19 July 2019
The discovery of oil and China’s infrastructure support are two major pieces of good news for Uganda's economy in recent years. Photo: Uganda Oil&Gas Journal
The discovery of oil and China’s infrastructure support are two major pieces of good news for Uganda's economy in recent years. Photo: Uganda Oil&Gas Journal

Uganda: China’s strategic outpost in East Africa

In my last article, I discussed how China managed to gain the upper hand over the West in Chad.

In fact, there is another landlocked and populous African country which had previously remained little known to Hong Kong people but which suddenly grabbed headlines recently after former secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping had been arrested by US authorities for allegedly bribing its foreign minister Sam Kutesa.

And that country is Uganda, a former British protectorate.

Contrary to popular perceptions, today Uganda is far from being the so-called loser state or problematic country. Instead, the African state has witnessed remarkable economic growth and continued political stability in recent years, thanks to the sound leadership of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

Often dubbed the “Deng Xiaoping of Uganda”, President Museveni has remained firmly in power since 1986, and has successfully rebuilt his country and jump-started its economy after the nation had been devastated by its former dictator Idi Amin, who was notorious for his autocracy, brutality, volatility and his lust for grandiose glory.

In particular, Amin’s decision to deport all ethnic Indians, who were in control of Uganda’s business operations at that time, took a heavy toll on the country’s economy. And during his reign between 1971 and 1979, Uganda was literally hell on earth.

The suffering of the Ugandans eventually ended in 1979 when neighboring Tanzania invaded Uganda and toppled the military regime of Amin.

After a brief period of Tanzanian occupation, Uganda witnessed several regime changes, until President Museveni seized power through a coup in 1986.

Having experienced decades of political unrest, the Ugandans had high hopes for their new leader, and were eagerly looking to him to restore order to the country.

And President Museveni did manage to live up to his people’s expectations over the years, which explains why he is able to stay in power for so long.

During his early years in office, Museveni was highly regarded by the West because of his respect for the democratic procedure, his ability to control the army and his powerful and effective governance. Under Museveni’s rule, the Ugandan economy began to quickly recover.

And thanks to the fairly good infrastructure left behind by the former British colonists, Uganda soon became an African hotspot for foreign investors.

Apart from being able to restore order to Uganda and set the country on a steady course toward economic prosperity, President Museveni also succeeded in curbing the nationwide AIDS epidemic, which had run rife during Amin’s dictatorship, an achievement that was highly praised by international organizations.

On the other hand, Museveni also managed to seek reconciliation with the heads of the former regional kingdoms in Uganda by restoring them to their thrones, despite the fact that their titles were largely ceremonial.

However, as the old saying goes: absolute power corrupts absolutely, after having been firmly in power for so long, President Museveni became increasingly autocratic, and sought to abolish the presidential term and age limit so that he could go on to become president for life.

Museveni began seeking regional hegemony, which was seen by the West as a threat to their strategic interests in the region. His successive invasions of Congo between 1996 and 2003 also triggered the so-called First Great War of Africa.

Worse still, his relentless persecution of homosexuals and the deteriorating human rights record in his country further alienated the West.

Deeply alarmed by his growing ambition, western powers began to see Museveni as the next target of the “color revolution”, which, in turn, prompted him to look for another great power to secure his regime.

And then two pieces of good news arrived: the discovery of oil in Uganda at the beginning of the millennium and the rise of China, and president Museveni finally found a new powerful ally which could help him counter the West.

Between 2000 and 2011, China provided Uganda with free economic aid of up to US$350 million. Apart from investing in its oil fields, China also built a railway that connects Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya, plus two hydroelectric dams and a whole bunch of other infrastructure.

Beijing’s investment initiatives in Uganda are not only aimed at turning the country into a strategic outpost for its “One Belt, One Road” plan, but also use it as a stepping stone to expand its influence in the entire East Africa.

And it appears Beijing’s strategic initiatives have paid off: in recent years, Kenya, Rwanda, Djibouti and Ethiopia have all seen rapidly growing Chinese economic presence.

Given China’s grand strategy in Africa, that Uganda has appeared on Patrick Ho’s alleged “bribery list” is apparently not a coincidence.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 1

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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