Uganda goes to the polls on Thursday February 18, with President Yoweri Museveni in a narrow lead according to recent polls, but with opposition candidate Kizza Besigye taking the race down the wire, the region is watching closely for an outcome that could fundamentally alter the geopolitics of East and Central Africa.
President Museveni, who marked 30 years in power last month, has, in that time, become not only the region's longest-serving leader, but also a key player in economic and political integration as well as military conflicts in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Burundi.
The Ugandan leader, who signed the Protocol to re-establish the East African Community (EAC) in 1999 with then presidents Daniel arap Moi of Kenya and Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, has made the evolution of the regional economic bloc into a political federation the main goal of his presidency.
"I am here to see whether we can help you get the East African Federation so that we have a critical mass of strength that can guarantee your future, our future and our children's future," Museveni said in a radio interview in Kampala, echoing a campaign message from the 2006 election when he had term limits lifted from Uganda's Constitution to allow him to run again.
"The other time, we almost succeeded in forming the East African Federation, Mzee Moi was committed, Mzee Kibaki was committed, Uhuru is committed, we have been having some issues with Tanzanians but even [former president Jakaya] Kikwete had agreed that we move. This is the number one target that we should aim at."
Victory for Museveni would mean continuity in Uganda's foreign policy and with relatively new governments in Kenya, South Sudan and Tanzania, maintain Kampala's influence in the region.
"Our relationships are institutional, in the EAC, in Inter-governmental Authority Development (IGAD), and in the regional infrastructure programmes we are working on," a foreign affairs official in Uganda told this newspaper. "These are things that have been ratified and localised and whoever comes in will have to continue with most of them, unless there is a very good reason to change. It can't be change just for the sake of changing."
An unlikely victory for Amama Mbabazi, who has been third in all public opinion polls so far, is likely to see a continuation of Museveni policies as the former prime minister and NRM secretary-general has run a "more of the same, but better" campaign.
Foreign policy shift
If, however, Dr Besigye were to win the election, it would be a break with the past three decades and a real shift of power domestically, with spill-over effects on the region.
He would inherit a foreign policy with an expansive military footprint that has at least once in the past seen Uganda with active combat troops in four countries at the same time.
The opposition leader would also inherit Uganda's mediation role in South Sudan and the Burundi conflicts, a relationship with DR Congo that has been thawing over the past two years, and as host of the Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat, a key role in the more strategic contest between downstream countries on the one hand and Egypt and Sudan on the other over use of the Nile waters.
The FDC manifesto does not propose any major foreign policy shifts apart from noting that a strong EAC and African Union "can never be built on the basis of imperial presidencies and the magnanimity of strongmen but rather on the basis of strong states and nations where the citizen is central to that agenda."
The FDC president, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, told The EastAfrican that a Besigye government would remain engaged in regional initiatives like the EAC, the IGAD and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, but would change its mode of engagement.
"The first thing is to ensure that Uganda as a country remains a player, but in an institutionalised manner, not as a person," he said. "We need to focus more on economic development and trade in the region, increase trust among countries and therefore increase stability. Instability in the region has a very high cost to economic development because the mutual suspicions create an arms race which takes money away from important service delivery."
After running a campaign premised around returning political power to citizens and empowering them economically, a new FDC government is likely to be inward looking in the short-term, and its foreign policy would be heavily influenced by its domestic policies and choices, according to its officials.
"Some of the regional complications are due to poverty, like sending our troops to war abroad so that they can earn more money there instead of making sure we pay those at home just as well," says Nathan Nandala-Mafabi, the party secretary-general.
"We also need to ask whether we have to settle all conflict militarily," he adds. "Take Somalia, for instance. We need to ask why Al Shabaab are fighting and whether they cannot be accommodated politically. We must negotiate first, then go in militarily if need be."
A geo-political analyst working on East Africa and the Horn of Africa said a new government in Uganda would have to maintain "about 80 per cent" of the country's current foreign policy and would have very little policy space in the short-term to make major changes.
If Besigye wins, "he will try to engage differently but it will not be in his power to make drastic changes," said the analyst who asked not to be named because his work requires him to work with whichever leader will be elected.
He added: "For instance, the approach to South Sudan will be shaped by how Khartoum responds to a Besigye presidency. Sudan's interest is not tied to Museveni; it is to make South Sudan ungovernable so whoever comes to power will have to deal with and respond to that reality."
A Besigye-led government will face an immediate challenge of making friends and influencing people among regional leaders. In Kenya, a key trading partner and access route to the sea, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto received support from the Ugandan leader in their election campaign and, once in office, in their fight against the International Criminal Court where they both faced trials.
The ICC charges against Uhuru were withdrawn in December 2014 and Mr Ruto, who still faces charges, has continued to lean on Museveni in his political fight. On December 9, 2015 he met with Museveni and campaigned for him in Sebei region, eastern Uganda, where the local communities are ethnically related to Mr Ruto's Kalenjin community in Kenya.
Rwanda looked favourably upon Besigye's first candidature in 2001 at a time when relations with Uganda were fraught following clashes between the two countries' armies in eastern DR Congo. However, there has since been rapprochement between the two countries and their respective leaders and last December, President Paul Kagame gave a nuanced and important endorsement of his incumbent counterpart.
"I am sure the Ugandans are mature enough to know how to resolve their political differences in the electoral processes and the outcome will be what Ugandans deserve," he said at a press conference in Kigali, "but if that was to result into any disturbances for the Ugandans -- I am not saying that's what they deserve; I think they deserve stability, they deserve leaders that will either continue to work for the development and good future of Uganda and I think Ugandans, as they go into the elections, I am sure everyone has this at the back of their minds that they want what's best for them, what's best for Uganda, and that can only come with the result that is stable, that maintains the integrity and stability and security of Uganda and safety of Ugandans."
He then added: "But if you want to know my preference, I have been working with the incumbent government and leaders very well so I wish them well."
President Salva Kiir of South Sudan is dependent on President Museveni's military and diplomatic support while newly reappointed Vice President Riek Machar also mended fences with Museveni during a recent meeting in Uganda and openly called for his re-election.
Tanzania's President John Pombe Magufuli is yet to show his foreign policy cards but President Joseph Kabila of DR Congo has shown willingness to co-operate with Uganda on shared oil fields and regional electricity pools, and with President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi waiting on Museveni to finish his campaigns in order to resurrect peace talks and keep away an AU peacekeeping force, the incumbent in Uganda is sitting pretty in a circle of friends.
The FDC Secretary-General, Nathan Nandala Mafabi, underplayed the importance of these personal relations in a telephone interview with The EastAfrican. "Presidents are presidents; they have to wish each other well and some of them, such as Ruto and Uhuru are looking at their own election next year, but they would work with a new government because the interests will remain the same, even if the approach and personalities change."
A breakdown in personal relations between presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere and Idi Amin contributed to the breakup of the first East African Community in 1977 and, in the case of the latter two, to war between Uganda and Tanzania a year later.
While personal relationships between leaders are important in relations between countries, some of the regional issues in East Africa are institutional and beyond the individual interests of leaders, according to the geo-political analyst this newspaper spoke to.
Apart from regional power and transport infrastructure projects, he pointed to border disputes between Uganda and South Sudan, between Uganda and Kenya over Migingo Island, militant groups in eastern DR Congo and noted that these will determine the nature of engagement and relations between the sovereigns more than their personal relations.
"If, for instance, South Sudan took on a more aggressive approach towards Sudan, then [a Ugandan leader] would probably have to take on a soft approach in order to be useful and to avoid an escalation of Uganda's own relations with South Sudan," he said.
Delicate balancing act
If President Museveni is re-elected, he is likely to continue his delicate balancing act of maintaining relations with the West and supporting their security interests in the region while seeking investment and new friends from China and the likes of Iran, Russia and even North Korea.
It is not clear whether a Besigye presidency would continue along the same path. In a strong newspaper opinion piece of October 2014, the opposition leader warned that under him, Uganda could refuse to pay some of the "odious debt" the Museveni administration has taken on, mostly from the Chinese, to fund infrastructure projects.
Citing what he said were inflated major infrastructure project loans funding corrupt individuals in the government, Besigye warned, "This debt does not bind the nation; it is a debt of the regime, a personal debt contracted by the ruler and, consequently, it falls with the fall of the regime."
Citing examples from Ecuador, Iraq and elsewhere, he added: "We cannot honour the blatant conspiracy to encumber generations of our people with odious debts. This is a legitimate struggle that Ugandans should prepare themselves to face following the inevitable collapse of the NRM regime."
Officials from the Chinese embassy in Kampala were not available for comment.