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Does Uganda need high-tech jets?

By Andrew M. Mwenda  

Recently, the Uganda government decided to spend about US$1 billion shopping high tech jet fighters and the accompanying missiles and armament from Russia. There has been outcry from the media, the donor community, the opposition and the wider public against it.

How can a country with a GDP of US$ 15billion and annual tax revenues of US$ 2 billion; a nation 97% of whose citizens depend on firewood for energy, 92% have no access to electricity, 77.4% live on rammed earth floor; 73% of whom are subsistence (hand-to-mouth) farmers and 2% depend on industry and 8% on services for a livelihood get to spend that much money on a few pieces of high tech weaponry?

There are serious geostrategic reasons why Uganda needs to bolster its security posture. With the promise of an oil windfall, our country may begin earning as much as US$7 billion per year by 2020 from oil alone. This windfall in revenues will create a lot of temptations by many of our neighbours who may want to disrupt such revenue gains ‘ or at least we should defensively think like this. And it begins with a closer look at the geographical location of Uganda.

Our country faces a dilemma similar to that of Israel ‘ living in a dangerous neighbourhood. To the West of Uganda is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country with an absentee state in its eastern region. This state of affairs may continue for the foreseeable future ‘ even up to two or three decades. Yet Uganda’s oil reserves are geographically located right on the border with it.

Furthermore, on the border with DRC lies Mt Rwenzori that is heavily forested. Further south is Queen Elizabeth National Park and Bwindi forest. Given the absence of an effective state in eastern DRC, these geographical features give potential adversaries ‘ especially rebels ‘ considerable military advantage. As our nation braces to exploit oil, it should also develop a security strategy that takes potential military threats seriously.

However, Uganda does not need high tech fighter jets to fight rebels. So the government should be having other potential adversaries in mind. Take Lake Albert, for example, where some of the oil is located. It is shared by both countries. There are disagreements over Rukwanzi, an island in the lake. Both countries have agreed on a joint survey team to establish where it falls. If the findings of this team do not resolve the problem, Uganda may have to brace itself for war with DRC.

But if DRC cannot establish an administrative, leave alone a military presence in its eastern region, how can it organise to fight a war against Uganda? No military strategist would base their security posture on such a foundation. It is better to hope for the best but plan for the worst. DRC can find allies to help it fight its war. Uganda’s military strategists have to plan for such a worst case scenario.

The other threat to Uganda is in the north and comes from the government of Sudan. Only a dozen years ago, Uganda invaded and occupied eastern Congo ‘ not because of its relations with the regime in Kinshasa but because of its relations with Khartoum. If you are a military strategist in UPDF, you would seriously think about the possibility of Sudan using DRC to destabilise Uganda. Why?

There is a referendum to decide the future of Southern Sudan next year. If the south votes for secession, what are the likely security implications for Uganda especially given our long history of alliance with the SPLA? Besides, Egypt will not be comfortable with a new nation in the management of the waters of River Nile because this would increase the number of sovereign states through which the Nile passes.

What are the likely scenarios? Egypt may support Sudan directly or indirectly to resist the evolution of a stable government in the south. With this backing, Sudan may attack the south directly or use proxies by equipping the LRA and sending it into Uganda in order to pin down UPDF so that Khartoum can have a free hand fighting SPLA. Whatever strategy it adopts has powerful security implications for Uganda.

With these concerns, Uganda has to adopt a specific security posture. Now, one could argue that in all these cases, buying only six highly sophisticated fighter jets is not optimal. That money can be spent on better and more appropriate fighting equipment than a few planes. For example, US$1 billion can give Uganda considerable advantage if it is invested in tanks, armour and less sophisticated fighter jets.

A good strategist will assess the strength of an opponent and adopt a security posture that is not only meant to fight the enemy but to scare them from such an undertaking. Buying high sophisticated jet fighters and bombers may be an important deterrence for Uganda. Khartoum’s assessment of Uganda’s military preparedness and capacity will determine their method of attack: If they smell weakness, they may fight directly; if they think UPDF is strong, they may use proxies.

However, this may be illusory. Because Khartoum already has oil, it can buy similar planes in larger quantities than Uganda. Secondly, if it is supported by Egypt, a country with a considerably more developed air defence system, there is no amount of spending Uganda can afford that can scare Khartoum from a more aggressive military posture.

From the above perspectives, Uganda’s geographical position (dangerous neighbourhood) and its particular endowments (oil) are combining to create a serious security dilemma. But it does not justify spending US$1 billion on a few pieces of high tech planes. If we assume the above debates have been taking place inside UPDF air force, what made the enthusiasts for these high tech jets carry the day?

It could not have been motivated by corruption because any military contract could carry a high bribe. I suspect President Yoweri Museveni’s personal obsession with military technology and grandeur may have biased the decision. Public debate in Uganda produces polemics rather than sober analysis. Yet it is in appreciating the necessity for improved security that we in the media can contribute constructively to the national debate on how UPDF spends our money.

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