Is Uganda’s Strategic Location A Blessing or Curse?


Prime Minister Obote and President Sir Edward Mutesa at Uganda’s 1962 Independence celebration.

[Letter from New York]

The political, economic, social and environmental devastation caused by the struggle to control and exploit minerals especially diamonds in Western, Central and Southern Africa is too well known to be repeated here.

From early days, Uganda’s strategic location combined with its natural and human resources has attracted people of different interests and orientations. The Arabs entered what later became Uganda in search of ivory and Africans to enslave from East and North Africa. The Egyptians sought control of Uganda because it sat at the source of the White Nile. The Arabs began to Islamize Ugandans which in turn attracted Protestants and Catholics who fought over the control of the area. Then came formal colonization of Africa after the Berlin Conference of 1884/85.

Directly or indirectly, the scramble over Uganda was fierce. The Germans wanted it. The French wanted it. The Belgians wanted it. The British wanted it. Why? Uganda is the gateway from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Uganda is the gateway to the mineral resources of the Great Lakes region. Uganda is the source of the White Nile. Uganda is the “refueling” station between Cairo and Cape Town. Being in the neighborhood of the Arab World, Uganda has been a factor in Middle East politics. This explains why Uganda was conquered primarily for its strategic rather than its commercial value.

At the Berlin Conference, the participants agreed that Africa should be carved into colonies through peaceful negotiations and effective occupation. Consequently, Germany received Heligoland to stay out of Uganda. France received Madagascar for the same and other reasons and King Leopold or Belgium received parts of Uganda as the borders were adjusted.

To keep Uganda firmly under its control and benefit Europeans in Kenya, Britain from the beginning of the colonization of East Africa wanted Uganda to federate with Kenya or to be settled by White people. A Uganda railway was constructed to, inter alia, possibly move troops into Uganda quickly if it became necessary.

Heading toward the 1960s, as independence approached the British authorities revisited the possibility of an East African federation with the principal purpose to keep Uganda under British control in one form or another because of her strategic location. This effort has experienced difficulties since then to the present.

World War II ended European dominance and created two new Super Powers — the United States of America and the Soviet Union; both sought to dominate the world through the Cold War that began in 1945 and ended in 1990.

During this period, the world was divided into two camps: the capitalist camp led by the United States and the communist/socialist camp led by the Soviet Union.

The Super Powers battled for control of North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.

The Soviet Union and its communist or socialist ideology had influence in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and to a certain extent Tanzania and Zambia; the latter two countries were more influenced by China. The United States had a foothold in Ethiopia, Kenya and then Zaire, now DRC. The American areas formed a blue belt and the Russian areas a red belt. Uganda found itself sitting at the intersection of the two belts. Hence the struggle for Uganda and its destabilizing impact.

Because of its strategic location, when Uganda became independent, it was handed over to Prime Minister Milton Obote by Britain as a trusted capitalist. When Obote changed his mind in pursuit of a policy to serve the masses better and launched in 1969 the Common Man’s Charter that replaced capitalism with socialism, he was quickly shown the exit through the January 1971 military coup that brought in General Idi Amin. He was initially characterized by Western media as the “Gentle Giant”, that the British trusted; they hoped he would return the country to the capitalist camp.

After 10 years in exile in Tanzania, Obote regained presidency of Uganda on a promise that he had abandoned his socialist ideology and would pursue a policy of non-alignment in international relations including in the Middle East. However, his mixed economy policy and support to liberation movements and territories under occupation raised questions about his sincerity. Those unsure didn’t want to take chances. They decided to show him the exit once again in 1985.

The National Resistance Movement (NRM) government under Gen. Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986 with support of various ideological orientations and an economic philosophy of mixed economy enshrined in the 10-point program similar to Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress’ (UPC’s) 1980 election manifesto. However, the NRM leadership quickly learned that it had strayed into a wrong economic direction. It abruptly changed course and launched in 1987 a neo-liberal economic policy of shock therapy structural adjustment that went beyond what Obote had implemented between 1981 and 1985.

The NRM government under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank stabilized, liberalized, privatized and de-regulated Uganda’s economy and embarked on an export-led economic growth path, all in line with the Washington Consensus.

Uganda became the centre of experimentation of all sorts of ideas and in return was rewarded with massive financial, technical and political support for staying the course in spite of the hardship to the people (income inequality, deepening and spreading poverty, unemployment and food insecurity), damage to the economy in the form of de-industrialization and severe environmental degradation. Unlike in other countries, like Kenya, NRM government was allowed to postpone elections for 10 years because democracy and structural adjustment of the shock therapy version were very strange bed fellows.

Although structural adjustment was officially abandoned worldwide as well as in Uganda in 2009, the NRM government hasn’t developed a viable alternative for fear it might introduce elements of socialism and incur the wrath of those powers that want to retain control of Uganda as a capitalist and strategic country for their national security interests.

Ipso facto, Uganda doesn’t have much room to design its policy that suits the national interests or even independently select its own leaders and hold them accountable. Since independence in 1962, external factors have had a role in determining who governs Uganda and under what conditions. Consequently, it has been difficult for patriotic leaders to emerge and govern Uganda because doing so might loosen foreigners’ control over Uganda as a strategic and capitalist country.

It is fair to conclude that Uganda’s strategic location has been a curse in the sense that Ugandans are not in a position to design their destiny as sovereign and independent people.

Eric Kashambuzi is a political analyst and international economist in New York.

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