An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Qadhafi and Uganda

In the five weeks since Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi was killed by the National Liberation Army in his home town of Sirte, both scholars and media commentators have examined the legacy of his 42-year long reign. Across the many acres of print that have resulted, a key theme which has emerged has been the complex nature of the Colonel's foreign policy, especially in Africa. And nowhere, it would seem, are these complexities more obvious than in the history of Qadhafi's engagements with Uganda. Indeed, this helps to explain why the Libyan leader's recent demise has been greeted with such mixed reactions both from the Ugandan government, and from the Uganda public.

Thus, on the one hand, there are those mostly older Ugandans, especially those from the Central and Western regions, who still keenly recall the significant military support that Qadhafi provided to the Idi Amin regime during the 1970s. Following Amin's rise to power in 1971, Qadhafi quickly recognized that as a fellow Islamic regime - and moreover, as one that was explicitly anti-Israeli in orientation - Amin's Uganda would not only be a useful ally, but might even as a 'bridgehead' for the expansion of Libyan influence throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It was for this reason that less than 12 months after Amin came to power, the Libyan leader sent 400 soldiers to bolster the Ugandan Army, and why he later replaced the 11 military jets that were destroyed by the Israelis during the famous Entebbe raid of 1976.

However, it was following Tanzania's invasion of Uganda in January 1979 that Qadhafi played his most decisive role in Uganda. With the Amin's army on the brink of collapse, in mid-February, the Libyan leader airlifted a major force of 2500 troops (consisting of regular soldiers, as well as members of Libya's People's Militia and its Islamic Pan-African Legion), along with tanks, armoured-personnel carriers (APCs), multiple-rocket launchers, artillery, and even a number of warplanes. The Libyan force finally met the Tanzanian advance at Lukuya swamp (about 70 miles southwest of Kampala, on the main Kampala-Masaka road) and a major engagement ensued. Even today, a number of burned-out vehicles from the battle are still easily visible from the Kampala-Masaka road.

The Battle of Lukuya (as it became known) initially went very well for the Libyans, and on the morning of 10th March, they routed the Tanzanian 201st Brigade, and took Lukuya Town. However, they then failed to press home their advantage, by not continuing on to the major urban centre of Masaka. One of the key mistakes the Libyans made was to not send out any reconnaissance south of Lukuya - which would have revealed that at that time, practically no opposition stood between them and Masaka. In addition, the Libyans failed to build proper defensive positions in and around Lukuya. In consequence, the Tanzanians were able to regroup, and on the night of 11th-12th March, launch a major counter-offensive against the town. Using a pincer-movement of the 201st Brigade and the more elite 208th, the Tanzanians caught the Libyans by surprise, and cut them to pieces. In one rather macabre detail, one Ugandan exile who had fought alongside the Tanzanians at Lukuya later recounted to me that many of the Libyan militiamen were unluckily dressed in desert fatigues. In the bright moonlight, and against the background of Lukuya's dark papyrus swamp, this attire resulted in their being 'lit up like Christmas trees', and eventually turned the whole thing into (what the Ugandan exile described to me as) a 'duck shoot'.  

Lukuya was the last major engagement between the Libyans and the Tanzanians, although there were some further skirmishes in and around Entebbe - and one amusing episode in which the Libyans tried to retaliate by bombing Arusha. On that occasion the Libyan pilot famously got lost, missed his target, and ended up blowing up a herd of antelope near the Ngorongoro Crater. Finally, on 11th April that year, the Libyans secured Amin safe passage out of Uganda, and he spent almost a year in Tripoli before finally settling in Saudi Arabia. But the point is that because of this extensive military support to the Amin regime, Qadhafi became an especially despised figure in those Western and Central regions that had seen the bulk of the fighting. In addition, he remained persona non grata in administrative circles throughout the years of Obote II.

However, following the rise to power of Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) in 1986, Qadhafi once again became an influential figure on the Ugandan political scene. Yet from the beginning, the Libyan leader's relationship with Museveni was much more complicated than it ever had been with Amin. This stemmed from the fact that although Qadhafi provided the NRM with significant funding, arms and training during the bush war, Museveni - who had, after all, fought alongside the Tanzanians in 1979, as a senior member of the then Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) - always remained deeply suspicious of the Colonel's motivations, and especially his plan to use Uganda as a 'bridgehead' for Libyan influence into the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa (an aim that never really diminished, even after the fall of Amin). Moreover, the relationship between the two men became even more complicated still, following Qadhafi's turn away from Arab nationalism, and towards African integration, as his major foreign policy objective, from the late 1990s onwards.

Following Qadhafi's move towards African integration - which eventually resulted in his being elected chair of the African Union (AU) in 2009 (amidst talk of a Libyan-sponsored unified African currency, a future 'United States of Africa', and so on) - Museveni continued to do very well financially out of Libya. Thus, it is widely rumoured that Qadhafi donated US$4 million to Museveni's 2000 referendum, and a further US$5 million towards his 2001 election campaign. Either way, the period since the 1999 has certainly seen Libyan companies invest US$375 million in Uganda. For example, Libya now owns a 60% stake in Tristar (which exports textiles from Uganda to the US), a 49% share of the National Housing and Construction Corporation (Uganda's largest real-estate developer), and a number of Uganda's largest hotels, including the iconic Lake Victoria Hotel in Entebbe. In addition, prior to Qadhafi's downfall, it was widely anticipated that Libya would also invest heavily in Uganda's nascent oil infrastructure, especially in the proposed US$300 million pipeline from Kampala to Mombasa. Yet against all this, over this same period Qadhafi also became increasingly suspicious of Museveni's deepening ties with Britain, Israel and (especially) the US, whilst for his part, the Ugandan president saw the Qadhafi's integrationist project as a threat to his own plans for a more integrated East African Community (EAC, which - according to current rumours - he one day hopes to lead).

In addition, it is my surmise that Museveni was also deeply suspicious of the popular effect that the Libyan leader's vision had upon the Ugandan public. Whilst much has been written both about the history of, and the reasoning behind, Qadhafi's drive towards an integrated Africa, existing commentary has (to my mind, at least) failed to capture the sheer pizzazz of the Colonel's enterprise, or the at times electrifying effect that it had upon ordinary Africans. And nowhere was this more obvious than in Kampala. Thus, I remember being in the city during Qadhafi's visit in 2001, on which occasion he behaved with such panache - in addition to his convoy of Mercedes-Benz, and his striking female bodyguards, on his first day in town the Libyan leader bought the entire stock of a local jewellers, and then proceeded to toss all of the jewellry, along with a load of cash, into the waiting crowds - that it couldn't fail but to galvanize public opinion. In these and other ways, he seemed to embody the very best of 'Afro-optimism', something that is deeply seductive in many African contexts. Thus, for months after his visit, images of Qadhafi remained a best seller for Ugandan photograph dealers, as people came to regard these as a 'must have' item in their personal photograph albums. Indeed, for a period, at least, Qadhafi may have even achieved greater popularity in Uganda than that enjoyed by Museveni himself. Moreover, the Libyan leader later erected a grand symbol of his authority in the Ugandan capital, in the form of the magnificent Qadhafi National Mosque which, sitting atop Old Kampala Hill, now dominates the city's skyline, especially at night (see my recent - albeit not very good quality - view from Kampala Road). Qadhafi took up the project in 2003, reviving an older plan for a 'grand mosque' in the city which had first been floated by Amin in the early 70s.

For these reasons, the relationship between Qadhafi and the current Ugandan president was always somewhat ambiguous, and this continued up until the end. Thus, following the start of the NATO bombing of Libya, in March 2011, Museveni embarked on a major round of 'shuttle-diplomacy' across Africa, in an attempt to secure an AU resolution against the airstrikes (an extraordinary meeting of the AU held in late May in Addis Ababa later called for an immediate cessation of the attacks). Yet at the very same time, we now know (thanks to the wikileaks cables) Museveni was privately concerned that the Libyan leader might even try to assassinate him, as a result of which he applied to the Americans for additional air radar information on his flights over international airspace. Finally, following the beginning of the NATO campaign, Museveni published a long (and somewhat rambling) treatise on Qadhafi in the journal Foreign Policy, in which he developed 11 reasons why NATO should desist, alongside 5 'positive points' about the Colonel, yet in which he notably also went on to expand 4 reasons why Qadhafi was 'no saint'. Moreover, it would appear that it was not only Museveni who picked up on the complexities of Qadhafi's approach to Uganda. Thus, I leave the final word here to Godfrey Ahabwe, former MP for Rubanda East, who finishes his own recent eulogy to Qadhafi in the Independent with the words:

"Fare thee well, the Great Leader of Libya and Africa, certain weaknesses notwithstanding."

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