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Understanding Museveni's Foreign Policy Chess Game

With events in the eastern DRC rapidly unfolding, what will Museveni do next and why?
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Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (left), US President Barak Obama (centre), Secretary General Ban ki-Moon (right) at a UN lunch in 2010. Photograph by UNDP.

In the latest high-level diplomatic move surrounding the conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Presidents Joseph Kabila of the DRC, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda yesterday jointly demanded that the M23 rebels pull out of the recently-captured town of Goma and end their offensive.

This may seem strange given that many believe M23 is a proxy army of Rwanda and that in a leaked UN Panel of Experts report, Uganda was also accused of providing more “subtle” support to the rebels and allowing “the rebel group's political branch to operate from within Kampala and boost its external relations”.

Both Uganda and Rwanda strenuously denied the claims and Uganda’s Army and Defence Spokesman Felix Kulaigye dismissed the report as “hogwash...a mere rumour that is being taken as a report”.

Shortly after, as if to demonstrate its deep displeasure, Ugandan officials threatened to pull out of international peace-keeping missions in Somalia, the Central African Republic (CAR), and the DRC. However, Wendy Sherman, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, amongst others seemed to believe Uganda was calling the international communities bluff, saying she “fully expects” Uganda to continue playing “the leadership role it has” in diplomatic and military terms.

With events unfolding quickly in the region, it may be difficult to predict Museveni’s next move and pick apart the short-term motivations behind his most recent actions, but looking at how he has operated in the region previously and the issues that take the centre ground in his foreign policy calculations may offer some insight.

Political survival

One factor that might explain Sherman’s confidence in dismissing Uganda’s threat to withdraw international peacekeepers is Washington’s history of cooperation with Museveni on security matters. Following the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia earlier this year, the Ugandan president is the most powerful and significant pro-Western leader in the region remaining.

Museveni has been a long-time US ally in regional security in conflicts from Sudan to the Lord’s Resistance Army in central and east Africa to al-Shabaab in Somalia. Museveni and his military chiefs have done well from these partnerships and there are whispers suggesting the US is building a military base in Uganda’s north-eastern region of Karamoja.

Another reason for doubting the seriousness of Uganda’s threats is that there is almost always more to Museveni’s political moves than meets the eye. He often proclaims the ‘noble aspects’ of his foreign ventures whilst keeping his real motives close to his chest, and has proven himself to be shrewd operator when it comes to geopolitical and regional issues.

In Somalia, for example, in which Uganda contributes to the AU peacekeeping force AMISOM, Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa promised that Uganda’s “primary intention...was not to do business. It was our pan-African role in ensuring that Somalia ceases to be a failed state.”

However if you scratch below the surface, a different picture with possible ulterior motives emerges. At the time of Uganda’s military incursion into Somalia, the international community was intensifying its calls for a smooth political transition in Uganda – “transition” possibly being a euphemism for ‘a Uganda without Museveni at the helm’. Concerned by these calls, and perhaps inspired by Muammar Gaddafi’s advice to him once that “revolutionaries don’t retire”, Museveni offered large numbers of Ugandan troops to the mission in Somalia. Uganda now contributes more than a third of the 17,600 AU peacekeepers stationed there to combat the militant Islamist and al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab, and this move effectively established Museveni as one of the West’s indispensible allies in the war on terror.

Regional power game

Apart from the need to deflect attention from his “life presidency” project, another of Museveni’s key objectives for going into Somalia was possibly to secure an alternative sea port to Kenya’s Mombasa as an alternative for exporting newly-discovered Ugandan oil.

Additionally, by establishing a Ugandan presence in Somalia, Museveni likely hoped to ensure any future Kenyan president would have to accept his hegemony in the interests of Kenya’s security, especially in the critical northern corridor around Lamu port, where multi-billion dollar oil, rail, and road infrastructure projects are underway.

Considering the odds-on favourite to become Kenya’s next president is the current PM Raila Odinga, a man who has had a love-hate relation with Museveni, we can see what journalist Charles Onyango Obbo meant when he suggested that success in Somalia would be Museveni’s greatest victory. Success in Somalia would firmly enable Museveni to gain strategic leverage over a country that has shown signs of discomfort with Museveni’s ambition to become, and perhaps even retire as, the first president of the proposed East African Community (EAC) federation.

But Kenya is not, and never has been, a passive observer in Museveni’s regional power games. It saw what was coming and decided to follow Museveni into Somalia under the AMISOM umbrella. That move pulled a strategic rag from under Museveni’s feet, although Ugandan troops remain crucial in Somalia.

What next for Museveni?

The security threat from eastern DRC was always likely to be Museveni’s next foreign policy theatre. Indeed, in his reaction to the UN report, Uganda's International Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem expressed Uganda’s displeasure at the handling of the region, telling the BBC that “the UN was seeking to blame others for the failure of its own peacekeeping force in the eastern Congo”.

This may explain why the Great Lakes leaders, led by Museveni and Rwanda’s President Kagame, decided to push ahead with the creation of a neutral force to pacify the region despite the fact the UN had given the idea a rather lukewarm reception.

Both Kampala and Kigali seem to believe one of the most important solutions to the crisis in eastern DRC is for the President Kabila to end to what Museveni and Kagame see as his persecution of immigrant Tutsis who have ancestral ties in Rwanda and Burundi. This would be one of the reasons behind creating a regional force.

And according to a Ugandan analyst speaking to Think Africa Press on the condition of anonymity, although the US has been quick to show it is critical of Rwanda’s alleged support for the M23 rebels, it has also shown signs of sympathy for the positions being pursued by Museveni and Kagame. It would not be against US interests, for example, for a neutral force to impose a federal state system in the DRC, nor – taken to the next extreme – for the expansive DRC to be broken up into smaller states.

The threat looms that emerging powers might be able to detract from the US’ influence in the region, to which Uganda is crucial, and in a recent interview, Uganda’s Foreign Minister declared that Uganda will now be “looking at countries like China, Brazil and India” and reposition itself “because there is a shift in the economies of the world and we must position ourselves to take advantage of all this”. How Museveni exploits these tensions will be one of the hallmarks of his legacy.

All in all, it is not difficult to agree with those who think Museveni actually sees himself as an African “political architect”. As one analyst put it, the foreign policy chess game “motivates him like hell”.

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