Terra Incognita: Just the man for the job

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s background could place him in prime position to rid Africa of threat posed by Islamist militants in Somalia.

311_uganda attack (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_uganda attack
(photo credit: Associated Press)
At the recent African Union summit in Kampala, Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, declared that the time had come to remove the threat that Islamist militants in Somalia pose to Africa. What stoked his ire were the recent terror attacks, apparently carried out by Al-Shabab militants from Somalia, which left 74 dead on July 11. The terrorists had targeted two locations where people had gathered to watch the World Cup.
Museveni was in a combative mood. He said it was time for the Islamist militants to be “swept out of Africa... these reactionary militants have now committed aggression against our country... we shall now go after them.”
But unlike some statements that come out of Africa, this is no idle threat. The angry young men of Al-Shabab, which has made Somalia into a base of al- Qaida inspired terror groups from around the world, may finally learn what every other African leader who has confronted Uganda’s iron man has learned.
Museveni was born in 1944 into obscure roots in southern Uganda and has always maintained that his forebears were member of the Ankole tribe, one of the four main ethnic groups in Uganda. As a young man he was involved in revolutionary activity in college in Tanzania, soaking up the ideas of Franz Fanon and prominent West Indian born pan-Africanist Walter Rodney.
After a brief stint in Uganda’s Intelligence Ministry, he was forced to flee back to Tanzania after Idi Amin’s 1971 coup. Years in exile and service in Ugandan dissident forces brought Museveni military experience. In 1978 Amin blundered when he invaded Tanzania, resulting in his overthrow by Tanzanian forces and their Ugandan rebel allies. He again served briefly in government before returning to the bush in opposition to the dictatorial rule of Milton Obote.
For five years, 1981-1986, Museveni led the National Resistance Army in its drive to end the abuses of Obote, whose regime was estimated to have killed more than 100,000 civilians.
MUSEVENI HAS been president of Uganda since 1986. During that time he has presided over an impressive economic recovery under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. Throwing off his youthful Marxist idealism, he has embraced free markets and privatization. He has overseen a massive anti-AIDs program that saw Uganda’s rate of infection reduced from one of the highest in Africa to more moderate levels.
He has also enabled democracy, winning three free and fair elections. But there has been criticism for staying in power so long that such democratic institutions remain stultified by lack of new blood. His real accomplishment has been his military achievements vis-à-vis the nefarious regimes in the region.
While in Tanzania, Museveni had become acquainted with John Garang, a Dinka from southern Sudan who became a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army that was fighting the Islamist government in Khartoum. Since coming to power, Museveni has provided support for the people of southern Sudan, who are mostly Christian, in their quest to be rid of the genocidal government in Khartoum.
Uganda also intervened to support the Tutsi in Rwanda when they faced genocide in 1994 at the hands of extremist Hutus. Museveni’s support for them was born also of personal relationships with many Tutsi refugees living in Uganda who joined his rebellion against Obote. But he didn’t stop there.
When the Hutu genocidaires fleeing Rwanda were offered shelter by Zairan dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda and Rwanda supported his overthrow by Laurent Kabila. Kabila, it seems, also had a Tanzania connection; he studied there and was a youthful communist during the 1960s at the same time as Museveni.
MUSEVENI’S TRACK record of ridding Africa of dictators and opposing genocide is probably more important than his more often recognized efforts at democratization and economic liberalization. Through his personal connections, crafted in the 1960s, he has befriended many of Africa’s new generation of leaders. But his willingness to use Uganda’s army to project power abroad, in support of worthy causes, separates him from most African leaders who prefer not to meddle in the affairs of their neighbors and turn a blind eye to genocide and abuses.
It has been a long-standing tradition of pan-African institutions, like the African Union and its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, to respect the sovereignty of all African states, a response to the history of colonialism when outside powers meddled in their affairs. But this nonintervention policy has allowed millions of Africans to go to their deaths at the hands of dictators.
Museveni’s policy, even when it has seemed overly meddlesome as was the case in the Second Congolese Civil War (1998-2003), has been a unique and important one.
Now Somalia’s Islamists have declared war on Uganda. The appropriately named Sheikh Ali Mahmud Rage , said “we thank the mujahedeen that carried out the attack” in Uganda. Al-Shabab claims it was in response for Museveni sending soldiers to accompany the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Whatever the case, the attack is merely the tip of the iceberg. Somalia has become a new haven for Islamism and along with its Gulf of Aden neighbor, Yemen, is a threat to the region and the world.
Museveni has been in power too long, retarding democracy in Uganda, but the terror attacks might provide a new opportunity. He might pack his bags along with his brother Gen. Salim Saleh, his longtime advisor on military matters, and go lead the African Union troops personally to sweep Al-Shabab out of Africa. There could be no better last hurrah for Africa’s champion of intervention than to free Somalia from the grip of Islamism which has instituted stoning and other hideous oppressions.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.