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Museveni’s relation with Biden’s America

The key recent events that matter

NEWS ANALYSIS | THE INDEPENDENT | U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Africa appears to have cemented the growing perception of a diminished geo-political stature for President Yoweri Museveni.

On his second visit to Africa, Blinken from August 7 to 12 visited three countries: South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Rwanda. In November 2021, Blinken had visited Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal.

The two visits are important signals of the U.S’s leadership’s power play on the African continent and those the superpower regards as the captains of the continent.

Secretary Blinken made this point during his November 2021 visit which, he said, focused on advancing the U.S.-Africa collaboration on shared global priorities, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic and building back to a more inclusive global economy, combatting the climate crisis, revitalising democracy, and advancing peace and security.

In Nairobi, at the time, Blinken met with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Ambassador Raychelle Omamo, to affirm their “strategic partnership with Kenya”.

They discussed the then hot issue of the Ethiopian civil war, Somalia, and Sudan, and the Kenyan election in 2022.

On the recent visit, in his address on America’s Africa strategy that Blinken gave in South Africa, he referred to the decision to treat those African countries as “equal partners”.

“By 2050, 1 in 4 people on the planet we share will be African. They will shape the destiny, not only of this continent, but of the world,” he said.

He said they would work together on conflict prevention, misinformation online, science and technology, and promotion of the climate change agenda and clean energy.

Prof. Christopher Isike who is the Director, African Centre for the Study of the United States, University of Pretoria, in an essay in the online journal The Conversation titled “Washington wants to address anti-west sentiment in Africa: Blinken is doing his bit”, offers a critic of Blinken’s visit.

Prof. Isike and his colleague, Associate Professor Tinashe Nyamunda, say Blinken’s recent visit to the three African countries is another sign of the Joe Biden administration’s US-Africa policy of reengaging with the continent.

They say this was first unveiled in visits to Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal at the end of 2021.

“Blinken is launching the U.S. strategy for sub-Saharan Africa. This is anchored on engaging Africa in promoting an open and stable international system in security, exchange and trade,” they said.

This will also tackle the effects of climate change, food security, global pandemics and shape technological and economic futures.

They also point out that these are welcome visits following the previous administration’s disengagement with Africa and less than flattering comments about African countries by then President Donald Trump.

Blinken’s first trip to Africa in 2021 outlined the US’s need to build a 21st century partnership with the continent. This is key to maintaining the US’s strategic geo-political and economic influence in Africa against the backdrop of increased competition between advanced and emerging countries in an increasingly complex world.

The Biden administration’s re-engagement policy is also informed by other considerations, such as China’s rising influence.

Some media reports have suggested that Blinken’s trip is aimed at countering China and Russia’s footprint in Africa. In particular, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent visit.

But it is difficult to claim that Blinken’s visit is singularly informed by the Russia – Ukraine conflict. After all, Blinken’s first visit took place before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In a speech given at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, Blinken reiterated – as he did in Nigeria in November 2021 – that he wanted to treat African countries as equal partners.

Pressing issues

Prof. Isike and Nyamunda point out that in Pretoria, Blinken focused on four priorities that he believed the US and Africa could tackle together.

The first was “to foster openness”. This would require the free flow of ideas and information, respect for international law, territorial integrity and national sovereignty. And U.S. support for Africa’s quest to choose its own path and not just be instruments of the progress of other nations.

Blinken said: “The United States will not dictate Africa’s choices, neither should anyone else. The right to make those choices belongs to Africans”.

The idea of an equal partnership could be pursued through areas of common interest: global health, the climate crisis, inclusive economic growth, democracy and peace and security.

Blinken said that the U.S. strategy was founded on sub-Saharan Africa’s capacity as a geopolitical force. For him the equal partnership is informed by Africa’s diversity, agency and focuses on “what we will do with African nations and peoples, not for African nations and peoples”.

The second priority was partnering with Africa to fulfil the promise of democracy. He referenced Afro-barometer surveys that show Africans are largely against authoritarianism.

And he acknowledged that delivering on democracy dividends – and the threat to democracy – were not just an African problem, but a global challenge. This included the US where the insurrection at the Capitol revealed fissures in US democracy.

However, the U.S. would work with Africa to promote more inclusive and resilient processes and communities, citizen participation and the peaceful transition of power. These would be subjects of an African leaders summit in December 2022.

The third priority is working with Africa to recover from the economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. And laying the foundation for economic opportunities for people. The U.S. position is rooted in the understanding that helping Africa recover is also in the U.S. and the world’s interest.

Blinken spelt out the ways in which the US will “be there for African countries”. These included rallying rich countries and key institutions to support debt relief, supporting the African Union’s Green Recovery Action Plan, climate finance, humanitarian and food relief, investment in agriculture, vaccine self-sufficiency and sharing vaccine technology.

The U.S. is also supporting African-led initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area and the African Union Agenda 2063. The US also pledged to raise over US$200 billion dollars to invest in infrastructure. Other areas include intellectual exchanges such as the Young African Leaders Initiative.

The fourth priority area is leading with Africa on clean energy transition, reducing emissions and restoring ecosystems. It would help save the planet, adapt to the effects of climate change and provide power for economic growth.

He reiterated the US will invest in expanded energy access and meet developmental targets towards a just energy transition; helping communities to choose “conservation over deforestation”.

Blinken rounded off by reiterating that these priorities were first championed by Africa and Africans, and have now become the world’s priorities as well.

Engaging Africa as equal partners

Whatever equal partnership means in this case, even if it is spelt mostly in terms of American rather than a (South) African Strategies for partnership, it looks as though the key take-away was a carefully considered business agreement couched as friendship.

In the past, the U.S’s partnerships with Africa have been informed and characterised by power relations in which the U.S. dictated the terms.

It remains to be seen the extent to which the four areas of cooperation (not too dissimilar to the five points presented in West Africa 2021) will reflect the notion of equal partnership with African countries on the ground.

Prof. Isike and Nyamunda say, in their view, the significant rise in Beijing’s influence on the continent is a factor in the U.S. redefinition and resetting its relations with Africa.

But Washington still has a long way to go. It must overcome growing anti-west sentiment on the continent given the development alternative that China offers.

For instance, while China (and Russia for that matter) does not make upholding democracy and human rights a condition for engaging with African states, the US bases its partnership on advancing these values. This and other factors such as neo-colonialism fuel anti-West sentiment against the US.

It’s re-engagement approach should therefore consider African perspectives on how the issues of diversity, democracy and human rights can be pursued.

Overall, Blinken’s stated commitment to “equal” partnership with Africa, if truly implemented, has the potential to deconstruct these perceptions and the sentiments they produce. The starting point would be to focus on and invest in young people on the continent.

Until recently President Museveni would feature highly in such pep-talks as geopolitical strategy is regarded as his forte. But it appears significant that they are happening without his engagement. It appears that Museveni, who is 78 years old, does not represent the future in the American strategy.

Museveni matters

At the time of Blinken’s visit on Aug.04, President Museveni was meeting an equally formidable but no doubt less senior U.S. diplomat, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is the U.S. Representative to the United Nations.

Based on a presser from the U.S. mission in Kampala, Thomas’s agenda with Museveni was the same in script that Blinken was delivering on the bigger platform in South Africa with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

It involved discussions on the importance of supporting democratic institutions in Uganda, advancing peace in Somalia, South Sudan, and the Great Lakes region, and the effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine on global food security and commodity prices.

Museveni’s meeting with Ambassador Thomas showed he still matters.

Before, the meeting with Thomas, President Museveni had in July met with Blinken’s Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who visited him in Kampala.

Lavrov assured Museveni that Russia was seeking to offer Africa a greater role in its foreign policy and Museveni reciprocated with a pledge to cooperate more with Moscow.

Museveni defended Uganda’s decision to work with Russia even if America is unimpressed. Uganda was one of 17 African nations to abstain during a vote in March on a UN resolution that overwhelmingly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“How can we be against somebody who has never harmed us,” Museveni said at a press conference in Entebbe, “If Russia makes mistakes, we tell them. When they have not made mistakes, we can’t be against them.”

In his 36-year run as president, Museveni has dealt with the administrations of seven U.S. presidents stretching from Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to Joe Biden who is the current occupant of the White House.

President Museveni has had official meeting with some of the U.S. presidents either on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York or on visits to the White House in Washington DC.

Then President of the U.S., Bill Clinton visited Uganda in March 1998 and later set up a charity called, Building for Tomorrow.

At the time, American presidents treated African like a needy child that needed a helping hand. On his visit in 1998, for example, then-U.S. President Clinton pledged to offer “friendship and help”

“America has been guilty of the sin of neglect and ignorance towards Africa,” he said.

And his itinerary, included tours to rural villages where he pledged American money to train teachers and connection to the Internet.

At the time, illiteracy, disease and malnutrition were issues of concern and Clinton promised more aid to combat malaria and to increase food production.

Even back then, the United States poured millions of dollars into Africa.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton again visited Uganda in July 2012 while accompanying his wife, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

President Gorge W. Bush was the second to visit Museveni in Uganda. He visited in July 2003 and, by this time, the issues of concern for both Museveni and America had shifted. The main concern was how to deal with conflict hotspots in the DR Congo and Sudan, and the Joseph Kony Lord’s Resistance Army war raging in northern Uganda.  The abuse of human rights in Uganda was also a major issue. The Kony war, then in its 17th year had pushed the Uganda army and other security forces to commit abuses against the population in northern Uganda.

At the time, as now, despite peace agreements aimed at ending the Congolese war, fighting in eastern DRC was raging and an estimated 3.3 million civilians had been killed and 500,000 displaced. War crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law were being committed by the armed groups.  Summary executions, rapes, arbitrary arrests, and torture were commonplace.

President Museveni had tactfully withdrawn the Uganda forces from DR Congo in May 2003 but an American briefing document said the forces, as occupying power in Ituri from 1998, largely aggravated rather than calmed ethnic and political hostilities.

At the time, the Bush administration had two main objectives in the DRC: the withdrawal of foreign troops, and the establishment of a transitional government.

At the time, Uganda was the darling of the West and was constantly mentioned for Museveni’s success in resuscitating the once collapse economy and combating HIV/AIDS. On the regional front, Museveni was seen as a bulwark for the Christian West against the Islamic power in Sudan.

The Bush administration rewarded Museveni by placing Uganda on the list of countries eligible for preferential trading status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) even though its human rights performance, which was one of the criteria for qualification, was not good.

Still Bush told Museveni to end his involvement in the DRC and urged him to open up the Ugandan political system.

Following Bush’s visit, Museveni in 2005 restored the multi-party system in Uganda after 19 years of the no-party Movement system.

President Bush and Museveni appeared to have forged a cordial relations and Museveni visited Bush in the White House at least twice. They referred to each other as “cattlemen” because as, Bush is quoted to have said, it gave them something in common to talk about.

End of the honeymoon

But Museveni’s schmoozing with American presidents appears to have ended with Bush because his successor, President Barack Obama, did not visit in spite of high expectations that he would visit in 2009. Instead Obama visited Kenya and Tanzania in the region and South Africa, Senegal, and Ethiopia on the continent.

In fact, Museveni appears to have faced a frosty relationship with Obama over his perceived poor human rights record and the controversial anti-homosexuality stance.  The next test of the Joe Biden – Museveni relation will be seen at the time of the African leaders summit in Washington DC in December 2022.

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