May 5, 2010
KAMPALA, Uganda – Uganda joined a select club the weekend before last, being just one of two countries willing to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his sub-Saharan African “tour,” the other being Zimbabwe.
It makes perfect sense that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe would give shelter to Ahmadinejad. Spurned leaders make good bedfellows (and for very entertaining bitch sessions).
But why Uganda, a close military and economic ally of the United States, would host the controversial leader at a time when global opposition to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology is at a record high, is a bit of a mystery.
True, President Museveni has maintained ties with Iran and North Korea for some time now, and he counts Muammar al-Gaddafi among his close friends (down the road from where I write this is the Gaddafi Mosque, among Africa’s largest). And he has been known to play up these relationships to squeeze out more favorable concessions from the West (hardly the first world leader to do so).
There was indeed an economic component to Ahmadinejad’s visit. Tehran is bidding for the right to build an oil refinery in Uganda, and Uganda needs technical expertise as it aims to profit from the two billion barrels of oil recently discovered along its western rift valley. Tehran is also interested in investing in Uganda’s mining, construction, health and education sectors, say Ugandan authorities.
But you don’t give one of the world’s most reviled leaders the stage at an official dinner to bash the West and prattle on about his regime’s “right” to enrich uranium, unless there’s something else you’re trying to say.
So what might that be?
Unlike Bush, the Obama administration has hit out strongly against his dismal human rights record and an election apparatus that is heavily tilted in his favor. Congress has ordered Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to monitor Uganda closely in its run-up to elections. The message in all this is hard to miss: America is no longer willing to sacrifice democratic ideals to preserve its friendship with Museveni, the former army leader who has ruled since 1986.
As a veteran political reporter who covered Ahmadinejad’s visit for the Daily Monitor told me last week, “Uganda, not Museveni, is the point now. The value of Museveni for Washington has diminished.”
The power of the bi-lateral relationship rests squarely with Washington. The U.S. and its myriad allies provide billions of dollars in aid annually and invaluable transference of knowledge, technology and expertise to this impoverished landlocked nation of 30 million. And the west as well its powerful donor arms like the World Bank have not ruled out withdrawing funds or slapping Uganda with sanctions should Museveni be seen to host yet another rigged election come February. And rest assured, as Washington looks across the political aisle here, it is not compromised by a tough cold war-like choice, between a loyal dictator on the one hand and a communist on the other: none of the leading opposition candidates for president have said or done anything to suggest he would roll back Uganda’s close ties to America.
So it is that Museveni is desperate to show he still has a trump card to throw, that he has options, that he doesn’t need Washington. And that is the real impetus for his ill-timed hosting of Ahmadinejad.
In the months ahead he is sure to play up his relations with other undemocratic developing countries, including China, in the hopes of getting Washington to bend – to let him put his thirst for power before national interest.
But Washington so far has just dug in its heels. Days after Ahmadinejad left town, Clinton responded to Congress’s election directive with a report highlighting in stark terms Museveni’s “compromised” election commission and harassment of opposition candidates and the media, leaving Museveni to figure out where he stands, and get his footing wherever he ends up.