In the shadowy world of international military aid, Uganda emerges as an unlikely champion, pocketing hefty sums of American generosity. The United States, ever the benevolent benefactor, has funneled a staggering $8.5 million (or Shs31.5 billion) into Uganda’s military coffers from 2019 to 2021. But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Cast your gaze back to the years between 2012 and 2016, and you’ll find Uganda swimming in a pool of grants, gifted by Uncle Sam, for military equipment totaling $21.9 million (approximately Shs81.3 billion). In this lavish giveaway, Uganda found itself fifth in line, trailing behind Nigeria and Chad, embroiled in the turmoil of Boko Haram insurgency and political chaos, Kenya, beset by al-Shabaab threats from neighboring Somalia, and Niger, rocked by Sahel terror and a recent coup.
On a broader canvas, the top five recipients of U.S. military training assistance in Africa from 2019 to 2021 included Nigeria ($13,590,004 or Shs50.5 billion), Kenya ($12,996,084 or Shs48.2 billion), Chad ($9,344,876 or Shs34.7 billion), and Uganda ($8,488,247 or Shs31.5 billion). Uganda, despite its tarnished human rights record and questionable democratic credentials, remains a cherished ally in the eyes of the United States.
As an example, as Uganda prepared for its 2021 General Election, marked by unprecedented violence, it received a princely sum of $5,307,476 (Shs19.7 billion) in military training assistance from the U.S., dwarfing the aid provided to Nigeria and Kenya during the same period. This financial windfall aimed to train over 5,000 personnel in military professionalism, human rights adherence, peacekeeping, border security, and handling transnational threats.
Brigadier Felix Kulayigye, the spokesperson for the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and the Defence Ministry, touted the assistance’s importance. He explained that a significant chunk of this aid fueled peacekeeping missions in Somalia and civil-military relations training.
If you think these figures are startling, delve deeper into the past, between 2012 and 2016. During this time, Uganda received grants worth $21,975,492 (Shs81.6 billion) for defense equipment. This sum may pale compared to Nigeria’s $192,873,190 (Shs716.7 billion), but it far outstrips Djibouti’s meager $17,661,021 (Shs65.6 billion). This hardware included mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, raising concerns that such unwavering support from the U.S. has fortified the Ugandan government, emboldening it to suppress civil liberties and engage in egregious human rights abuses, especially against opposition figures.
Amid these allegations, Uganda’s opposition leader, Robert Kyagulanyi, known as Bobi Wine, called upon the U.S. to cease providing military assistance to the Ugandan government. Nevertheless, Kulayigye vehemently rejected this viewpoint, emphasizing that the government’s stronghold stems from the electorate’s support, not Western allies.
In the intricate dance of international politics, Helen Epstein’s book “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror” unveils how Uganda skillfully played its cards. Post-9/11, President Museveni enlisted the help of Rosa Whitaker, a savvy African-American lobbyist, to curry favor in Washington. This strategic move paved the way for Museveni’s White House visit and strengthened ties between him and U.S. Presidents Bush.
Critics argue that the war on terror has allowed Uganda to indulge in military brinkmanship across the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa. In 2019, as Uganda pocketed Shs9.2 billion in military training assistance, public outcry erupted over the conduct of military personnel during interventions in civil matters. Despite parliamentary inquiries, the results were inconsequential.
Notably, in September 2017, security forces stormed Parliament during a debate on constitutional amendments, revealing the government’s determination to maintain President Museveni’s grip on power. Kulayigye, however, asserted that the UPDF’s human rights record surpasses that of Western armies, a claim met with skepticism.
In the grand scheme of things, Uganda may have benefited from its cozy relationship with the U.S. military during two decades of the war on terror. But the cost at home includes restricted freedoms and a stark democratic deficit, as militarization runs unchecked. Critics argue that this partnership, while lucrative for some, casts a long, dark shadow over Uganda’s democratic aspirations.