Uganda on the Brink: Key U.S. Ally for African Security
Over the past decade, the United States government has viewed Uganda as one of the best guarantors of stability and thus American interests in East and Central Africa. In its most basic form, the U.S. government has been able to count on the Ugandan military as a proxy for missions and operations that are important to U.S. interests and provide access to volatile areas in times of crisis. In exchange Uganda has quickly become the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. security assistance funding in Sub-Saharan Africa. With US support, Uganda has been more than willing to export its capable military into complex stability operations, with just over six thousand military personnel deployed to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and provides the majority of forces in the Counter-Lord’s Resistance Army (C-LRA) mission. It has also provided the U.S. with tremendous depth into the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions through a Cooperative Security Location (CSL) in Entebbe, just outside of the capital city of Kampala.
Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have continued to support this relationship even as there are serious allegations that the Ugandan government has supported the theft of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo, compromised the settlement of the conflict in South Sudan by militarily supporting Salva Kiir, and greatly limited the free expression of its citizens. While it has been a capable partner in complex stability operations, the Ugandan government has a recent history of making choices that have led to further destabilization in East and Central African countries. The recent Presidential election in Uganda appears to be an indicator of a coming crisis and the U.S. government needs to evaluate how this fracturing will affect U.S. security interests in the region and whether the U.S.-Uganda security partnership can survive.
The recent aggressive actions taken by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni during the Presidential election in February demonstrate his commitment to staying in power. Deploying military forces, arresting key opposition figures, shutting down information outlets, and his suspiciously successful reelection were disturbing signals to all Ugandan citizens and the world, that he will hold onto power no matter the cost. Unlike previous elections that were also less than free and fair, there has been very little public support in the streets for the five-year extension of Museveni’s rule. Instead Uganda’s public mood seems to be changing as protests against Museveni’s win are still occurring months after he claimed victory. This growing discontent is concerning for the Museveni regime and could also lead to major changes at the top of the Ugandan government.
There are several shifts that could occur as Museveni attempts to keep power within his family and each could easily lead to the kind of instability that Washington has worked hard to avoid. The first is the removal of the age limit from Uganda’s constitution, which currently bars any person older than age 75 from holding the office of the President. There have been rumors and movements by Museveni supporters in the last several years to remove this limitation and keep Museveni in power well into his eighties. Even with seemingly growing support from Museveni’s supporters on this matter, it is not a certainty and could cause citizens to voice their frustration in ways that even internal security forces could not stop.
If Museveni is unable to legally extend his rule because of legal or health obstacles, then it is likely that his wife Janet Museveni or son Muhoozi Kainerugaba would take his place. Janet at age 67 is a seasoned politician, having held a ministry position and been an elected member of parliament. More than just the First Lady of Uganda, she has had a strong role in her husband’s most recent presidential campaign and is an active participant in domestic political matters. Muhoozi is 42 years old, a Brigadier in charge of Uganda’s Special Forces and is a well-known figure to western governments. As commander of the Special Forces, Muhoozi is in charge of the protection of his father and the estimated six billion barrels of oil sitting in the Lake Albert Basin. Being in charge of Uganda’s largest revenue resource has made him one of the most important figures in not just Uganda, but all of East Africa.
Muhoozi’s rapid ascension and control of the country’s oil assets have led many in Uganda to refer to his progress as the “Muhoozi Project.” Several former senior military leaders have expressed great displeasure at Muhoozi’s sudden rise in Ugandan national security matters, and at least one appears to have been targeted by the Ugandan government because of his open contempt for Muhoozi. Currently there are no immediate and legal paths for Janet or Muhoozi to transition from their current positions to the Presidency. Museveni may spend the next few years working to remove any barriers that could keep his Wife or Son from the Presidency. If this occurs there will be some kind of power struggle. Janet could face competitors within Uganda’s political elite that join the opposition parties the Museveni regime has worked to degrade. Muhoozi may not have the full support of Uganda’s armed forces and the military could fracture under his transition. Either of these power struggles could shift to bloodshed and force the U.S. government to evaluate whether the security relationship is worth continuing when the government and its military are caught up in an internal conflict.
A fracturing of the Ugandan political elite and military could also lead to Uganda disengaging from East and Central Africa as it works on internal matters. This would likely entail the Ugandan military withdrawing from AMISOM, which would leave an enormous gap in the fragile security situation facing Somalia and threatening the security of all the nations that make up the Horn of Africa. The Somalia National Army is far from being a capable military force and it could be years before it is ready to truly augment the AMISOM mission, let alone fulfill the responsibilities of the Ugandan military. The same issue would occur in the C-LRA mission, with Ugandan military forces returning home and giving the terror group tremendous freedom of movement in some of the most fragile areas of Africa. The U.S. could quickly be forced to choose between strengthening other partners in the region, like Kenya and Tanzania, taking a more hands-on approach similar to operations in Iraq and Syria with American military forces deployed on the ground, or accepting the limitations of not having a strong military partner and little depth in several fragile regions of East and Central Africa.
Questioning the possible outcomes of what a fracturing Uganda looks like is vitally important, quite simply because Yoweri Museveni, at age 71, may have a shorter lifespan than his presidency and his decisions on who will replace him could quickly and easily lead Uganda to crisis. While the US government could weather this fractious period, it could also find itself with no other reliable security partner in East Africa and being forced to choose between deploying American military forces or risk losing presence in East Africa. While Washington may not wish to consider an unstable Uganda and the political-military turmoil that could come with the end of one of the longest serving heads of state in Africa, the elections in February demonstrated the U.S. doesn’t have a choice.