May 6, 2010
KAMPALA, Uganda – Why is the Obama administration pressuring Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to establish democracy, whereas American presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan have chosen to look the other way?
It boils down to both ideals and realpolitik.
In choosing to kick off his Africa tour last year in Ghana (and never touching down in Uganda among other countries), US President Barack Obama signaled he planned to make good governance in Africa a cornerstone of his foreign policy on the continent, knowing all too well that its failure to take root on the continent has been a key reason for its stagnation.
Museveni’s Uganda is living proof.
Hailed in the 1990s as a new type of African leader, he abolished term limits four years ago, stands widely accused of holding fraudulent elections, of favoring his ethnic group economically and politically, of consolidating power at the expense of nation building, and generally having outlived his economic usefulness.
Observers inside and outside Uganda now worry that another unfair presidential election will lead to violence and instability.*
Of course that prospect and that of continued economic mismanagement does not bode well for America’s or Uganda’s long-term interests here.
Museveni, in short, has become a liability, proving unable (or at least unwilling) to ensure Washington stability or major economic incentives.
But, you say, Uganda has oil, some two million barrels worth, one of the largest oil finds in sub-Saharan Africa. Isn’t that incentive enough. But it’s not high-grade, will be expensive to refine and transport, and Uganda currently lacks the capacity to maximize its potential. Besides, considering America’s expertise in locking down vital resources, losing dibs on Uganda’s find is not unlikely to undo the superpower. In sum, oil alone is not enough to keep Washington in the game.
There are defense considerations. Uganda accounts for the bulk of African troops assisting Washington in Somalia. And Uganda has allowed EU and the Americans to train and deploy troops from the country. But here again, the relationship is hardly make-or-break. Indeed the military ties are equally if not more beneficial to Uganda. Here’s how U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Jerry P. Lanier carefully put it when asked in February by the Independent of Uganda how strategically important Uganda is to the US: “Uganda and the United States have a very strong partnership. We do provide considerable training and assistance to the Ugandan military; particularly with logistic support in the campaign against the [Lord’s Resistance Army]. Uganda is in Somalia for peacekeeping sanctioned by the [African Union] and supported by the UN.”
This is not to say Uganda is useless to Washington. Just that Washington no longer feels it needs Museveni, giving it greater leverage to push the democratic agenda.
It remains to be seen how far Washington will go in pressuring Museveni to respect the will of his people and adopt other practices conducive to growth and prosperity. Would America withdraw aid?**Or just call a truce with Museveni if he wins underhandedly?
Either way, the simple fact that Museveni is no longer being treated as an exception to the rule and being read the riot act indicates that the rules of the game have changed.
* Museveni too hasn’t ruled out election-related violence. But rather than establish an independent election commission and respect basic democratic principles, he has hired Tehran to train the Ugandan Police Force to build capacity in “public order management,” a skill Tehran knows well, having violently squashed months of protests in response to a rigged election it held last year.
**Sweden has threatened to withdraw aid should Uganda pass an anti-homosexuality bill,
which would allow for HIV positive gay Ugandans to be hanged and other punishments that violate basic human rights.