Uganda: Lavrov visit to Museveni creates headache for Washington

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 29 July 2022 15:21, updated on Friday, 5 August 2022 16:10

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni walk during their meeting in Entebbe, Uganda July 26, 2022. Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni walk during their meeting in Entebbe, Uganda July 26, 2022. Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

Uganda welcomed its highest-ever ranking visit from a Moscow official on 26 July. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov got a warm welcome from President Yoweri Museveni. A sign of a sea change in the geopolitical pecking order?

Museveni has been a key ally of the West for decades. He has neither condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nor distanced himself from Moscow.

The visit is an indication of the warming relations between Kampala and Moscow. It did not go unnoticed.

Hours after Lavrov departed from Uganda, Washington announced that the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, will be in Kampala next week for a two-nation visit to the continent.

Museveni evoked Africa’s historical ties with Moscow for refusing to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. “Whenever issues come up and some people want us to take positions against Russia, we say ‘but you people, these people have been with us for the last 100 years, how can we be automatically against them?” the Ugandan leader said.

 

“How can we be against somebody who has never harmed us, who instead helped us?” Museveni said. “We don’t believe in being enemies of somebody’s enemy.”

When Moscow makes mistakes, it’s condemned, he said while giving an immaterial example that Russia made a mistake by invading Czechoslovakia in 1968. At the time, he was a student at the University of Dar es Salaam and went on the streets to protest against the invasion. He acknowledged that “if Russia makes a mistake, then we tell them”, but added that “when they have not made a mistake, we cannot be against them”.

Russia is satisfied with Museveni’s stand as per Lavrov’s remarks. Key to Lavrov’s script was trying to convince the Uganda president that the war in Ukraine has nothing to do with rising food and fuel prices on the continent. The war is also what brings Greenfield to Kampala, where she will discuss America and the global response to global food security.

Not Uganda

At the start of the war, the West never thought that Uganda would become a centre of attention because they thought Museveni would easily be on their side. However, there was still unease between the two sides, which was triggered by the 2021 election where Museveni blasted the West for supporting his main challenger, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, a musician turned politician.

Following the election season dominated by violence meted on opposition politicians, the US government denied visas to tens of unnamed government officials and sanctioned then Uganda army spy chief Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho for human rights violations.

Countries like Libya, Sudan, Mali, Guinea and Angola were viewed as those where Russia’s opaque influence was strong and would continue to grow. “Russia’s Africa-focused initiatives are typically concentrated on propping up an embattled incumbent or close ally,” Joseph Siegele, director of research at Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, said early this year. Museveni wasn’t in that category.

However, a week after the invasion of Ukraine, Museveni hosted the Russian ambassador, Vladlen Semivolos. Two weeks later, he met the US ambassador, Nantalie Brown. The seriousness of the meeting was evidenced by the presence of Uganda’s ambassador to the UN Adonia Ayebare, who is Museveni’s most trusted diplomat. Ayebare is expected to fly to Kampala ahead of Greenfield’s visit.

 

As Russian media channels were being banned in the West for spreading propaganda, the country’s state television Russia Today secured an opportunity to be aired on Uganda’s state broadcaster UBC. This also happened within a week after the invasion of Ukraine.

Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the commander in chief of land forces of the Uganda army, also sent out tweets backing Russia. “The majority of mankind [that are non-white] support Russia’s stand in Ukraine,” Muhoozi said on Twitter on the second day of invasion on 25 February 2022. “Putin is absolutely right!”

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. Museveni also held a virtual call with former president Dmitry Medvedev, who is the chairman of the ruling party.

Should the West be concerned?

Prof. Phillip Kasaija Apuuli, who teaches international relations at Makerere University, Kampala, tells The Africa Report that Museveni remains a client of the West and Lavrov’s visit is inconsequential. He says Russia’s investment in Africa, and Uganda in particular, remains meagre. “What has Russia bought and put on the table to resolve Uganda’s current problems? Absolutely nothing,” he says.

There is no way Uganda can take a very strong position when it’s aware that Western countries continue to avail the help it needs, Prof Kasaija argues. The US government invests $1bn into Uganda every year, with much of the funding going to the health sector. The EU also invests millions of dollars in Uganda’s economy, with a substantial percentage going to infrastructure, private sector and civil society organisations.

Museveni is possibly trying to spite the West, telling them that if they continue harping about governance and human rights issues in the country, he can lean towards Moscow.

“Uganda has had very long relations with the Western countries. I don’t think they should be worried about a visit by a self-invited foreign affairs minister to Uganda,” he says. “Western countries may feel jittery in a sense that if we are becoming cosy with Russia, that flies in the face of everything they have talked about.”

Prof Kasaija says Museveni is possibly trying to spite the West, telling them that if they continue harping about governance and human rights issues in the country, he can lean towards Moscow.

What lies ahead?

In addition to security, a sector that the two countries have had strong cooperation for decades, Uganda and Russia agreed to boost cooperation in energy, ideological studies, cyber security, agriculture, nuclear technology and the launch of new clear technology for Uganda. At the end of October, the two countries will celebrate 60 years of diplomatic cooperation in Moscow. Lavrov invited his Ugandan counterpart to the celebrations. A joint permanent commission of representatives from the two countries will thrash out details of cooperation that have been identified.

For Uganda, it will host two major international summits next year – the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) and the G77, which were supposed to be held in 2021. The NAM is a forum of 120 countries that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc. The G77 is the largest intergovernmental organisation of developing countries in the United Nation

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