Spectre of war. As countries in the Great Lakes ramp up their firepower, it has raised a spectre of war that could return to haunt the volatile region. Although conflicts in the Great Lakes tend to be largely intrastate, due to cross-border dimensions and transnational ethnic identities, these conflicts have often spread to destabilise the whole region. With deep-seated suspicion and hostility among neighbouring states, East Africa’s military spending rose by $200 million last year to $2.9 billion, writes Emma Mutaizibwa.
Given the frosty relations between Rwanda and Uganda and Burundi and Rwanda, there are fears that a prevailing arms race could turn the region into a tinderbox.
On Thursday, Uganda’s Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa told heads of missions accredited to Uganda that Rwandan security operatives have been entering the country without permission.
“A number of Rwandan security operatives have been entering Uganda without following laid down procedures governing the entry of security personnel into the country,” Mr Kutesa said.
Mr Kutesa said Uganda has been a target and victim of terrorist attacks including assassinations of Muslim shieikhs and senior government officials and that the government of Uganda should take seriously its duty and obligation to protect its citizens and its borders.
His comments come three months after Rwanda shut the Katuna border and advised its citizens to desist from travelling to Uganda because of safety concerns.
“It seems to be tension so much deeper that we can see. But which has been kept quiet. It’s almost like an intelligence war between the countries. It’s fought in the shadows but you don’t see visible troop deployments as it used to be between President Idi Amin and Julius Nyerere,” argues Timothy Klyegira, a journalist.
He adds: “But when the Rwandan foreign minister [Richard Sezibera] says citizens should not travel and are not safe at a press conference, what else don’t you say at a press conference? It’s like the worst relations in 25 years.”
Kira Municipality MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda says: “What Kutesa says will make the situation worse. He is now telling Rwanda to stop provoking Uganda. They had kept quiet. And that is what Kagame had said that we don’t have to be friends and let everybody mind its business and I take that advice. Otherwise this continued quarrelling would even cause us a war, which is unnecessary.”
Security analysts fear that this hostility and deep-seated suspicion could result into further purchase of weaponry in anticipation of war.
According to data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), an independent global security think tank, East Africa’s military spending rose by $200 million (about Shs747b) last year to $2.9 billion.
Kenya, which is trying to secure its borders and stamp out terrorism as the al-Shabaab insurgency rages, spent $1.09 billion on the military. This expenditure accounted for 36.5 per cent of the regions’ total of $2.98 billion.
Uganda’s spending rose by $62 million, hitting $408.4 million, from $346.8 million the previous year.
Only 10 million US dollars went to the African Union mission in Somalia.
Tanzania, whose expenditure has been modest in the past five years, registered a marked increase of $64.3 million, on the strength of new Airbus helicopter purchases while Rwanda had a marginal rise in its defence spending to $119 million from $115.7 million.
Earlier on this week, Uganda’s Defence minister Adolf Mwesige revealed that 56 per cent of the Defence budget, which will go to the classified expenditure vote would be spent on the purchase of weapons.
Uganda’s position in the region has been viewed with both praise and suspicion.
As a trouble-shooter, Kampala regime does not need to wait for violence from the region’s flashpoints to flare-up up at its doorsteps.
Its the exponents of this doctrine that prompted the UPDF to deploy in South Sudan to shore up the fragile regime of Salva Kiir, who was on the verge of losing power to Riek Machar’s reneging officers in 2013.
At a strategic level, Uganda depends on South as a buffer against Khartoum, which has often had a hostile policy towards the Kampala regime.
“The other day, the government of South Sudan had been almost overrun but it was our capacity that stepped. [South Sudan] is a neighbour, secondly its out international market, we are getting a lot of money if you don’t spend on the anticipation of such occurrences---, I am not saying we should always be an aggressive country, we can only do it as long as it fits our national interest,” opines Mr Grace Masiko a security expert.
With the ever-evolving face of conflict in the Great Lakes and the threat from terrorist groups affiliated to global jihad networks, some experts argue that Uganda does not need to be caught unawares.
In the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an old insurgency may have a new trajectory, giving rise to the possibility of ISIS expanding its global conflict there.
On April 18, the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed its first attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo, claiming they had established a new caliphate in Central African Republic after striking a new location.
ISIS attributed the attack to its affiliate, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group.
An image published in issue 179 of weekly ISIS newsletter al-Naba and released on April 25 shows Islamic State Central Africa Province militants in DR Congo.
ISIS leader Abu-Bakr-al-Baghdadi is seen receiving a report on the activities of the Central Africa caliphate.
A report by the Congo Research Group published in November 2018 suggests that ADF has undergone a radicalisation with a “shift in the rhetoric employed by the movement, from a war against the Ugandan government to a broader struggle for Islam.”
“Our military was able to strike ADF bases without crossing the borders. That was the beauty of buying those capacities. There are many international players we are going to undercut on the international oil market, they are not happy,” Ms Masiko added.
However, others think Uganda’s defence expenditure is anchored on the country’s brinkmanship policy in the region and its army is often viewed as an occupational force given its role in DRC.
With the ADF and LRA fighting abilities diminished, some experts say this expenditure should have been halved and the rest of the funds distributed to vital sectors like health, education, agriculture and tourism.
Former Army Commander, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, says the regimes within this region should be working closely together to resolve conflicts.
“They are not doing that. Once you have got potential conflicts and more so if there are no efforts to stablise or resolve the possible conflicts, it gives you comfort so you don’t have a potential enemy in the vicinity, if you don’t do that, then you keep investing in weapons,” Maj Gen Muntu says.
He adds: “You need a party or coalition of parties who once they take power go into conflict resolution and re-channel resources into growth and development.”
The other area of concern is the question of transparency in regard to the classified expenditure.
2021 General Election
With the General Election in 2021, there are fears money could be diverted to finance the ruling party campaigns.
“There is a high possibility that the money going into classified expenditure could be channelled into politics,” Maj Gen Muntu told Daily Monitor.
Mr Ssemujju says: “President Museveni is financing his politics and campaigns mainly through either the State House budget or through the budget of security and it includes Defence, Internal Security Organisation and External Security Organisation.”
Of the total Defence budget of Shs3.5 trillion, Shs1.9 trillion has been set aside to cater for a classified asset. Ms Masiko says Parliament can play its part as a legislative making body to improve accountability in the area of classified expenditure.
“You are touching public money and you don’t want people to know. Parliament should exercise its power to ensure that money appropriated for classified expenditure is not abused. Opposition says that classified expenditure can be used to curtail our freedom; it’s a valid point. But can you use a military helicopter to stop a rally?” Ms Masiko argues.
Maj Gen Muntu says in Western liberal democracies, they appoint committees, which have access to defence classified expenditures.
“There are committees which can go into intelligence operational areas. What they do is that they vet the members who are able to sit on committees of that nature and they give them high classification in terms of security clearance,” he says.
However Mr Ssemujju says: “It cannot be a coincidence that every time you are nearing election, there will be procurement of a classified asset because those assets are never going to be declared. So it’s intentional.”
He further argues that procurement of arms is not a secret matter.
“Rwanda knows how much equipment we have because we all go to the same market. When we are buying jets, everybody knows including the seller. The sale of guns by manufacturers is the same of sale of vehicles so there is no classified asset because every single thing you buy people will know.....,” he says.
It’s unlikely that Uganda will fold its arms and watch its neighbours purchase superior arms without going into the market as the region projects hostility.
Yet Uganda and her neighbours have the ability to de-escalate conflicts in the war-riven Great Lakes by relying on the Eastern African standby force and forging alliances to rout out the common enemy.