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).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.
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.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.