Uganda: A Small Country With Big Ambitions

7 MINS READAug 26, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
Uganda Pursues its Regional Imperatives
Ugandan soldiers under African Union command patrol as part of a mission to combat Lord's Resistance Army rebels in Obo in the Central African Republic.
(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Uganda will maintain its regional security policy in order to keep rebel and jihadist threats at bay.
  • To boost economic integration in East Africa, Uganda will promote more infrastructure projects.
  • Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will keep Uganda's policies in place for as long as he is president — and he has no term limits — but his eventual successor could change the country's course. 

Uganda has been active in several crises in East and Central Africa. Most recently, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has asked South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit to accept a peace agreement with rebel factions that would include withdrawing Ugandan forces deployed in defense of the Kiir government. Uganda is also one of the main contributors to the African Union peacekeeping operation in Somalia and has deployed forces into the Central African Republic for ongoing operations against the Lord's Resistance Army. Uganda has played an active role in supporting rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well.

All of these operations, which have occurred concurrently during the past several years, serve Kampala's domestic and regional interests. Uganda's actions contrasts with the regional military activity of other countries in East and Central Africa, which safeguard their own territorial integrity or fight internal rebellions, or are able to contribute to perhaps only a single major operation at a time. Ultimately, under Museveni, Uganda has become a prominent regional leader, developing a clear security agenda through limited but notable military interventions and supporting East African economic integration efforts.

The Role of Geography and Regional Threats

Uganda's behavior in the region — even compared with countries that are larger, more populous or militarily stronger — is rooted in its geography and its government. Uganda sits on the northwestern portion of the highlands surrounding Lake Victoria. This region, which combines the benefits of the highland climates and the fertile soils around Lake Victoria, has enabled Uganda and other countries on the lake's shores to prosper. What has set Uganda apart is its performance under strong authoritarian leadership. Museveni is one of the most solidly established leaders in his region, able to garner internal support and serve unlimited terms. The strong security apparatus under his control has also facilitated his uninterrupted pragmatic rule. Deploying forces, especially as part of U.N.- and African Union-financed operations, also drives financing and patronage to certain elements of the Ugandan military. The same type of centralized leadership allowed the Kingdom of Buganda to flourish and drive an expansionist policy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But Uganda's current policies are not simply predetermined by geography and history. Uganda has been forced to adopt a regional security policy because of the many threats surrounding it.

Shortly after Museveni's rise to power in the late 1980s, his government had to handle an internal rebellion by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army. Over time, the Ugandan military was able to push the rebels out of Uganda, but the Lord's Resistance Army persists in areas of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. The rebel group is weakened, but Uganda has no intention of letting the rebellion simmer even outside of its borders. In recent decades, countries around Uganda have learned the risks rebel groups allowed to consolidate beyond their borders pose. The Rwandan Hutu government fell when current Rwandan President Paul Kagame marched his rebels from Uganda into Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Uganda supported Kagame, who had served as head of military intelligence under Museveni. Now, Rwanda perceives a threat from the remains of that Hutu government that have taken refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Moreover, Uganda is a deeply divided country, and the only way Museveni — or anyone — can control it is through strong centralized rule. Museveni never was able to completely root out northern Ugandan ethnic-based rebel groups, such as the West Nile Bank Front, during the 1990s, until the rebels fled the country and Ugandan forces fought them outside their country's border. Uganda is approaching the Lord's Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces jihadist group the same way. Many rebel groups have maintained their ethnic connections with each other, and Museveni does not want to take the chance that a northern rebel group beyond Uganda's borders could exploit these connections. Museveni, like Kagame, knows that if he lets a rebel group fester outside Uganda's borders — especially if hostile states sponsor the group — the rebels could easily exploit Uganda's rifts. This is exactly how Museveni came to power and exactly what he facilitated in Rwanda.

Beyond the Allied Democratic Forces, Uganda has faced threats from several jihadist groups in the region, including al Shabaab. It was perhaps Uganda's security posture that led it into the Somali peacekeeping operation, which in turn led al Shabaab to target Uganda. However, security and stability in the wider East African region, including Kenya, the country through which Uganda has access to sea ports, was already an important objective for Kampala. Now, with al Shabaab militants trying to infiltrate several East African countries and the Allied Democratic Forces maintaining a lingering presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda has no choice but to commit to operations against these groups — or, as was the case with the Allied Democratic Forces, support rebel factions willing to complicate the jihadists' search for refuge. 

Uganda also saw a need to intervene in the South Sudanese civil war. For Uganda, if South Sudan completely destabilized, security threats could spill across its borders, significantly disrupting cross-border trade between the two countries. Strategically, successful rebel exploits or a weakened South Sudanese government could also enable Sudan to dominate the region. Sudan and Uganda are naturally competitive, and though their relationship is currently subdued, the rivalry has not ended.

South Sudanese government forces were losing ground rapidly before Ugandan ground forces and aircraft arrived and turned the battle around. Since then, Ugandan forces have been present in South Sudan and have guaranteed that no rebel force would be able to move on the South Sudanese capital, Juba. Uganda's presence in South Sudan is a point of contention for the rebel forces as they negotiate with the Kiir government. However, the peace agreement that Uganda supports includes the withdrawal of these forces. Uganda will, however, maintain its capability to redeploy these forces if the peace agreement fails and a new challenge to Juba emerges.

Uganda's Economic and Political Ambitions

Uganda's security policy is intertwined with economic interests and domestic and regional political objectives. As a member of the East African Community, Uganda has supported efforts to integrate regional economies and develop regional infrastructure. For Uganda, infrastructure is critical; the landlocked country has no direct access to seaports for trade except through Kenya. Plans for a new corridor connecting Uganda to the Kenyan port of Lamu are in the works. Uganda and Kenya are also trying to construct a crude oil pipeline that would enable Uganda to export oil from fields currently under development. Other projects that would expand the connection between Uganda and Kenya are still in the early stages, and financing has not been secured for portions of the new infrastructure. Other East African countries are also pursuing greater integration; Kenya, for example, drives integration efforts in order to retain its status as a diplomatic and commercial leader in the region.

Considering the importance of a strong, centralized leadership in Uganda, Museveni's personal ambition to remain president for life also guides Uganda's trajectory. Right now, Museveni is able to continue ruling with no limitations on the number of terms he can serve. However, serious opposition to presidential term extensions in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has shown the liabilities of long-term authoritarian rule. Museveni still enjoys substantial support in Uganda and has no immediate concerns, but when the inevitable succession occurs, it will determine whether Uganda's regional policies will remain intact. 

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