Why the Western powers may keep financing Museveni even when some think he has passed his sale-by date
My recent visit to Mogadishu and seeing what our troops have done there made me proud. Yet perhaps the greatest lesson from Somalia was not necessarily the good that our army is capable of doing in foreign lands but how smart President Yoweri Museveni is at geo-strategic positioning. Museveni has cultivated a very good understanding of the dynamics of regime survival in Africa, a factor that explains his decades of rule.
First, have policies that foster economic growth in order to continually increase your tax revenues. Second, leverage these economic policies for international financial support to supplement your fiscal position. Money is an important political resource to finance patronage for elites, welfare (however poorly delivered) to the masses and to sustain an army. Third, sustain some appearance of democratic politics by tolerating a measure of freedom while maintaining an iron grip on the military and security agenda. So people can express themselves freely but when this threatens your power, crack down hard with the military i.e. hide your iron fist underneath a velvet glove. Third, to crown this assemblage of factors, ensure that the western powers, especially the US, are beholden to you for their geostrategic interests in the region.
So why did Museveni go into Somalia? Perhaps because he genuinely feels he should help our African brothers out of their quagmire through Pan African solidarity; and our president holds strong Pan African feelings. Perhaps it was to serve his vision of grandeur; for Museveni has a larger-than-life image of himself. Today, with his armies in five countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central Africa Republic, South Sudan, Somalia and of course Uganda – he seems to have achieved his dream of grandeur and empire. And of course, UPDF’s presence in Somalia also comes with other perks – good pay for the soldiers, revenues from renting our equipment to AMISOM, replacement equipment for every weapon we send to Mogadishu and some measure of international prestige.
While important, these reasons were not decisive. Museveni’s Somalia project seems to have been influenced by a political calculation regarding his relations with America. The US needs to occupy every country without a state, especially a Muslim country, in order to forestall the entry of Al Qaeda to establish a base there. However, this creates more problems; America loses blood and treasure, thus creating political discontent at home. Just look at the dead and injured plus the money spent on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hence, America has shifted its strategy to outsourcing the troops for occupation of foreign lands. By using AMISOM and the UN to sponsor a poor African country like Uganda to do its dirty work, America spends less money while at the same time loses no life and keeps its citizens happy. In Iraq or Afghanistan, the US spends $250,000 per soldier per year. Uganda spends less than 10 percent of that.
Somalia is also important for global trade. With a coastline of 3,000km along the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Eden, a significant share of global shipping through the Suez Canal depends on security in Somalia. Somalis are smart entrepreneurs; so they took advantage of statelessness and their geographical position to profit through piracy. In response, the big powers have deployed massive navies in the Indian Ocean to stop pirates. To effectively control piracy on the seas, you need to control the land from which they operate.
This is where Museveni, the master strategist in geopolitical repositioning, came to life. For many years he had been America’s points-man in Africa through his support for SPLA against the Islamist regime in Khartoum and stabiliser-in-chief of the Great Lakes Region with his military support (real and perceived) of Rwanda and DRC. But with the signing of the peace agreement in 2005, which paved way for the independence of South Sudan and the emergence of Rwanda as a competing military power, he was beginning to lose his traction in Washington’s regional schemes and thereby almost becoming internationally irrelevant.
Somalia has remade Museveni. For as long as he fights America’s war against Al Qaeda (real or perceived) in Somalia and is the key player in ensuring the security of global trade in the Indian Ocean, the opposition in Uganda can shout themselves hoarse but the Western powers will only listen to them to offer hypocritical sympathy but not meaningful support. This is even made worse by opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s threat to pull Ugandan troops out of Somalia if he were president.
Uganda’s contingent commander in Somalia, Brig. Paul Lokech told to me: “Before we captured Mogadishu, Boka Haram [the Nigerian Islamist/Terrorist group] were occupying Pasta factory; Bin Laden had visited five years earlier and we have killed Fasur Mohamed (a Cameroonian Islamist terrorist). We are therefore part of the wider global manhunt against Al Qaeda and the wider problem of Islamic extremism.” I sat back and took off my hut for Kaguta’s son.
Can America afford a change of government in Uganda? Perhaps they may consider the opposition’s anti-Somalia policy as political posturing knowing that once in power, they can turn Besigye around to change his mind. But why risk with an angel you don’t know when you have a devil you trust. Besides, US policy is driven by very short term considerations – like what opinion polls show that morning. President Barak Obama does not have the luxury of time to deal with an uncertain change of power in Kampala when he has an election in November.
With America on board, the rest of the Western world can only follow suit. Museveni may have lost his brand and spark as a new breed of an African leader given the length of his stay in power coupled with the incompetence, corruption and nepotism in his government. So Obama may not visit Kampala to be seen schmoozing with our president. However, Museveni has regained his centrality in America’s (and I think the larger Western world’s) global and regional objectives. So Washington will be least willing to undermine him. So hate or love him, and his domestic failures notwithstanding, Museveni seems to be holding the strategic initiative. Perhaps the core weakness of his opponents has been their consistent underestimation of him.