Uganda: Museveni unmoved by US plea to condemn Russia

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Friday, 5 August 2022 20:21
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

Despite a decade-long alliance with the West, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni appeared unmoved by this week's visit from US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield as Washington looks to pull Kampala to its side in its dispute with Russia over the Ukraine invasion.

Thomas-Greenfield’s 4 August social call came less than a week after a historic visit by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the first high-ranking Russian official to ever set foot in Uganda. His visit has been viewed as a diplomatic victory for Moscow.

From the onset of Russia’s war on Ukraine in February, Uganda has said it was taking a neutral stand. As the West has continued to push Museveni both publicly and behind the scenes to condemn Moscow, however, the Ugandan leader has expressed support for President Vladimir Putin and espoused the Russian line that the invasion was prompted by the perceived threat of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Defending Russia

In an interview with the BBC that aired this week, Museveni argued that Russia had long been provoked by NATO.

“In the case of Ukraine, I had two questions, because the Western countries were saying NATO should expand to the doorsteps of Russia and Ukraine can join NATO because it’s a sovereign (country),” Museveni told the BBC. “Russia says I don’t feel comfortable and they say it doesn’t matter, this is sovereignty.”

The Ugandan leader’s skepticism was also on display in how differently he greeted his Russian and US visitors.

Lavrov was treated to a joint press conference with Museveni, who thanked Moscow for its historical support for anti-colonial movements on the continent.

“How can we be against somebody who has never harmed us?” Museveni said.

A lower-key affair

Thomas-Greenfield’s visit by contrast was a lower-key affair. After their meeting, Museveni’s press team shared a brief press statement noting that the President had asked the US to rethink its sanctions on Russia and their impact on African countries.

“If you really want to help the Third World, why don’t you leave the Third World out of these sanctions in a conflict where we are not participating?” Museveni said.

Meanwhile, Museveni’s son and heir apparent, Ugandan land forces commander Muhoozi Kainerugaba, tweeted that Putin was “absolutely right” to invade Ukraine.

Museveni also tweeted a photo of their meeting that lamented the “economic hardships occasioned by the Ukraine-Russian war” but did not assign blame.

Thomas-Greenfield held her own media briefing with select journalists. She said the timing of the visit right after Lavrov was a coincidence, as the trip had “been in the planning for quite some time”.

Ties that bind

Despite tensions in the US-Uganda relationship caused by Museveni’s crackdown on the opposition and last year’s flawed presidential election, Thomas-Greenfield said the US “still have a very strong partnership with President Museveni.” She said: “He has been and continues to be a leader in this region.”

During her visit, she announced that the government of US President Joe Biden is providing $20m, subject to congressional approval, in new funding for Uganda through the US Agency for International Development (USAID). “The assistance will be channeled through international and national partners and civil society organizations to enhance local efforts in Uganda … to directly mitigate the impacts of growing food insecurity, which have been exacerbated by Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine,” USAID said in a press release.

During the January 2021 presidential election, the Ugandan government accused Western countries of bankrolling his main competitor, musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine. A government spokesperson accused the US government of funding Wine’s campaign through USAID, although no details were ever provided to substantiate the allegations.

After the election, the US slapped visa restrictions on several unnamed government officials whom Washington determined had “undermined democracy and respect for human rights” during the election. Ahead of the US Summit for Democracy in December, the US treasury department also sanctioned Maj. Gen. Abel Kandiho, Uganda’s former spy master, for rights violations.

Almost a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, the US treasury department sanctioned African Gold Refinery situated in Entebbe, Kampala, along with its owner, Belgian businessman Alain Goetz, for their alleged involvement in smuggling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Activists say some of Museveni’s close associates have links to the gold refinery, which did not paid taxes even as it helped turn Kampala into a regional gold hub.

Despite the tensions, Museveni’s relationship with Washington has long been anchored on his willingness to promote US security interests in the region. Whether it was countering Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in the 1990s, helping depose Zaire’s dictator Sese Seko Mobutu or fighting Al-Shabaab rebels in Somalia, Museveni has long supported US interests.

Shared values?

The Biden administration came to power promising that democracy promotion would be high up on Washington’s agenda following four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy. And human rights and democracy promotion were indeed part of Thomas-Greenfield’s agenda.

“We don’t hesitate to raise concerns about what we stand for,” she said.

However, asked if Museveni would be invited to the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December, Thomas-Greenfield did not give a clear answer.

“We are still in the process of planning that summit, and our plan is to invite every country to the summit that is not under sanctions … and are currently members of good standing with the African Union,” she said.

If Museveni does end up visiting Washington this year, this would be his first encounter with a US president since he met with then president Barack Obama during the first US-Africa Leaders Summit in August 2014. Unlike many of his peers, the Ugandan leader has not had a phone conversation with a US president since then.

Helen Epstein, author of the book “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror”,  argues that Museveni can only agree to distance himself from Russia “in exchange for Washington’s continuing blind-eye to corruption and human rights abuses in Uganda and the region”.

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