Uganda’s War On Terror Facelift

July 14, 2010

US President Barack Obama has been reaching out to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni after bomb blasts in the east African nation killed 76 people, victims of what was apparently a suicide bombing directed from Somalia by the al-Shabaab faction.

Obama has promised assistance, pledging to “redouble our efforts, working with Uganda, working with the African Union, to make sure that organizations like this are not able to kill Africans with impunity.” Speaking to reporters, he told them that those efforts would be focused upon strengthening the multinational presence in Somalia – where a “Transitional Government” has been fighting groups including al-Shabaab since it was put in place via an Ethiopian invasion in 2006.

This sounds plausible. Another front has opened up in the “war on terror” and, in the logic of that conflict, assistance must be stepped up to roll back the gains made by jihadist fighters in Somalia who, in Obama’s words, are now “exporting violence” to neighbouring countries.

There are several observations to make about this logic. First off, it’s important to remember that Somalia has hardly been well served by outside intervention to mould its institutions. The Ethiopian invasion was brutally executed, sending thousands of young men into resistance groups, resistance that was fuelled by atrocities then carried out by the government, AMISOM (the African Union peacekeeping force) and the Ethiopians who remained. So, if the export metaphor is to hold water, then it is necessary to regulate the trade in violence which, historically has been overwhelmingly directed into Somalia.

The second observation is that Obama is actually offering support to a highly disfunctional, repressive government, which itself has engaged in terrorist acts (in the Democratic Republic of Congo). For example, Uganda has been preparing for elections which could oust Museveni, in theory, but reports suggest that opposition rallies are being met by paramilitary groups intent ob breaking up their campaign. When a “Kiboko” gang attacked a meeting held by opposition leader Kizza Besigye in June, Museveni simply replied to allegations that his National Resistance Movement had organized the attacks by labelling the opposition “rioters” and claiming that the Kiboko had every right as patriots to self-organize against such riots.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the rally was organized to protest against Museveni’s failure to reorganize the Ugandan Electoral Commission, which many Ugandans see as partisan. In 2006, Museveni beat Besigye by some 2.5m votes, but the opposition alleged that the result was due to massive electoral fraud, the Electoral Commission coming in for particular criticism as its own vote tallies showed huge discrepancies compared to those collected by the opposition.

Museveni has long used his authority to repress such opposition. In 2007, for example, after riots in Kampala caused by government plans to sell off huge amounts of land to foreign sugar cane interests (to produce biofuels) Museveni imprisoned opposition politicians Hussein Kyanjo and Beatrice Anywar, and quashed planned demonstrations – repression which the opposition maintains then led to chaos.

Additionally, as Obama should know, the Museveni government was hugely complicit in looting the Democratic Republic of Congo during the worst years of its civil war. Quantities of diamonds and other commodities which Uganda itself produces in tiny amounts began to transit through Kampala, while thousands of Ugandan troops controlled vast areas of the north-east of the DRC. Truckloads of wood were hauled out of the DRC, and onto world markets while the vehicles returned to Ituri province laden with weapons with which to arm paramilitary groups (partially funded by the British taxpayer). All of this has led Ugandan opposition groups to label Museveni a multiple war criminal, a designation that should give Obama pause.

But as always, the exigencies of grand strategy seem to trump the politics of decency, let alone human rights and democracy. The reality is that Museveni is entirely convenient for Washington. On one hand he is a reliable neoliberal referee, allowing contentious economic deals, such as oil and gas drilling, and biofuel land transactions, and implementing liberalization of Ugandan agriculture with what looks like deleterious results. But he is also a reliable strategic ally, having donated troops to support the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, allowed Kampala to be used during the Bush administration as a “lily pad” base for renditions and other operations, and brought Dyncorp in to train Ugandan forces for broader roles across Africa and, perhaps, beyond.

So, empowering the Museveni government may prove a disaster for the Ugandan people, if not for the whole east African region. It may help to destabilise the region too – if resistance to Museveni erupts again in Acholiland, for example, or if the Somalian conflict escalates. It may not be possible to stop Museveni using terrorism as a political tool to entrench his position, but Obama looks likely to give him further tools to prevent democratic change.

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One Response to “Uganda’s War On Terror Facelift”

  1. Watsonlow Says:

    It could also be that increasing investment by China in Uganda might lead Obama to believe that Uganda is in need of a US military presence.


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