/ 18 October 2022

Military capability in East Africa is growing

Yoweri Museveni
President Yoweri Museveni condemned what he described as a "cowardly act" and vowed the assailants would pay with their lives. President Yoweri Museveni condemned what he described as a "cowardly act" and vowed the assailants would pay with their lives. (Photo by John Ochieng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It was a general’s ill-considered tweet that has made his country something of a laughing stock, but one which should give pause for reflection. On 3 October, Ugandan general Muhoozi Kainerugaba took to Twitter to claim: “It wouldn’t take us, my army and me, two weeks to capture Nairobi.” 

For his transgression, he was both dismissed and promoted. A few days later, a video of a poorly executed Independence Day paratrooper demonstration went viral and was greeted with mockery of Uganda’s military capabilities. 

But the episode has a serious side to it. It shows underlying tensions between states in a region of imperfect borders and with a history of interstate wars a facet of the African continent that is all too common. 

It also betrays an apparent appetite for state-to-state violence against the backdrop of a resurgence of interstate tensions such as the recent Rwanda-DRC clashes, raising questions about military capabilities on the continent.

Although only three conventional wars have taken place during the African continent’s post-colonial history, these were all in East Africa — Somalia and Ethiopia in 1977, Uganda and Tanzania in 1978, and Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998. The rest of the continent has seen more than two dozen militarised interstate disputes  — clashes that do not result in enough casualties to be classified as a war.

For their part, Kenya and Uganda have enjoyed mostly cordial relations. The only incident approaching a minor clash was in the 1970s, when Uganda was led by Idi Amin. In February 1976, he sought to claim a large portion of western Kenya, saying it had been transferred to Uganda by the British in 1902. Kenya sealed off its border with Uganda, a blow to the landlocked country.

Despite the mockery of the paratrooper demonstration at the Independence Day celebrations, today’s Uganda is a potent military force, a fact known all too well in many quarters of the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions. But how does it rank against Kenya? According to World Bank data, Kenya had a military budget of $1.1-billion in 2020, and has spent at least a billion dollars a year since 2016. 

By comparison, Uganda spent $985-million in 2020. But this budget is growing. In 2019, the budget was $648-million, a growth of 52%. Proportionally, Uganda also spends more on the military than Kenya. Its military expenditure as a proportion of its GDP stood at 2.6%, compared with Kenya’s 1.1% in 2020. The signs are clear that over the years, Uganda has been catching up militarily with Kenya.

Kampala has also registered a stronger performance against terrorism, a concern for both it and Nairobi. Uganda’s success is most notable in its campaign against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army

In 2021, Kenya, which is on the frontline in the fight against the Somalia-based al-Shabab terrorist group, had a Global Terrorism Index (GTI) score of 6.1 compared with Uganda’s 4.1. The score ranges from 0 (least vulnerable) to 10 (most vulnerable). Thus, it would seem Uganda has been able to do more against terrorism with fewer resources.

Success on the battlefield depends on military power just as much as it does on other considerations, most notably alliances and morale. How do Uganda and Kenya stack up on these aspects? Both have solid ties to the United States and China, the two major powers in the international system. 

Regionally Uganda’s imports from the African continent (based on 2020 data) is $2.8-billion,representing 34% of its total imports. Kenya, though with a larger economy, imported $1.7-billion from the continent, representing only 11% of its total imports. 

Uganda also seems to have stronger ties to the regional economy. In 2020, Uganda’s imports from the East African Community bloc amounted to $1.5-billion, while Kenya’s was $505-million. But both countries have a growing bilateral trade relationship. Moreover, most of Uganda’s trade goes through Kenya. 

The landlocked status of Uganda also means that it would be difficult for military supplies to reach it in the event of a war with Kenya. This is part of what discouraged Amin from taking up arms against Kenya in 1976, leading him to focus on Tanzania instead.

Another important dimension is morale among the population and the armed forces. According to a Afrobarometer opinion poll, Uganda, which has been run by the same president — Yoweri Museveni — since 1986, is seen as less democratic by its own citizens, whereas Kenya’s government has alternated ruling parties multiple times through increasingly less violent elections. 

This indicates that Kenya would be in a much stronger position if a military showdown between the two countries were to take place. It would not take two weeks to capture Nairobi — it would not happen at all. 

Countries on the defensive, as Russia is finding out in Ukraine, tend to rally in unison and put aside their internal divisions. Wars initiated for no apparent reason by countries tend to garner resistance from their home populations, with the result that leaders who initiate these wars tend to get removed from power on losing on the battlefield. 

Such would be a repeat of what happened in Uganda in the aftermath of the Kagera War, Idi Amin’s war against Tanzania in 1978 and 1979. The campaign was not supported by most Ugandans and even his soldiers abandoned their posts when Tanzania counter-invaded, leaving most of the fighting to the Libyan soldiers who were meant to play only a supporting role. 

In the beginning of 1979, with Tanzanian forces advancing, many Ugandans saw no need to defend the regime in a war that they considered a dictator’s crazed adventure. Indeed, many welcomed Amin’s downfall. This led to elections in 1980, and then a civil war that put Uganda’s current government in power in 1986.

Power dynamics in the East Africa region are a reality. There is a great deal of military capability. Moreover, as we have seen, this is growing. With these tensions and military capacity comes the need for responsible stewardship by those in command. Both states, and the wider region, would be better served working with one another than against each other.

Bhaso Ndzendze, Laurika Mashaba, Sisipho Mbalo, Thando Mncwango, Buhle Mnyanda, Ralph Musonza, Nasi-Sipho Vayeka and Noluthando Mncwango are from the University of Johannesburg’s department of politics and international relations. They write in their personal capacities.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.