”

It remains unclear what the executive will do given Khartoum’s two week ultimatum. Disregarding the court ruling will come with consequences for the individuals involved – in particular the Foreign Minister and the Commissioner of Police.

Securing Peace in South Sudan

UPDATE:

The ICG has a good report on the simmering conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan:

The loss of South Sudan has had a profound effect on the NCP, and senior generals led a soft-coup within the party. They have outflanked more pragmatic elements in the NCP who seek a negotiated strategy. Encouraging progress in the post-separation arrangements between North and South was blocked. More importantly, hardliners in Khartoum — including SAF generals — immediately rejected a 28 June framework agreement, which includes a political and a security agreement for Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, facilitated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and signed by Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie, Co-deputy NCP chairman and a presidential adviser. A few days later, President Omar al-Bashir publicly disavowed the agreement.

Check out the rest of the report here.

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Texas in Africa makes a compelling argument against arming South Sudan (against potential aggression from Khartoum). She basically outlines three reasons against arming Juba:

  1. Such a move would implicitly side with the SPLM against other domestic armed/opposition groups. The point of concern here is that having just won independence South Susan needs to have a negotiated settlement among all interested groups. The Dinka-dominated SPLM, in particular, ought to credibly share power and resources with the other ethnic/interest groups.
  2. Arming South Sudan would spark an arms race against Khartoum and might lead to a war sooner rather than later.
  3. The West can’t be sure of Juba’s future geopolitical leanings. The same weapons might be used in the future against say America and its allies – AfPak style.

For the most part I agree with Laura. And like her, I am on record as having concerns over the alarmist celebrity diplomacy/mediation effort that has been orchestrated in South Sudan, Darfur and eastern DRC by Prendergast and his buddy Clooney.

In addition, I think that the debate over whether or not to arm Juba forecloses on other options that might also help secure South Sudan. Make no mistake, South Sudan has real domestic and international security challenges that occasionally will require the use of military force. Addressing these security challenges will necessarily require some form of military aid to South Sudan.

Here’s my take:

  1. If South Sudan is to avoid the fate of Zaire/DRC, the pacification of the whole country must happen ASAP. While negotiating with rebel leaders is the best approach, the truth is that in some cases military force might be needed. To that end providing SPLM with the necessary capacity to win the fight against fringe groups that do not want to sit at the negotiating table may be a necessary evil. Yes, we should be cognizant of the fact that there are legitimate internal differences within South Sudan. But we should not legitimize any groups that might want to air those differences using the force of arms. Real democratic competition can only take place in a peaceful environment. Armed challengers to SPLA (the legitimate army of South Sudan) must bear the burden of proving the legitimacy of their grievances. South Sudan’s Savimbis must be deterred. Also, the international community must not be under any illusion that democracy will come soon to South Sudan. It will take a long time.
  2. The arms race between Khartoum and Juba is already underway. The question is not if it will happen but what it will lead to. Furthermore, after “losing” the South and its oil Bashir will be hard pressed for distractions from his domestic woes, especially if the economy of Sudan experiences a sharp decline. Starting a border war with South Sudan would be a welcome distraction. Although arming the SPLA is not the best way to deal with this possibility, an alternative would be to bring in the EAC through a regional defense pact. Uganda, in particular, would be interested in such a deal since it would help reduce its own defense budget. The involvement of Eritrea in South Sudan’s internal conflicts makes the need for a regional security arrangement even more urgent. Most recently the UN accused Eritrea of plotting to bomb an AU meeting in Addis Ababa Ethiopia.
  3. Concerns over Juba’s future geopolitical leanings can be allayed through continued military aid and professionalization. This can be achieved by getting the generals out of politics following the Kenyan model – a combination of awesome perks and professional training – and through greater political and economic integration of South Sudan into the East African Community.

War is nasty and should be the last option. That said, there is a need for genuine debate over how to achieve the twin goals of state monopoly of violence within South Sudan and the deterrence of a trigger-happy Khartoum.

If it were left to me I would quickly move to decouple the SPLM and SPLA as a condition for any military assistance. The last thing the region needs is yet another regime with a fused political and military leadership as is the case in Rwanda and Uganda.

The EAC needs a defense pact

UPDATE: The Government of South Sudan has barred people of Somali origin from entering the country by road for “security reasons.” This wrongheaded move has created an awkward situation since not all people of Somali origin are from Somalia. In Kenya, for instance, a good chunk of the long haul transport sector is run by Kenyans of Somali origin.

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The Ugandan government recently went on a $1 billion shopping spree for six fighter jets. The deal, which almost broke the bank, made a significant dent on Uganda’s forex reserves. Many, while acknowledging the risks that might have motivated the purchase, have questioned the wisdom of spending that much money on six jets.

For those not in the know, the key motivation for Museveni’s purchase was a desire to project military power in the region for two key reasons:

Firstly, in order to create a market for Ugandan light industries – cooking oil, soap, etc – Kampala has had to project military power to help in the pacification of pockets of eastern DRC and northern Uganda/South Sudan. These markets are crucial because they create jobs in Uganda, allowing Museveni some room as he continues to preside over Uganda’s decline into a dysfunctional police state.

The second reason was Museveni’s desire for military grandeur in the region. Kigali and Khartoum are not in the best of terms with Kampala. Museveni is probably suspicious of a potential Odinga presidency in Kenya. For these reasons, the Ugandan military establishment – the real rulers of Uganda – might have wanted to ensure that non of their neighbors are in a position to bully them in the near future.

While most of Museveni’s militarism is inspired by a mentality from a bygone era, I find Kampala’s fears against Khartoum as legitimate grounds for a regional defense pact. It is an open secret that Khartoum will try as much as it can to destabilize the new government of South Sudan (and by extension the wider region). And they have a few options:

  • They can foment civil war within South Sudan – there are a lot of disgruntled armed bands within South Sudan who might decide to take their chances with Khartoum; Remember that even Riek Machar, the current vice president of South Sudan, formed a Khartoum-backed splinter group (SPLA-Nasir) that fought Garang’ back in the early 1990s.
  • They can use armed groups in the wider central African region – including Kony’s LRA and the plethora of roving bandits in eastern DRC to engineer insecurity in South Sudan. Khartoum has used the LRA against SPLM in the past.
  • They can invade in an all out war. This option is the riskiest because of its potential to generate international opprobrium. But remember that Ethiopia and its secessionist former province Eritrea fought a bloody war that generated nothing but “stern” warnings from the UN and the wider international community. The US even armed Ethiopia because it needed Addis Ababa to fight its war in Somalia.
  • Lastly, they can use non-conventional tactics. Terrorism is slowly growing in the wider east African region. So far Eritrea has been the biggest state sponsor of terror in the region – mostly aimed at Ethiopia in the Ogaden, Oromo land and Somalia. The involvement of Ugandan and Burundian troops in Somalia has created even more enemies for these groups. There is no reason to believe that Khartoum would not use these same groups to destabilize South Sudan, if for nothing then as a survival tactic for a beleaguered Bashir administration that will forever be blamed for having lost the South’s oil.

Needless to say, an unstable South Sudan is bad for the region. Period.

The proliferation of small arms is already a major problem in the areas bordering the Ilemi triangle and eastern Uganda. That instead of sticks pastoralists have to roam around with AK-47’s says it all. More conflict in South Sudan will only make a really bad situation even worse. The potential for proxy wars within the region would also be an unnecessary drain on limited resources. Because of various interests in Juba, an aggression by Khartoum against South Sudan will definitely be met with reaction in one form or another from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.The conflict will definitely be regionalized. Lastly, Eritrea’s bad habit of supporting terrorists should not be permitted to catch on. Khartoum must know that if it tries this dirty tactic it will be met by more than just resolutions from the AU, IGAD or the UN.

Which is why I think that the EAC should have a robust defense pact. War should have to be a last resort. But that does not mean that the East African Community should not prepare for such an eventuality, if it arise.

That way, no single country will be burdened with the task of buying all the necessary hardware needed to keep Khartoum deterred.

Such a plan would face significant challenges, of course – key among them the fact that the region’s armies are non-professionalized. A functional defense pact would require near total civilian control of the army. Only Kenya and Tanzania come close to this in the EAC. Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda are dominated by their respective armies. Burundi can’t even win against rebels within its territory and remains a militarized tin pot dictatorship. And Ethiopia, if it were to join, is still dominated by the remnants of the rebellion that ousted Mengistu.

These challenges aside, it might be worth a try. Such a pact might even help professionalize and de-politicize the officer corp in the region’s armed forces.

And the biggest winner if this were to happen is MORE regional trade.