By Andrew Green,World Polirics Review
KAMPALA, Uganda — Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s long-serving president, has emerged as the central mediator of the conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, orchestrating the withdrawal of rebel troops from the key Congolese city of Goma and hosting peace talks between the rebel leaders and the Congolese government. By coordinating all stages of the process, Museveni has reaffirmed his position as East Africa’s key power broker — a status that until recently appeared to be slipping.
In October, Reuters published details of a leaked U.N. Security Council Group of Experts report alleging Ugandan and Rwandan support for M23, the rebel group that went on to seize swaths of eastern Congo, including Goma. While the report emphasized Rwanda’s role in coordinating M23’s creation and movements, Uganda was also singled out for allowing the “rebel group’s political branch to operate from within Kampala and boost its external relations.” Another leaked report from U.N. sanctions experts obtained by AFP alleges further Ugandan and Rwandan aid to M23 during its latest campaign. The new investigation charges Uganda with providing logistical support to the rebels during their offensive, while Rwandan troops are said to have bolstered M23’s efforts.
The repercussions of the reports have so far been decidedly uneven. Before the latest leak, the United Kingdom had already announced it was suspending more than $33 million in budget support to the Rwandan government over its alleged connections to M23. The United States had already cut $200,000 in military aid to the country in July. Uganda, while facing lesser charges than Rwanda, has so far managed not only to remain relatively unscathed by the reports, but to keep control of the peace process. The difference in treatment points to a lack of other viable fixers among East Africa’s leaders as well as to Museveni’s political skill and regional clout after nearly 27 years in power.
As soon as the October report was leaked, Ugandan envoys immediately denied its findings while simultaneously playing the country’s trump card: announcing that Kampala was prepared to pull the troops it contributes to the African Union Mission in Somalia, according to Reuters. Uganda’s willingness to work closely with the United States on regional counterterrorism issues — especially in Somalia, a priority for Washington — has granted Kampala a degree of autonomy in conducting its foreign affairs. As Charles Okwir, a Ugandan political analyst and journalist, explained in an email interview, “Museveni will be the first to tell you that the West has no permanent friends. And by openly showing sympathy for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and China’s interests in Africa, while supporting the Western-led war on terror . . . he has also been shrewd enough to show the West that he, too, has no permanent friends.”
In this instance, the threat of withdrawal from Somalia opened up the space for Museveni to demonstrate his mastery of regional politics. As the rebels took Goma in late-November, he organized closed-door sessions between Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Congolese President Joseph Kabila, the leader the U.N. had just accused Museveni of trying to undermine. Museveni also put out a joint communiqué calling on the rebels to stop fighting and leave Goma, while assuring them that Congolese officials would listen to their complaints. He then chaired an emergency meeting of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region that validated the resolutions of the Kagame-Kabila meeting and put the Ugandan military in charge of managing M23’s pullout. Though the presidents of Kenya, Tanzania and the DRC were present, Museveni was the only one sitting on the dais at the press conference announcing the resolutions. Days later, after a secret meeting of regional military leaders, again in Kampala, plans for the M23 withdrawal were announced.
There is no guarantee the status quo will hold, and the impact of the latest U.N. report is yet to be felt. But at the moment Museveni is indispensable. Foreign Policy reported that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, tipped as a potential replacement for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is trying to keep the Security Council from coming down too harshly on Uganda and Rwanda to avoid undercutting the regional peace negotiations. That will allow Museveni to maintain his role as regional power broker and shape the future of eastern Congo, an area that has previously sheltered militants opposed to his regime.
While Museveni’s ability to simultaneously manage regional and international pressures has shielded him from criticism of his domestic policies, including reports that he is stifling opposition parties and civil society groups, it has not rendered his government completely untouchable. Even as the Congo situation played out, Uganda suffered its own donor cuts as a result of an investigation into corruption in the prime minister’s office. Germany, Ireland, the U.K., Denmark and Sweden have all turned off direct aid until corrective action is taken. And a parliamentary move from members of Museveni’s own party to resurrect a locally popular anti-homosexuality bill may put the Ugandan president in the position of choosing between his domestic constituency and his international allies, who abhor the legislation.
Still, in the short term, Uganda’s position as the only viable regional power broker is unlikely to change. Kenya’s presidential election is approaching in early 2013, bringing fears of a revival of the ethnic violence that marred the country’s last polls in 2007-2008. South Sudan has not yet established its footing after little more than a year of independence. The leaders of Burundi and Tanzania do not have Museveni’s strength. And Rwanda’s Kagame, thanks to his alleged involvement in the Congo, has seen his star dim internationally. All of which means Museveni’s is only shining brighter.
Andrew Green is a freelance journalist based in East Africa who has written for the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter at @_andrew_green.
Photo: Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, July 2008, Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt (Defense Department photo by Jeremy T. Lock).