President Yoweri Museveni is in the eye of the US-Russia storm over the war in Ukraine, with top envoys from both countries making trips to Kampala within eight days of each other, and the veteran Ugandan leader looking to gain from both global powers.
On the third leg of his tour of four African countries, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov flew to Uganda and met with President Museveni on July 26. And on August 3, US representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield arrived in Entebbe to “counter Russia’s misinformation” over the war in Ukraine.
The Russian and US envoys’ itineraries took them to different African countries, but Uganda was the common factor. Both powers see President Museveni as key to building alliances for their geopolitical interests in Ukraine.
“The US and Russia know that Museveni has followers who happen to be other African leaders. And these followers matter in terms of the numbers that these powers need to take positions against the rest of the world,” said Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, an opposition legislator in Uganda’s parliament.
Courting East and West
Ssemujju argues that while the superpowers jostle for Museveni’s support, the Ugandan leader also sees an opportunity to benefit from both to keep his grip on power – for instance, asking Washington to relax sanctions imposed on his top security officials for human rights abuse allegations while he continues to get subtle backing and military equipment from Russia.
“If the Americans and Europeans cite human rights abuse and don’t want to keep him leading Uganda, he knows the Russians will keep him in power. He knows that Bashar al-Assad in Syria is surviving because of Russia,” said Ssemujju.
In Uganda, President Joe Biden’s ambassador to the UN toured USAid-supported investments before holding discussions with President Museveni on internal matters that include US sanctions against top commanders of Uganda Peoples Defence Forces, as well as regional security. After Kampala, she flew to Ghana and Cape Verde in West Africa.
Meanwhile, on July 28, Lavrov concluded a tour of four African countries – Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt and the Congo Republic – where he met leaders and rallied the continent to become Moscow allies.
In a subtle message to the West while hosting Lavrov, President Museveni said Russia had stood with Africa for the past 100 years and that African countries would only condemn Moscow when it makes mistakes.
“How can we be against somebody who has never harmed us?” Museveni asked. “If Russia makes mistakes, we tell them.”
In an interview with the BBC on August 3 ahead of his meeting with Ms Thomas-Greenfield, President Museveni said he understood Russia’s reasons to start the Ukraine war saying it had been provoked by the West’s advances to breach existing security pacts by having Kyiv join Nato.
The Ugandan leader said the Russian war in Ukraine is similar to the provocation of the US in 1962, when then-President John F. Kennedy nearly declared war after the Soviet Union parked its missiles in Cuba, America’s neighbour.
Ahead of her trip, Ms Thomas-Greenfield said in a special online briefing to journalists on August 2 that Africa was buying Moscow’s rhetoric about the war in Ukraine, and her mission was to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda, without asking the continent to choose between the US and Russia.
“We want African countries not to buy into Russia’s disinformation and misinformation campaign to indicate that somehow this is a war between the United States and Russia. Let’s be clear. Russia attacked Ukraine. Russia started this war,” she said.
The former assistant Secretary of State for Africa added that the current global food crisis was triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Commentators have questioned Moscow’s plan of trying to build alliances with Africa without backing its strategy with financial support to match America’s financial carrot.