The US seems conflicted about what action to take against President Yoweri Museveni, whose governance record has been criticised by senior Washington officials.
The EastAfrican has learnt from a well-placed source within the Ugandan government that President Museveni is still looked upon favourably within the Pentagon as a dependable ally and Kampala as an assured gateway to the region.
As such, for all his shortcomings, Washington — and by extension the West — is still ready to do business with him for some time to come.
“American interests aren’t necessarily defined by the State Department or the Oval Office. Defence has a lot to say. So, from the Pentagon, you are likely to get a completely different perspective than you would get from the Oval Office,” said the source.
President Museveni has not enjoyed much warmth from the administration of Barack Obama, who has lost no opportunity to call out long-serving African leaders.
The Ugandan leader seemed to call his bluff when he gathered together for his recent swearing-in ceremony, with nearly all the African leaders the American president has indirectly criticised.
“The number of heads of state from Africa who attended the swearing-in ceremony was a definite indication of belief in him,” said the source, who is privy to high-level deliberations.
A section of Ugandans seem to believe that were the West to part ways with President Museveni, it would hasten the continually elusive transition of power in Uganda. But the US has stated it has no plans to cause a regime change in Kampala.
Broad, complicated relations
At a meeting with reporters on May 13, in Kampala, Bruce Wharton, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs with the US Department of State, would not say if anything, his country plans to do about President Museveni beyond harsh criticism.
Describing relations between Washington and Kampala as “very broad and complicated,” Mr Wharton, who led the US delegation at Museveni’s swearing in ceremony on May 12, said it was premature for him to suggest what the US intended to do about what it claims is a worsening human rights and democratic situation in Uganda.
“We have made public statements that you’re familiar with, but we also have private diplomatic conversations with important people in government in which we discuss our concerns… on what appears to be diminishing space for political discourse, for civil society, for freedom of expression,” Mr Wharton said.
Promotion of human rights and democratic governance remain central to the US foreign policy, Wharton noted. But in the face of security challenges, Washington, like Kampala, appears to be grappling with how to strike a balance between the two.
For both, however, security is a more immediate priority to keep their different enemies at bay: For the US, terrorism and radical Islam, and for Museveni a persistent and troublesome opposition.
Even if neither the US nor the EU, who have been most outspoken about Museveni’s governance record, has mustered the boldness to say so, both essentially appear to be stuck with him since on balance he remains the most assured guarantor of their security interests in the region, some analysts say.
Currently, no situation best sums up these interests than the war against terrorism, for which East Africa is a major battleground, thanks to the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabaab terror group that is based out of Somalia. The 6,223-strong Ugandan army is a key fighting force against it under the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom).
“[Museveni] is still useful to the Americans. Somalia is yet to stabilise… And Uganda is well positioned to continue playing a role. Kenya is a front line state in the conflict but Uganda’s role cannot be dismissed,” said Prof Kasaija Phillip Apuuli, who researches international relations as well as security and conflict dynamics in the Great Lakes and Greater Horn of Africa regions.
According to Mr Kasaija, the so-called global war on terror has particularly rewarded President Museveni handsomely. It has enabled him to reinvent himself especially after the 2001 disputed elections — the time he signed up — as the most readily available and reliable partner Washington’s power brokers could do business with.
“Indeed, the Uganda People’s Defence Force [UPDF] has been outsourced by the US to do its bidding,” added Kasaija, who is a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Stetson University College of Law/University of South Florida.
According to Col (Rtd) Shaban Bantariza, the government’s deputy spokesperson, Uganda is one of the most stable countries in East Africa and stability is a key benchmark for the US to make any country an ally.
“So, no, they are not stuck with us. Our relationship is based on mutual reciprocity... . There are ways in which they benefit from us and we also have ways we benefit from them,” added Mr Bantariza, without divulging details.
Could anything unravel this relationship? The test, for now, lies in if Museveni successfully instigates a change to the constitution to remove the age limit — the remaining hurdle to a life presidency bid.