Playing chicken with the UN, Uganda threatens to withdraw from peacekeeping operations

You could argue that the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, seeks to replace Muammar Qadhafi as the alpha male of Africa and Meles Zenawi as the pan-African mediator. But those aspirations may have to be put on hold.

In the UN Group of Experts (UN GoE) report that was leaked last month, Uganda and Rwanda were accused of supporting M23, an armed group that has been operating in the eastern Congo since the spring. Although Rwanda’s reputation as the donor darling and example of Singaporean-style economic development has been damaged, it unlike its neighbor, lacks the regional security clout and leverage that Uganda holds.

On Thursday night, Uganda’s Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi announced to the country’s parliament that the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) would be withdrawing from regional peacekeeping operations to protect the country’s western border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Accusing Western powers of failing to recognize Uganda’s contribution of peace in the region, Mbabazi asked, “Why should we continue involving Uganda where the only reward we get is malignment? Why should the children of Ugandans die and we get malignment as a reward? Why should we invite retaliation by the al-Shabaab by standing with the people of Somalia, only to get malignment by the UN system?” This announcement was the other shoe to drop, following last month’s statements by Uganda’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Okello Oryem that the accusations leveled in the report were “rubbish and absurd,” and that the country was “reassessing all its peacekeeping engagements and operations in the region.” The Ugandan government has now sent an envoy to UN Headquarters to inform them of its ‘irreversible’ decision.

As of late September, Uganda only had 47 personnel assigned to UN peacekeeping operations in Darfur, Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan, Liberia, and East Timor. Therefore, the brunt of Uganda’s threats would fall upon the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), to which the UPDF contributes approximately 6,500 troops (about a third of AMISOM’s authorized force strength of 17,731). The UPDF also provides the force commander – a position that has been held by a Ugandan since the mission began in 2007. To a lesser extent, these threats could also affect Uganda’s contribution of at least 2,000 troops to the African Union-initiated Regional Task Force to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Central African Republic and DRC.

Aside from its regional military footprint, Uganda has been chairing the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) effort to facilitate a dialogue with the M23 rebels and, if necessary, plan a multinational military intervention in the eastern Congo. The accusations leveled in the UN GoE report certainly hurt Uganda’s credibility as a mediator in this process, but also threaten Museveni’s legacy as the man who brought an element of stability to Somalia in what many believed to be a suicide mission, when other nations refused to commit troops. (By the way, details for an ICGLR intervention force are still being worked out, and I believe a UN mandate would help facilitate financial and logistical support. Without that kind of support, an intervention would be highly unlikely.)

In reality, however, I doubt that Uganda can pull all of  its troops out of peacekeeping operations. Quite simply put, it’s going to cost too much. Museveni’s survival is, in part, contingent on maintaining a large military deployed outside the country’s borders in case he needs them for internal security. While 8,000+ UPDF are deployed in support of AU or UN peacekeeping operations, Museveni doesn’t have to worry about paying them. However, if he brings them home, he’ll need to find a way to keep them occupied – and paid – so they stay out of trouble. Unless there’s a war in Uganda (unlikely) to rally the troops around him, he needs to keep them deployed on someone else’s dime. In addition, one of the reasons Uganda is so important for regional security is due to its involvement in peacekeeping operations. If you take that away, you also lose the justification for allocating the same level of security assistance from international partners to train and equip the UPDF in the future. This is income that Museveni would now have to find a way to make up for.

So to be clear, I don’t expect Uganda’s threats to come to anything. It’s just putting the UN and the West on notice to back the (insert expletive here) off over allegations of providing support to M23.

In possibly unrelated news, the United States’ Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman visited Uganda to discuss advancing regional security and to extend U.S. appreciation for Uganda’s peacekeeping efforts. This was the same day the PM made the announcement to withdraw from peacekeeping operations. #Awkward.

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