By Andrew M. Mwenda
What does it mean for Museveni?
Sometime last year, the then Libyan strongman, Muammar El Gaddafi sent an emissary to President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.
According to sources inside State House, Gaddafi’s messenger carried an ultimatum to Museveni: if you do not support my project of an African political federation, I will support a rebellion aimed at toppling your government.
According to sources close to Museveni, the Ugandan president listened in silent wonderment as the Libyan envoy delivered the message. Then Museveni cleared his throat and replied, calling Gaddafi’s bluff in the same verbal manner that the Libyan leader had sent his ultimatum.
“Go tell brother Gaddafi that we cannot be intimidated by his threats,” Museveni reportedly said, “and neither are we afraid of him financing a rebellion against us since we know it will not succeed. We are very strong here and we have fought Gaddafi before with the Tanzanians. And we have fought and won many rebellions sponsored against by many groups some allied to Gaddafi. We shall not support his African federation agenda under blackmail.”
However, sources say, Museveni remained worried about Gaddafi’s threat. In fact, The Independent has been told, it was one of the reasons that led the Ugandan president to believe a security report in January this year which claimed that Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, had allied with Gaddafi to sponsor a rebellion against Museveni based in eastern DRC (Refer to “Inside Museveni’s visit to Kagame”, The Independent August 12, 2011).
Even before the incident with Gaddafi’s emissary, Museveni’s relationship with the Libyan leader had not been cordial.
Last year, at the height of the exposure of classified American diplomatic memos by the whistleblower website, Wikileaks, it emerged that President Museveni had shared his fears on Gaddafi with top US diplomats.
In one of two leaked dossiers, President Museveni apparently feared that Gaddafi could orchestrate his assassination. He expressed this fear to America’s former top ambassador on Africa, Jendayi Frazer, at a meeting on June 13, 2008.
The Wikileaks leak claimed President Museveni told the American envoy that Gaddafi would eliminate him because he had opposed the Libyan leader’s push for the creation of a United States of Africa.
“President Museveni said Libyan President Qadhafi ‘is a problem’ for the continent and is pushing for the creation of a ‘United States of Africa’ to be governed by one president,” Ms Frazer is quoted in the classified memo, which was first published in The Guardian newspaper in the UK Wednesday.
President Museveni told Ms Frazer that he thought Gaddafi’s plan was “neither feasible nor desirable”, a matter which seemed to piss-off the Libyan leader.
“Museveni noted that tensions with Gaddafi are growing as a result, and he worries that Gaddafi will attack his plane while flying over international airspace,” Ms Frazer said.
The memo went on to say that President Museveni asked the US Government to provide additional air radar information whenever he flies over international waters.
Yet as Gaddafi’s fall became imminent, it was Museveni who frantically helped build an African Union coalition to try save the falling Libyan leader. Museveni was involved in shuttle diplomacy, flying from Kampala to Malabo in Equatorial Guinea, then to Addis Ababa and Pretoria to organise a united African voice against NATO’s push to remove Gaddafi. Museveni was able to secure an AU resolution that NATO should stop bombing Libya to allow for talks between rebels and Gaddafi, a resolution NATO ignored.
Indeed, the Libyan leader has had a highly troubled relationship with Museveni. In January 2003, Museveni visited Israel and was hosted by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The two shook hands before international media. Later when Museveni visited Libya, Gaddafi refused to shake his right hand claiming it was dirty after shaking hands with Sharon. Gaddafi used his left hand to shake Museveni’s hand. According to Arab culture, it is an insult of the highest order to greet someone with the left hand.
Sources close to the Ugandan president say that Gaddafi has treated other African presidents as his lackeys. In 2001, for example, he invited himself to Uganda to attend Empango, the coronation in Toro Kingdom and only informed Museveni of his decision instead of seeking permission from the Ugandan president. The Uganda president was only informed by Toro’s Queen Mother Best Kemugisa that Gaddafi was coming in. Museveni initially hesitated to allow the visit to go on but later changed his mind.
Indeed, during this particular visit, Gaddafi insisted on travelling to Fort Portal to attend King Oyo Iguru’s coronation against advice from Museveni. Along the way, the two presidents’ relationship literally collapsed as they quarreled over the details of Gaddafi’s visit. At one particular point, Museveni walked away from his guest in Fort Portal and went to stay in Mweya Lodge as Gaddafi insisted on staying in the kingdom longer than he had promised.
Gaddafi has been a thorn not just to Museveni but also many other African leaders. For example, during an AU summit in Lusaka Zambia in July 2001, electricity in the main conference hall where presidents were meeting went off. Then Gaddafi’s bodyguards swung into action – literally stepping on the laps and shoulders of other African presidents – to create a cordon around their leader. President Museveni later complained that one of Gaddafi’s bodyguards jumped over his shoulder.
The arrogant behavior of Gaddafi and his security outfits has been a common feature of the Libyan leader’s visits to all countries. However, observers say, it has always taken a racist tone in black Africa. Gaddafi’s condescending view of black Africa was once blatantly revealed during a conversation with Museveni over the resolution of the South Sudan versus Khartoum conflict. Gaddafi shocked his Ugandan counterpart when he said he can never allow the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) to take power in Khartoum. “How can we allow people who used to be our slaves become rulers of an Arab country?” Gaddafi reportedly asked.
Indeed, Gaddafi’s tendency to bully his way through international affairs was most evident in 1997. In that year, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) financed a three-country invasion of Sudan. According to sources, the Americans had mobilised the leaders of Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea to support an SPLA offensive to capture Juba. At the time, the US had organised the three nations under the rubric of “frontline states” against the spread of “Islamic fundamentalism” being spread by the government in Khartoum. Museveni was the one in charge of the operations although the force commander was an Eritrean brigadier.
According to inside sources, the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies came with large quantities of armour. Gulu was the military base of the operations. The operation was a success as Sudanese forces fell under the massive onslaught. Then Gaddafi and later the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarack called Museveni. Sources say Gaddafi told the Ugandan leader that if black Africa unites against Arab-led Sudan, the Arabs will unite behind Khartoum. Afraid of a big war, Museveni called off the operation without consulting his allies in Ethiopia and Eritrea just when the capture of Juba was a few days away. The president of Eritrea, Isias Aferweki, was angry with his Ugandan counterpart and significantly contributed to the break-up of their relationship. Sources say Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi was pissed but did not break his ties with Museveni. But again, Gaddafi had used intimidation to get his way.
Yet in spite of these problems, Museveni maintained a relationship with Gaddafi. At first, it looks intriguing but some analysts say this is a mark of Museveni’s pragmatism, others call it opportunism. The Libyan leader supported former dictator Idi Amin when the Tanzanian founding president and Museveni mentor, Julius Nyerere, sought to remove the dictator in 1979. He did not only give Amin arms and ammunition, Gaddafi also deployed Libyan troops to fight for Amin against the Tanzanians. At the time, Museveni claims he was fighting alongside the Tanzanians.
How then did Museveni build a relationship with Gaddafi?
When he began his guerrilla war, Museveni had limited international backing. He went to Gaddafi for support. In exchange for money, arms and training for the National Resistance Army (NRA), Museveni signed a deal with former Amin finance minister, Moses Ali. Under the agreement Ali would become vice president if NRA captured power. Museveni did not honour this bargain. But this did not destroy Gaddafi’s relations with him. It seems the two have been used to betraying each other.
Museveni’s continued relationship with Gaddafi is sometimes explained by the fact that the Libyan leader has been a major contributor to the Ugandan president’s election campaigns. For example, it is alleged that he gave Museveni US$ 4m for the 2000 referendum and another US$ 5m for the 2001 presidential elections. Gaddafi then came for Museveni’s swearing in ceremony where he encouraged his Ugandan counterpart to cling onto power for ever.
Before the next election in 2006, this cozy relationship had hit a glitch. During the 2006 elections, Gaddafi refused to support Museveni financially – only sending a paltry US$ 250,000 which Museveni turned down. At this point, the relationship was limping, but it seems to have survived.