Russia – Uganda: Why Museveni is gravitating towards Putin

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 17 June 2022 10:37

Russia's President Putin meets with his Ugandan counterpart Museveni at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow December 11, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri Kochetkov/Pool

One week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine amid global condemnation, the Russian Embassy in Kampala announced that Kremlin-linked Russia Today had secured regular space on Uganda's state broadcaster to tell its side of the story.

A week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, state television Russia Today secured an opportunity to be aired on Uganda’s state broadcaster (UBC). At the time, Moscow was under intense criticism and sanctions from the West.

At the start of June, the ruling party in Uganda – National Resistance Movement (NRM) – signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia’s ruling party to bolster cooperation. For the same purpose, Museveni also held a virtual call with former president Dmitry Medvedev, who is the chairman of the ruling party. Uganda had notably abstained in the UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March.

The 2021 presidential elections left a strained relationship with the West that is yet to thaw. As China’s Xi Jinping, who has been an ally of many African presidents, focuses on internal politics ahead of this year’s Communist Party National Congress where he is expected to seek a third term, analysts say Museveni, a shrewd politician who has been in power since 1986 and whose tunes have been played to the West for decades, could be fraternising with Moscow in a bid to get the West to tone down its criticism of him.

“I think Museveni is supremely opportunistic, so if he is around in 20 years, he will be doing what is good for Museveni,” says Helen Epstein, a journalist who has written about Museveni’s relationship with the West.

Analysts also argue that Museveni’s alliance with Moscow and Beijing will likely get stronger in the next decade. “A further authoritarian turn, and hence, worsening of relations with the West will only become worse and hence that the regime will further come closer to actors such as Russia,” says Kristof Titeca, a professor of the politics of development at the University of Antwerp.

A good Museveni, Putin decade

Museveni and Putin have had a good decade of increasing communication and cooperation in both military and non-military sectors. Traditionally, Russia has been Uganda’s number one source of military equipment. Moscow has also been helping Museveni with technology and knowledge transfer in the military sector.

In 2012, Museveni spent four days in Moscow on a state visit. This was the time after the 2011 election, which was followed by walk-to-work protests led by Kizza Besigye, the most potent threat that Museveni had ever faced. Though the West had remained allied to Museveni, viewing Besigye as a sore loser, they raised eyebrows over human-rights violations. Most importantly, however, Uganda’s deployment in Somalia was earning higher returns. A year earlier, the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab had been kicked out of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city.

He’s further approaching players, such as Russia, while at the same time making sure not to burn bridges with the West

In Moscow, Museveni gave a lecture at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations University, lashing out at the ‘arrogant’ Western world.

“With improvements in weapons technology, with the use of precision bombs, stealth bombers, cruise missiles, anti-missile technology, ECM technology,” he said. “Renewed arrogance is manifesting itself in some quarters in the Western world.”

Another important event that took place in 2011 was the West’s invasion of Libya, deposing Muammar Gaddafi who had been Museveni’s friend for decades. Though Museveni had fallen out with Gaddafi in the years leading to his overthrow, the NATO invasion “disturbed him a lot”.

In a speech last year, Museveni said he was trying to convince African leaders, such as South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, to put together a continental force that would intervene in Libya and “teach a lesson to those aggressors (NATO).

Even so, the plan didn’t come to fruition because Gaddafi abandoned Tripoli without a fight. “We had to work out a solution for the aircraft and cruise missiles that attack defenceless people from far away so that if the aggressors so wished, could come on the ground and we fight man to man,” Museveni said.

However, another transaction took place in 2011: Museveni purchased six Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighters from Russia amidst protest from government officials, including then Central Bank Governor Emmanuel Mutebile. The planes cost about $740m at a time when inflation had skyrocketed to above 30%. Such transactions rarely get reflected in trade statistics. However, there was a more than 10-fold increase in Russia’s export volumes to Uganda in 2011, according to UN comtrade data.

Russia exports to Uganda averaged about $50m for most of the years in the last decade but went up unusually again in 2020 by five-folds. This is the year after Museveni returned to Russia in 2019 for the first Russia-Africa summit.

Wooing Russia’s private sector

In the past decade, Uganda has also tried to attract Russian private sector players with no success. In 2015, a consortium led by Russian companies was a surprise winner of a contract to construct a $4bn oil refinery. The company however walked away from the deal months later. The oil refinery deal was in 2019 awarded to a consortium of American companies though not much work has been done on it.

Last year, a contract to install digital number plates on all vehicles and motorcycles in the country with the aim of tracking them was offered by the government to Joint Stock Company Global Security, a Russian company, which was facing multiple bankruptcy litigations. It was also a miniature company employing about 10 people. Despite these revelations, the government declined to rescind the contract, and almost a year later, the company is yet to start working.

Which way for Museveni?

Last year’s election, which saw Museveni declared the winner over his main challenger Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, left deep cracks in the president’s relationship with the West. These cracks haven’t healed to restore trust.

The election was marred by violence as security forces tried to contain Bobi Wine whose popularity had been underestimated, drawing condemnation from the West. Though Museveni was cryptic in telling off the West, his key lieutenants were unsubtle in accusing the West of bankrolling Bobi Wine.

The US was particularly tough on Museveni both verbally and in action. In April 2021, Washington imposed visa restrictions on several unidentified government officials for involvement in human rights violations and interference in electoral processes. It formally sanctioned former Uganda intelligence chief Major General Abel Kandiho for human rights abuses.

Though the EU never announced sanctions, since January 2021 Museveni has suspended the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) – a $100m fund the EU had set up for NGOs promoting democracy. Kampala followed by suspending many NGOs that were working on democracy and human rights.

The elections were a turning point, Kristof tells The Africa Report, because of the aggressive language of the regime and Museveni towards the West, particularly the EU and the US, accusing them of wanting to overthrow the regime.

“The various measures to control foreign aid to [organisations] working on governance and human rights are an important indicator of this, such as the shutdown of DGF,” he said.

A skilful geopolitical strategist, Kristof says Museveni is now manoeuvring to fit into the new geopolitical reality by establishing strong links with global players.

“On the one hand, there’s a worsening relationship with the West and also a reduced support of key allies, such as the US,” he says.  “On the other hand, he’s further approaching players, such as Russia, while at the same time making sure not to burn bridges with the West.”

Allawi Ssemanda, who runs Development Centre Watch, a foreign policy think tank in Kampala, tells The Africa Report that the “West is doing all they can to have different countries back them” because of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

As a result, the West will try to avoid anything that can impede winning more countries like Uganda. Allawi says Museveni’s relationship with China and Russia will only get stronger. “As more African countries’ relationship with China and Russia improve, even the West will adjust their stand.”

 

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