Uganda: Museveni and the West. Relationship Status - It's Complicated

Uganda flag
7 January 2021

President Museveni decries foreign interference yet plays to Western donors. Donors warn of Ugandan corruption yet facilitate it.

Over the last few months, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni has been vocal in branding presidential challenger Bobi Wine and his supporters as "foreign agents" or supported by "foreign elements". This is not new. When the musician-turned-politician first entered politics, the government quickly painted him as a stooge of the West, pointing to his enthusiastic reception by Western media outlets or his Canadian lawyer. But as we get nearer to election day on 14 January, this rhetoric has been getting stronger.

President Museveni has accused "outsiders" and "homosexuals" of using Ugandans to instigate the deadly riots that followed Wine's arrest last November. He has said that "amongst the fools supporting Bobi Wine are the Europeans". And he congratulated the army for "defeating the insurrection that the traitors, with their foreign backers, attempted to stage a few weeks ago". His Security Minister, General Elly Tumwine, has echoed this language, calling protesters "agents of foreign forces who want to destabilise African counties for their own interests".

But it is not just rhetoric. In recent months, the government has targeted Western-financed democracy projects, deporting some of their officials and refusing others entry. It has expelled a number of foreign journalists and imposed more restrictive measures on reporters. And in September, it forced the USAID-funded NGO GiveDirectly to suspend its operations in an apparent attempt to exercise closer control over relief funds.

A success story turns sour

These developments mark a new chapter in Museveni's relationship with international donors. Since taking office in 1986, his government has skilfully attracted foreign financial support and assessed donors' needs to forge mutually beneficial relationships.

In the late-1980s and early-1990s, Uganda was a success story for the global donor community. With the international aid system under severe criticism, Uganda generated donor-financed economic growth after decades of conflict. At the same time, the country became particularly important for US regional interests. It provided a buffer against "rogue state" Sudan and a channel through which to support the southern SPLA rebels. Uganda was also a posterchild of how to effectively handle the AIDS epidemic.

Through the 1990s, Uganda's success story slowly turned sour as elite corruption grew, most visibly during the army's excursions into eastern Congo and in the armed conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army. Donors nevertheless continued their engagement. They needed the success story as much Uganda.

This generated a situation in which donor funds became an essential part of the Museveni government's systems of patronage. As a never-published but leaked 2004 report written for the World Bank explained, "a strategic game being played is to see how much of the national pie can be monopolized by those in power; to see how much can be accumulated until there is either the threat of civil war or the international economy (i.e. donors and investors) backs off".

This game is still on. While continuing to strategically play to donor interests, the government has become increasingly repressive and corrupt.

A key part of Museveni managing to maintain this game has been his clever image management. His government has engaged in policies that have been useful in buying support from donors. Firstly, it has projected itself as an anchor of stability in a volatile region, most importantly in contributing the bulk of troops for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM). For playing this role, it has enjoyed continual US support for its military. Secondly, it has reinvented itself as a role model for hosting refugees to the extent is it seen as an "example to the world". This has allowed the Ugandan government to attract resources but also allow the UN Refugee Agency to show its policies work.

Museveni's paradox

In this way, the interests of international donors and the Ugandan government have become closely intertwined. And, as research has shown, the more donors invest in a country - both financially and politically - the "more committed they become to ensuring that [those countries] remain positive examples".

In Uganda, that means there is no accountability for corruption scandals in refugee management or abuses committed by government forces. That would risk spoiling Uganda's - and, by extension, the donor's - image.

This situation allows the Museveni administration to use donor support to protect its interests. Two recent examples are telling. First, in May 2020, the IMF approved a $491.5 million loan to Uganda to limit the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Less than two weeks later, Museveni quietly awarded bonuses of UGX40 million ($10,800) to each of the 317 MPs who supported removing the presidential age limit from the constitution. Second, in June 2020, the World Bank approved a $300 million budget support loan to Uganda to "boost the Government's capacity to prevent, detect and treat the coronavirus". Shortly before this, the government had allocated a similar amount to a classified expenditure budget. These confidential accounts have a long history of funding human rights abuses and corruption, and are particularly concerning in light of the recent election-related violence.

This context highlights the paradoxical nature of the government's relationship to foreign donors. It relies on donor aid yet accuses the opposition of being "foreign agents". As journalist Daniel Kalinaki put it in the Daily Monitor, "the government is happy to beg and borrow and prostitute itself to 'development partners' but will spear any citizen it finds in bed with the aforementioned partners."

In the run-up to the 2021 elections, this paradoxical situation has been pushed to its limits. For instance, while Museveni had previously gone to lengths to distance himself from his party's anti-gay legislation to avoid international damage, he is now using the discourse of blaming "homosexuals" for unrest.

Break up or make up?

What does all of this mean for the 14 January elections and, more importantly, a likely sixth presidential term for Museveni? Will the unprecedented use of violence, the hostile statements and actions towards foreign actors, and a complete abandonment of a level playing field mark a turning point for donor relations? Or will business continue as usual?

The EU's decision not to send an observer mission signals its concerns about the electoral process, but it's doubtful Uganda's traditional partners will go as far as to openly deny recognition of the results. This neither-here-nor-there stance reflects donors' perceived limits to their manoeuvring space: any critical statement may be used to substantiate the government discourse on interference by foreign backers. Moreover, there's a latent fear that cutting off Museveni's funds may drive him further into the arms of Russia and China.

Nevertheless, a change of tone is discernible, particularly in the US, Uganda's most important donor with total budget assistance exceeding $970 million per year. Strikingly, both the American embassy in Uganda and the US Assistant Secretary of African Affairs recently tweeted how there "will be consequences for those who are continuing to undermine democracy". What they might be and whether they will target individuals or broader funding dynamics remains unclear.

What is clear, however, is that, as long as donors frame their relations with Uganda in terms of regional stability, Museveni's brinkmanship game won't lose its persuasive power in the West. At the same time, history has taught us that short-term stability politics tend to eventually backfire.

Kristof Titeca is an associate professor at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp. Follow him on twitter at @kristoftiteca. Anna Reuss is a conflict and peace adviser based in Kenya. Follow her on twitter at @reussae.

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