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De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Report 187 / Africa

Uganda: No Resolution to Growing Tensions

Unless President Yoweri Museveni breaks with the ways of his predecessors and the trend of his own lengthy rule, popular protests and discontent will grow in Uganda.

Executive Summary

Most Ugandans are better off than they were a quarter-century ago, when Yoweri Museveni became president. But frequent demonstrations and violent crackdowns indicate many are deeply dissatisfied with his administration. This is largely the consequence of a slow shift from a broad-based constitutional government to patronage-based, personal rule. In this respect, Museveni has followed a governance trajectory similar to that of his predecessors, although without their brutal repression. Like them, he has failed to overcome regional and religious cleavages that make Uganda difficult to govern and has relied increasingly on centralisation, patronage and coercion to maintain control. Unless this trend is corrected, Uganda will become increasingly difficult to govern and political conflict may become more deadly.

The British Protectorate of Uganda amalgamated a highly diverse region of competing kingdoms and more loosely organised pastoral societies into a single entity. Colonial policies created further divisions. The British ruled through appointed chiefs rather than customary clan heads and allied with Protestants at the expense of Catholics and Muslims. The authorities also began economic development in the various regions at different times, and the consequences can still be measured today in numbers of clinics, schools and average wealth.

Milton Obote, independent Uganda’s first president, and Idi Amin made old divisions worse. Both northerners, they were frequently accused of favouring their region and ethnic groups. They entered office with broad coalitions that soon foundered over colonial cleavages, and turned instead to patronage and coercion to remain in power. After the National Resistance Movement (NRM) seized power in 1986, Museveni also seemed at first to put the country on a more inclusive path, to restore civilian control, rule of law and economic growth. He created a non-partisan “democratic” system that many enthusiastically embraced. An elaborate consultative process led to a new constitution in 1995 with checks and balances.

Museveni also recognised the kingdoms Obote abolished, but as cultural, not political bodies. Restoration of Buganda’s Kabaka as a cultural king without executive powers in 1993 proved an expedient compromise rather than a stable solution. Monarchists wanted their kingdom, not just their king. Their goal was federalism, with control over land and the power to tax, while Museveni wanted decentralisation based on districts dependent on funds from the central government and insisted on keeping final authority. His manoeuvres to limit the Kabaka’s influence backfired.

Democratic initiatives lost momentum after the first decade of Museveni’s rule. Instead of supporting the no-party system as the framework for unfettered participation, the president began using it to further his own objectives. Over time, he replaced old politicians and longstanding NRM members who criticised his policies with trusted members of his inner circle, often from his home area. He also created a patronage network loyal to him.

In the 2001 elections, the president faced a credible opponent in Kizza Besigye, who had been a senior National Resistance Army (NRA) commander, Museveni’s personal physician and occupant of important government and NRM positions. He burst into national politics in 1999, when he publicly criticised the government for losing interest in democracy while tolerating corruption among top officials. The election campaign involved considerable violence and intimidation. When the electoral commission reported that Museveni won, Besigye asked the Supreme Court to nullify the result. All five justices who heard the case agreed there had been serious violations of the electoral law, but by a three-to-two vote they sustained Museveni’s victory, arguing the irregularities had not affected the result.

Museveni then developed a new, although paradoxical, strategy to consolidate his position by restoring multi-party democracy and removing constitutional restraints. At a 2003 NRM meeting, he called for “opening political space” to permit competing parties, reducing the powers of parliament, the judiciary and watchdog agencies – and dropping the two-term presidential limit. The latter proposal conveniently opened the way for him to retain power. The 2006 elections were the first contested by multiple parties. Museveni, however, exploited a loophole that extended the NRM’s official status until the vote, thus enabling it to use its organisation as well as official resources, while all other parties were limited to seven months to organise from scratch after the constitutional referendum. Moreover, Besigye was arrested and imprisoned on charges of rape and treason and forced to appear in court during most of the campaign. A High Court judge dismissed the rape charge only a week before the elections, suggesting the prosecution had badly abused the court process (the treason charge was dismissed in 2010).

Museveni’s fourth-term victory, in February 2011, followed the pattern of earlier elections but was less violent. The president injected huge amounts of official funds into his campaign, and the government and NRM harassed the opposition. While Museveni received majorities throughout the country, including in the north for the first time, it is uncertain whether this reflected more his popularity or the power of his purse and other resources.

The discovery of significant oil reserves (estimated at 2.5 billion barrels) is unlikely to reduce social and political tensions. The oil may ensure Museveni’s control by enabling him to consolidate his system of patronage but also will increase corruption and disrupt the steady growth produced by economic diversification. Five years after learning that the country will become a major oil producer, the government is just beginning to put a regulatory framework in place.

Meanwhile, popular protests are increasing. “Walk to Work” demonstrations – ostensibly over high fuel prices but clearly also directed at Museveni’s rule – continue in Kampala and other urban centres despite a violent crackdown. The October 2011 parliamentary revolt over the lack of transparency in oil contracts and alleged resulting large payments to ministers also suggests the president’s control is far from absolute. Increasingly, Museveni fails to anticipate opposition, some of it from NRM politicians and his inner circle. His re-election, access to material resources, tactical skill, ability to deflect international criticism and ambition to control its transition to an oil exporter suggest that he will try to continue to consolidate his personal power and direct Uganda’s future for some time to come, despite the consequences this may have for long-term stability. Unless Museveni changes course, however, events may eventually spiral out of his control. Considering Uganda’s violent past, conflict might then become more deadly.

Nairobi/Brussels, 5 April 2012

Commentary / Africa

De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes

President Tshisekedi’s plans for joint operations with DR Congo’s belligerent eastern neighbours against its rebels risks regional proxy warfare. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage diplomatic efforts in the region and Tshisekedi to shelve his plan for the joint operations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Since assuming office in early 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) president, Félix Tshisekedi, has stressed his determination to dismantle the dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups blighting the troubled east of the country. He has also prioritised repairing ties with neighbouring states, which have historically both backed and fought against rebels in the eastern DRC over various cycles of war in the last two decades. Today, tensions are again mounting among the DRC’s neighbours – between Burundi and Uganda, on one hand, and Rwanda, on the other – potentially compounding the country’s security challenges. Alongside Tshisekedi’s diplomatic efforts to calm tensions, he has floated plans to invite these three neighbours to deploy their armed forces into the DRC to conduct joint operations with Congolese forces against rebels. Yet insofar as tensions among those countries remain high, such operations could pave the way for them to step up support to allied groups even while fighting rivals, and thus fuel proxy warfare. Civilians in the eastern DRC are likely to suffer most.

In line with its December Foreign Affairs Council conclusions that lay out the EU’s plans for re-engagement with the DRC, and to help President Tshisekedi de-escalate regional tensions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes region, an informal gathering comprising the UN (including both the UN’s special envoy to the Great Lakes and the head of its mission in the DRC, MONUSCO), the U.S., the African Union and South Africa, as well as the EU and several European states that are important donors in the region, such as Belgium, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The EU and European governments could designate senior EU and other European ministerial appointees to fill the group, over and above the working-level desk officers who normally tend to participate.
  • Use the increased clout this would bring to push for a mechanism whereby each of the three neighbours airs allegations against states they believe are backing armed groups in the DRC and supports the charges with evidence. Allegations can then be investigated by the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (the ICGLR comprises regional states and is a guarantor of a 2013 regional peace agreement; its joint verification mechanism and the UN expert group already have mandates to investigate claims of support to armed groups). Their findings could inform diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions among neighbours and end their backing of insurgents in the DRC.
  • At the same time, encourage President Tshisekedi to shelve, at least for now, his plan for joint operations with neighbours’ security forces.
  • Offer financial and technical support for the national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, to ensure that Congolese militias linked to foreign rebels operating in the eastern DRC have a safe pathway to giving up their fight.

Security Challenges

In recent months, eastern DRC-based foreign insurgencies have escalated attacks on both the Congolese army as well as soldiers and civilians in neighbouring countries. The Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan presidents are all rattling their sabres in response, accusing one another of proxy warfare.

On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan authorities blame the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. They say the FDLR is working with another DRC-based rebel group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), which they allege is run by one of President Paul Kagame’s former generals. They also say both the FDLR and the RNC enjoy Burundian and Ugandan support. In a speech, Kagame vowed to retaliate against anyone seeking to attack Rwanda.

After the Kinigi killings, fighters crossed into Burundi from the DRC to launch two separate deadly attacks. Burundian RED-Tabara rebels, whom Burundian officials say are backed by Rwanda, claimed the first attack. No one claimed the second, but Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, recalling Kigali’s support for mutineers in a 2015 coup attempt, blamed Rwanda for both attacks, alleging that Kigali supports RED-Tabara. Ugandan officials, for their part, assert that Rwanda is collaborating with the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel movement with roots in Uganda that is implicated in dozens of massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu since 2014.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other. Both governments have purged their security services of suspected traitors. Rwanda has now also closed a main border crossing into Uganda, suffocating trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, Burundi and Rwanda have dispatched troops to their mutual border while Uganda has deployed troops to its western frontier facing North Kivu. Should these tensions heighten, they could fuel more proxy fighting in the eastern DRC, further threatening regional stability.

Recognising the dangers, Tshisekedi invited Rwanda and Uganda for talks in July and August hosted by Angolan President João Lourenço in the Angolan capital Luanda. They culminated in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August, in which both countries promised to halt “actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries”. In addition to these diplomatic efforts, the DRC president floated plans that would involve the armed forces of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda conducting joint military operations with Congolese forces against insurgents in the eastern DRC. Absent political de-escalation among the neighbour governments, such operations could pave the way for all three to ratchet up support to proxies opposing their respective rivals. The eastern DRC could again become the arena for a multi-sided melee.

Calming Regional Tensions

In its latest Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the DRC in December 2019, the EU asserted its readiness to redefine its relationship with the country. This comes after relations between Brussels and Kinshasa cooled at the tail end of Kabila’s presidency, when the EU sanctioned some of his top henchmen in late 2018. President Tshisekedi has expressed an increasing willingness to work with Brussels even as the EU renewed sanctions in December 2019 against twelve of the fourteen Kabila-era officials. In particular, the EU could help de-escalate regional tensions and lessen neighbours’ support to foreign armed groups while contributing to pathways to surrender for Congolese fighters allied to such groups.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours while putting aside, at least for now, plans for those neighbours to conduct military operations in the eastern DRC. The EU’s best bet for pressing for an approach along these lines would be to increase its influence in the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes, the informal group to which it and a number of European states belong. Brussels and other European capitals should commit more senior officials both to the contact group itself and to liaising with the group and with regional governments. Together with the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, Xia Huang, who has recently been instrumental in bringing together the Burundian, Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs to discuss their deteriorating relations, the EU should use its weight in the group to prioritise the need for a political solution to tackling foreign armed groups in the eastern DRC.

Such a solution could entail Xia encouraging the three states to lay out their allegations and evidence of support by their rivals to armed groups in the DRC. He could share all information received with the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. The evidence provided by regional states, and investigations conducted by the expert group and joint verification mechanism, could collectively inform diplomatic efforts to halt or diminish support to DRC-based insurgents.

By financially and technically supporting the national DDR process, the EU can also back Tshisekedi’s priority of tackling the plague of Congolese armed groups. Congolese insurgents, many of whom are sucked into alliances with more powerful foreign armed groups, often lack an alternative in the absence of a fully funded DDR program. Under Kabila, the Congolese authorities gave only limited resources to DDR. Several donors pulled out, frustrated by Kinshasa’s lack of commitment to funding a national program. Despite the uptick in attacks in the east, there are signs that some fighters are placing greater hope in Tshisekedi’s presidency and expressing greater desire to surrender. MONUSCO’s new mandate, adopted at the end of December 2019, encourages the DRC’s government to appoint a senior coordinator to lead the DDR effort. The EU could consider supplying this person with the necessary funding and expertise to carry out the mandate.