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UPDF may look like orphans dressed in hand-me-downs, but please, take them seriously

Sunday July 10, 2016

The reality is that even where Western nations provide the cloth, African nations fashion it, and sometimes tie-dye it in colourful complexity.

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Uganda is not withdrawing from Somalia. At least not any time soon. It is also unlikely to officially end its mission in the Central African Republic.

Rather, the last I heard, Ugandan peacekeeping operations are expanding not only within the Great Lakes Region, but if one can believe it, are destined farther afield. Libya has been mentioned in some elite military circles.

The most plausible explanation for the review of both missions is that Uganda and its “frenemies,” the Western funders of peacekeeping activities, have a difficult relationship and it has been getting worse. Part of it is political and the rest practical.

In the CAR, for example, the hunt for Joseph Kony has degenerated into a tedious if glorified trophy race between the US Special Forces and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces. It has not helped that Joseph Kony has proved a most elusive quarry.

In Somalia, lack of control over funding to the African Union Mission (Amisom) and some “creative accounting” by Uganda and others have led to bureaucratic gridlock and bickering amid allegations of outright corruption — within both the military and its civilian administrators.

The resilience of Al Shabaab in the absence of renewed investment in the mission is unsurprisingly not doing wonders for morale in Amisom.

None of these problems are new or strange.

However, overcoming them requires a quantum leap in the framing of African peacekeeping that, while it has made progress, is now becoming a replay disguise of the old African Rifles colonial affair.

How else can one explain it?

Neither the United States nor Uganda want to cease either of the operations above. The LRA manhunt, one of the most unique missions for the US Department of Defence, is legally binding under an Act of Congress.

As for the mission in Somalia, it is rather more sensitive.

In today’s globally disruptive environment of pirates, people smugglers and terrorism, to jettison a workable solution under the African Union and Uganda without an alternative is not just bad policy but probably dangerous.

For Uganda too, the odds are steep. The UPDF under its present unbroken leadership of four decades has been an army engaged in wars, big and small, since its inception in the 1980s, most of them in the region.

In the ensuing period, as some have pointed out, the army abroad has become the standard bearer of a revamped brand of Ugandan military service. Gone are the days of the ragtag guerrilla nationalists, enter the global professional army with pan-African ambitions.

Aside from boosting the stock of elite soldiers in hostile environments, the missions in CAR and Somalia specifically have brought prestige, credibility and money to the UPDF, its leadership and personnel.
Even if one could argue that military corruption and the reputational harm of politics at home have hollowed out its standing, one cannot dismiss the nearly decade-long engagement in Mogadishu that has transformed the conditions for the Somali government and its people.

So why give up the influence it has built on the back of this kind of peacekeeping track record?

At the heart of the rocky relationship between Uganda and its Western allies, particularly the US, is the obviously unequal relationship that exists between African peacekeeping missions and their funders.

Along with this is a fundamental lack of appreciation of “foreign policy” within the African context. Both parties share the blame. To most Western institutions, and diplomatic services, African foreign policy is a misnomer. At a primary level “foreign policy” is considered what Western nations do to African countries.

Western nations are the tailor and dressmaker — and African countries are the orphans in the global village dressed in hand-me-downs who must find what fits and curtsy with a smile.

The reality however is that even where Western nations provide the cloth, African nations fashion it, and sometimes tie-dye it in colourful complexity.

This reality is true for Uganda too. The Museveni administration has worked through five US presidents and multiple changes of power within the region. Its institutional memory and knowledge of security actors within the Great Lakes runs deep while its power at home, as demonstrated by recent events, is unquestioned.

In the past, Uganda has not hesitated to flex its reciprocal leverage — such as the recent troop reviews that play on its indispensable role in the absence of tried and tested alternatives.

However, despite its best efforts, Uganda has not moved beyond brinkmanship and its reputation is constantly hobbled abroad by its inchoate political transition.

Uganda’s “official” foreign policy review (2012) quotes Machiavelli in its preface to explain what national self-interest is.

It also references Hans Morgenthau on “national interest” as being essentially “that which is the most important to a state: The survival of that state.”

As for the grandfather of political cynicism, Machiavelli, he is quoted as saying, “You may have splendid moral goals but without sufficient power and willingness to use it, you will accomplish nothing”.

To treat Uganda and other African armies only as the hired help, like the King’s African Rifles, and disregard their longer term interests, would be equating the threat of troop withdrawals to some sort of labour dispute.

This would be wrong and do even more harm to the relationships that support peacekeeping in places like Somalia.
However, Uganda needs to embrace an era of defence accountability that meets the moral goals of peacekeeping and not simply short-term strategic gains.

Before these relationships are changed, not simply repaired for the crisis at hand, Western decision-makers must acknowledge the complex environment the Ugandan troops operate in and be more diligent in addressing it.

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