Saturday, 27 August 2011 14:44

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Sometime last year, the then Libyan strongman, Muammar El Gaddafi sent an emissary to President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

According to sources inside State House, Gaddafi’s messenger carried an ultimatum to Museveni: if you do not support my project of an African political federation, I will support a rebellion aimed at toppling your government.

According to sources close to Museveni, the Ugandan president listened in silent wonderment as the Libyan envoy delivered the message. Then Museveni cleared his throat and replied, calling Gaddafi’s bluff in the same verbal manner that the Libyan leader had sent his ultimatum.

“Go tell brother Gaddafi that we cannot be intimidated by his threats,” Museveni reportedly said, “and neither are we afraid of him financing a rebellion against us since we know it will not succeed. We are very strong here and we have fought Gaddafi before with the Tanzanians. And we have fought and won many rebellions sponsored against by many groups some allied to Gaddafi. We shall not support his African federation agenda under blackmail.”

However, sources say, Museveni remained worried about Gaddafi’s threat. In fact, The Independent has been told, it was one of the reasons that led the Ugandan president to believe a security report in January this year which claimed that Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, had allied with Gaddafi to sponsor a rebellion against Museveni based in eastern DRC (Refer to “Inside Museveni’s visit to Kagame”, The Independent August 12, 2011).

Even before the incident with Gaddafi’s emissary, Museveni’s relationship with the Libyan leader had not been cordial.

Last year, at the height of the exposure of classified American diplomatic memos by the whistleblower website, Wikileaks, it emerged that President Museveni had shared his fears on Gaddafi with top US diplomats.

In one of two leaked dossiers, President Museveni apparently feared that Gaddafi could orchestrate his assassination. He expressed this fear to America’s former top ambassador on Africa, Jendayi Frazer, at a meeting on June 13, 2008.

The Wikileaks leak claimed President Museveni told the American envoy that Gaddafi would eliminate him because he had opposed the Libyan leader’s push for the creation of a United States of Africa.

“President Museveni said Libyan President Qadhafi ‘is a problem’ for the continent and is pushing for the creation of a ‘United States of Africa’ to be governed by one president,” Ms Frazer is quoted in the classified memo, which was first published in The Guardian newspaper in the UK Wednesday.

President Museveni told Ms Frazer that he thought Gaddafi’s plan was “neither feasible nor desirable”, a matter which seemed to piss-off the Libyan leader.

“Museveni noted that tensions with Gaddafi are growing as a result, and he worries that Gaddafi will attack his plane while flying over international airspace,” Ms Frazer said.

The memo went on to say that President Museveni asked the US Government to provide additional air radar information whenever he flies over international waters.

Yet as Gaddafi’s fall became imminent, it was Museveni who frantically helped build an African Union coalition to try save the falling Libyan leader. Museveni was involved in shuttle diplomacy, flying from Kampala to Malabo in Equatorial Guinea, then to Addis Ababa and Pretoria to organise a united African voice against NATO’s push to remove Gaddafi. Museveni was able to secure an AU resolution that NATO should stop bombing Libya to allow for talks between rebels and Gaddafi, a resolution NATO ignored.

Indeed, the Libyan leader has had a highly troubled relationship with Museveni. In January 2003, Museveni visited Israel and was hosted by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The two shook hands before international media. Later when Museveni visited Libya, Gaddafi refused to shake his right hand claiming it was dirty after shaking hands with Sharon. Gaddafi used his left hand to shake Museveni’s hand. According to Arab culture, it is an insult of the highest order to greet someone with the left hand.

Sources close to the Ugandan president say that Gaddafi has treated other African presidents as his lackeys. In 2001, for example, he invited himself to Uganda to attend Empango, the coronation in Toro Kingdom and only informed Museveni of his decision instead of seeking permission from the Ugandan president. The Uganda president was only informed by Toro’s Queen Mother Best Kemugisa that Gaddafi was coming in. Museveni initially hesitated to allow the visit to go on but later changed his mind.

Indeed, during this particular visit, Gaddafi insisted on travelling to Fort Portal to attend King Oyo Iguru’s coronation against advice from Museveni. Along the way, the two presidents’ relationship literally collapsed as they quarreled over the details of Gaddafi’s visit. At one particular point, Museveni walked away from his guest in Fort Portal and went to stay in Mweya Lodge as Gaddafi insisted on staying in the kingdom longer than he had promised.

Gaddafi has been a thorn not just to Museveni but also many other African leaders. For example, during an AU summit in Lusaka Zambia in July 2001, electricity in the main conference hall where presidents were meeting went off. Then Gaddafi’s bodyguards swung into action – literally stepping on the laps and shoulders of other African presidents – to create a cordon around their leader. President Museveni later complained that one of Gaddafi’s bodyguards jumped over his shoulder.

The arrogant behavior of Gaddafi and his security outfits has been a common feature of the Libyan leader’s visits to all countries. However, observers say, it has always taken a racist tone in black Africa. Gaddafi’s condescending view of black Africa was once blatantly revealed during a conversation with Museveni over the resolution of the South Sudan versus Khartoum conflict. Gaddafi shocked his Ugandan counterpart when he said he can never allow the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) to take power in Khartoum. “How can we allow people who used to be our slaves become rulers of an Arab country?” Gaddafi reportedly asked.

Indeed, Gaddafi’s tendency to bully his way through international affairs was most evident in 1997. In that year, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) financed a three-country invasion of Sudan. According to sources, the Americans had mobilised the leaders of Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea to support an SPLA offensive to capture Juba. At the time, the US had organised the three nations under the rubric of “frontline states” against the spread of “Islamic fundamentalism” being spread by the government in Khartoum. Museveni was the one in charge of the operations although the force commander was an Eritrean brigadier.

According to inside sources, the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies came with large quantities of armour. Gulu was the military base of the operations. The operation was a success as Sudanese forces fell under the massive onslaught. Then Gaddafi and later the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarack called Museveni. Sources say Gaddafi told the Ugandan leader that if black Africa unites against Arab-led Sudan, the Arabs will unite behind Khartoum. Afraid of a big war, Museveni called off the operation without consulting his allies in Ethiopia and Eritrea just when the capture of Juba was a few days away. The president of Eritrea, Isias Aferweki, was angry with his Ugandan counterpart and significantly contributed to the break-up of their relationship. Sources say Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi was pissed but did not break his ties with Museveni. But again, Gaddafi had used intimidation to get his way.

Yet in spite of these problems, Museveni maintained a relationship with Gaddafi. At first, it looks intriguing but some analysts say this is a mark of Museveni’s pragmatism, others call it opportunism. The Libyan leader supported former dictator Idi Amin when the Tanzanian founding president and Museveni mentor, Julius Nyerere, sought to remove the dictator in 1979. He did not only give Amin arms and ammunition, Gaddafi also deployed Libyan troops to fight for Amin against the Tanzanians. At the time, Museveni claims he was fighting alongside the Tanzanians.

How then did Museveni build a relationship with Gaddafi?

When he began his guerrilla war, Museveni had limited international backing. He went to Gaddafi for support. In exchange for money, arms and training for the National Resistance Army (NRA), Museveni signed a deal with former Amin finance minister, Moses Ali. Under the agreement Ali would become vice president if NRA captured power. Museveni did not honour this bargain. But this did not destroy Gaddafi’s relations with him. It seems the two have been used to betraying each other.

Museveni’s continued relationship with Gaddafi is sometimes explained by the fact that the Libyan leader has been a major contributor to the Ugandan president’s election campaigns. For example, it is alleged that he gave Museveni US$ 4m for the 2000 referendum and another US$ 5m for the 2001 presidential elections. Gaddafi then came for Museveni’s swearing in ceremony where he encouraged his Ugandan counterpart to cling onto power for ever.

Before the next election in 2006, this cozy relationship had hit a glitch. During the 2006 elections, Gaddafi refused to support Museveni financially – only sending a paltry US$ 250,000 which Museveni turned down. At this point, the relationship was limping, but it seems to have survived.

According to sources close to the Libyan leader, Gaddafi was angry with Museveni because he suspected that the Ugandan president had deliberately misled him about an offer by former US President George Bush regarding the destruction of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). According to these sources, Museveni had told Gaddafi that US president, George Bush, would remove sanctions on Libya and open doors for American investments into Libya if he (Gaddafi) destroyed his WMD.

Museveni, sources say, advised Gaddafi to destroy is WMDs close to the November 2004 re-election campaign. The Libyan leader did as told and was convinced that he had given Bush a decisive campaign advantage in that election. However, after his reelection, Bush did not honour the agreement. When Gaddafi complained, he was told by key people in British intelligence that Museveni had sold him a lie.

But did Museveni sell a lie? Well, since he came to power, Museveni has developed strong relations with Western powers especially the United States and United Kingdom. Yet during the late 1980s and early 1990s, these countries had extremely bad relations with Libya and had declared Gaddafi a pariah. In 1986, US president, Ronald Reagan bombed Libya with a view to kill Gaddafi. The planes killed the Libyan leader’s daughter.

After the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland, the US and UK governments accused Gaddafi of complicity in the crime and imposed sanctions on Libya. Yet Museveni retained strong relations with the two powers while at the same time keeping Gaddafi as a close ally. Why did the Americans and the British remain close to Museveni in spite of his relations with Gaddafi who they loathed?

Highly informed sources say that Museveni’s relationship with Gaddafi did not undermine his relations with the Americans and the British because the Ugandan president has been a major link between the two sides. First, Museveni played a key role in the resolution of the stand-off over Lockerbie. Second, he was central during the negotiations leading to Libya destroying its programs to develop Weapons of Mass destruction (WMD). Knowledge of the details of Museveni’s work on this front lends credence that he was indeed a person in a position to sell to Gaddafi a believable story.

Although the world hailed South African leader Nelson Mandela for helping the US and UK governments resolve their differences with Libya, the unsung hero of this endeavour was actually Museveni. According to information available to The Independent, the contention revolved around four major issues which the US had made conditional on removing sanctions against Libya. The Americans and British wanted Libya to condemn international terrorism and stop financing it. Second, they wanted Libya to disarm its WMDs and also to stop any program of producing more. Third, they insisted that Libya publicly apologise for Lockerbie. And finally they wanted Libya to compensate the victims of the Lockerbie bombing.

For some years, Libya played a game of hide and seek with the US and UK on these four points. Officially, it accepted these conditions: first claiming that it does not finance terrorism and has always condemned it. Second, the Libyans claimed not to have any WMDs – insisting that the few they had were aimed at Israel. Third, they refused to apologise for the bombing of the Pan Am airliner, saying they were not involved in its bombing. However, they offered give money to the families of victims – as a humanitarian gesture.

These positions had created an impasse. In April 2002, Museveni travelled to Washington DC for a meeting with Bush. During the meeting, Bush told Museveni that there were many emissaries – the South Africans, the Chinese and others – all going to DC to negotiate on behalf of Libya. I want you to be my go between, Bush told Museveni as he patted the Ugandan president on the shoulder. Museveni answered that he cannot give any promises but would travel to Libya and seek Gaddafi’s indulgence.

Thus, instead of coming directly to Uganda, Museveni went to Libya where Gaddafi agreed to the deal that Uganda’s president would be the single go-between between him and the Americans. Upon returning to Kampala, Museveni called a meeting of his advisors and broke the news of the deal. But the then minister for Foreign Affairs, James Wapakhabulo, advised that Gaddafi should put his commitment in writing.

Thus, on June 12, 2002, Wapa travelled to Libya where Gaddafi officially wrote that Museveni would be the link with Bush. Wapa returned with the good news on June 19.

Less than a year later, Museveni was at the height of his influence in Washington DC. Thus, when he began his campaign for a third term, Museveni knew that DC would only make impotent gestures of protest. The only centre of opposition to the project seemed to be the State Department which had been deliberately kept out of the loop. It is in this way that Museveni played a major role in Libya’s disarmament.

It seems therefore that in spite of his problems with Gaddafi, Museveni was a net beneficiary from the relationship with Libya’s eccentric president. Indeed, according to Charles Onyango-Obbo, the Nation Media Group’s Executive Editor for Africa and Digital Media, Museveni may have involved himself in the “save Gaddafi effort” because of the key role he played in the resolution of Lockerbie and the WMD issue, a factor that gave the Ugandan president critical geostrategic clout.

According to Obbo, Museveni may have realised that if Gaddafi was removed without his participation, he would have lost a key geostrategic advantage especially in his relationship with the Americans and the British. If Gaddafi survived, he would have been grateful to Museveni for saving him while the Ugandan president would maintain his position as a key power-broker between the British and Americans on one hand and Gaddafi on the other. He may also have thought that by organising a common African voice against NATO, he would emerge as key player on the global scene.

“But Museveni also had a correct argument on Libya,” Obbo went on, “He has been asking NATO to help the AU forces in Somalia to end impunity by Al Shabaab that is causing massive loss of life there – both directly through terrorism and indirectly though politically induced famine.”

Obbo said: “By questioning why NATO could do what it has done in Libya when it is exactly what the AU has been demanding for them to do in Somalia and they had refused, Museveni was able to expose the fact that NATO’s presence in Libya was not driven by humanitarian considerations. He was able to show that NATO’s involvement in Libya was not aimed at stabilising the country but was driven by ulterior motives.”

Obbo also says that at a very personal level, Gaddafi was the only African leader willing to publically support Museveni’s desire to stay in power. So although he was obnoxious and kept poking Museveni in the eye, he was nonetheless an asset for the Ugandan president. Certainly, through Gaddafi’s fall, Museveni will have lost an ally in the Africa long-serving leaders’ club.

Gaddafi’s fall will certainly leave Museveni weakened regionally but certainly not undone. He still has many cards in his geostrategic positioning – Somalia where Ugandan troops fight America’s war of keeping suspected terrorists at bay, and South Sudan where the evolution of a new state presents risks to regional stability.

In both cases, Museveni is seen in London, Washington and Paris as the man who contributes significantly to the stability of the region and thereby saves the Americans and British the trouble of being called upon to support a complex humanitarian catastrophe if things went out of control. Already the Uganda government has announced its readiness to work with any successor to Gaddafi.

However, the future of Libya without Gaddafi is unclear. The rebels who have taken control of most of the country lack a unified organisation and a shared ideology. Yet they are armed in a country sitting on billions of oil revenues. Agreeing on who controls oil revenues among men wielding AK 47 assault rifles without the process degenerating into a bloodbath is certainly going to be one of the miracles of the 20th century.