Is Uganda Building East Africa’s Strongest Army?


Uganda’s expenditure on arms surpassed Kenya’s for the first in 2011, a new global arms expert report shows. Uganda spent US$1.02 billion; about double Kenya’s US$735 million.

Details show that Uganda spent US$270 million on its usual defense budget items (food, salaries etc) and US$ 750 million on jets pushing its officially disclosed expenditure to US$1.02 billion.

Uganda’s acquisition of 6 Su-30MK Russian jets elevated its air force to one of the most advanced combat aircraft squadrons in East and Central Africa, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an international institute that carries out research into conflict and arms control notes.

In its recent report, Trends in international arms transfers, 2011, SIPRI notes that the purchase of the fighter jets and other arms increased Uganda’s military expenditure by 300 percent dwarfing Africa’s 9 and the world’s 24 percent expenditure on arms.

The revelation comes amidst reports that Uganda has this year ordered a new batch of weapons–tanks and ant-tank missiles.

When asked about the new order, Army Spokesman Felix Kulayigye refused to either confirm or deny it. This is not unusual because defense purchases of this nature are classified security information. The purchase of the fighter jets, for example, was only confirmed in Uganda after Russian and North African media reported it.

Why all these weapons?

Competition for regional military superiority with especially Kenya, the threat of spill-over from any feared war between Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan, and its operation in Somalia against al Shabaab and against Joseph Kony rebels in the DR Congo are quoted as incentives from Uganda’s ballooning military expenditure.

Of the small arms and light Weapons; assault rifles and submachine guns, transferred in equatorial Africa estimated in the last four years Uganda received 17% and Kenya, which remains the biggest military spender in the region took 23%.

In actual numbers estimated to be at least 220 000, Uganda is reported to have procured 38, 000 and Kenya 51, 500 of the arms amongst other countries, the Arms Flow to Africa report notes.

Joseph Dube, the Africa coordinator for the International Action Network on Small Arms, says that the increase in global arms trade is driven by governments facing opposition that arm themselves in preparation to attack citizens.

“For you to be seen as a power, it is determined by your defence and the budget that you put on defence… We are powerful, we are able to defend, engage not only on South Africa soil but in peace missions on the continent,” Dube said of South Africa. Despite being peaceful for decades, it accounts for 70% of the continent’s arms imports.

In Uganda’s case, Museveni has always wanted to be seen as the military giant of the region. He has wanted a strong well-equipped army ever since his government formulated its security policy in 2001.

Experts have questioned such heavy military expenditure considering that Uganda has been relatively peaceful and most importantly in economic doldrums, too unfavorable for such expenditure.

New oil mania

Critics say that Uganda’s arms appetite has been whetted by its oil discovery with the world’s weapon manufacturers increasingly seeing it as a potential buyer and Uganda not disappointing them.

High military spending is synonymous with Africa’s top oil producers from Angola, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria and even mineral rich South Africa which despite not having any wars, is Africa’s biggest military spender.

Lack of constitutional checks in terms of having parliament scrutinise military expenditure, they say, explains why President Museveni has been able to build his arsenal unimpeded.

But Kulaigye says those who complain about Uganda’s military expenditure want Uganda to keep weak and easy to over-run.

President Yoweri Museveni in August last year defended the purchase of the jets saying they would ease fighting insurgents especially the Lord’s Resistance Army. He said Uganda had paid heavily for delaying to acquire high quality fighting equipment.

“We suffered a lot fighting the LRA because of poor equipment. The UPDF was on foot just like the rebels and it became hard to flush them out easily, Museveni said, “The jets are meant for bad elements in the country that would surface to destabilise the peace in Uganda.”

But his former Chief of Defence Forces (CDF), Mugisha Muntu, who has since joined the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) says combat wars like that against the LRA in the Congo jungles, does not require aircrafts but well equipped soldiers who are defensible.

He refused to speculate on Museveni’s arms purchases. One needs to be sure, for instance, that the US$750m was actually spent on the Russian fighter jets. He says of the earmarked money, only 50% might have been spent on the army and the rest “diverted into other things”.

“It is after we have answered that that one can make an argument on whether this should have been spent on other critical areas like ensuring that soldiers have good health care, insurance, good accommodation and are well equipped during the war so as to ensure that the army is well off,” Muntu says.

Muntu says that Uganda’s potential threats both external and internal do not even correlate with the kind of expenditure that is being made.

“Uganda’s potential threats have been the al Shabaab and possibly Khartoum but when the SPLA took over South Sudan, the dynamics changed,” Muntu says, “and for the al Shaabab, Uganda does not need aircraft and tanks but other strengths like well trained soldiers and high intelligence expertise.”

For Muntu, the frenzy in buying arms has largely to do with regime longevity and creating fear “to show that look we can do anything if you get in our way”. He says this is not the solution to the country’s threats given the economic conditions.


Uganda’s engagement in Somalia reinvigorated it as Uganda sought to show the region and the world that it is a military force to reckon with.

Since then, Uganda’s military has proved to be double-blessing for Museveni; it keeps him as a strategic ally of the U.S in the war against terrorism and earns him dollars. For instance, 17.3% of Uganda’s defense budget is from donor partners on the Somalia mission.

Under the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping agreements, troop-contributing countries are reimbursed if they deploy with their own equipment, both lethal and non-lethal under an arrangement named reimbursement of Contingent Own Equipment (COE).

Sources say Uganda has been raking in millions because it has tanks in Somalia, while Burundi, the only other partner before Kenyan joined, had only a few light arms.

Some estimates say last year Uganda was reimbursed up to US $7million compared to Burundi’s US$100,000.

A military analyst recently told a Ugandan newspaper that, unlike before when Uganda was the sole force, donors are increasingly seeing a partner in Kenya in case Uganda falters.

Uganda’s position appears to be that for the war in Somalia to end, pirates in the Indian Ocean have to be dealt with because they furnish the al shaabab with supplies. Army Kulayigye agrees with this view and Uganda’s Second Deputy Prime Minister, Eriya Kategaya, has been pushing it in summits. Kenya has also increased its defense expenditure to deal with the Shaabab and al Qaeda.

Regional hotspots

Dr. Fredrick Gooloba Muteebi, an independent researcher on regional issues, says ever since the South broke off from Sudan, there has been a likelihood of war and Uganda knows that the moment it breaks, it is likely to be sucked into it.

He says that there is likelihood that with Kony still out there, Sudan could use him in a proxy war against Uganda.

Recently, Sudan President Omar Bashir’s advisor, Mustafa Osman Ismail, was quoted saying that Khartoum would not stand idle while Kampala and Juba continue to backing rebels in Darfur. Uganda has rubbished these claims saying that it is a signatory to the Great Lakes security Pact that prohibits such behaviour.

Military experts say that this gives Museveni reason to arm especially knowing Sudan is reputed to have one of the strongest airforce in Africa. In African Military ranks, Sudan ranks among the top 5 ahead of Uganda in 7th position.

Recently, army officials from South Sudan arrested six Ugandan MPs that had gone on a fact finding mission on March 1 over parts of Moyo district that South Sudan claims.

Security Minister Muruli Mukasa says the Presidents of the two countries have talks planned. The situation is explosive, experts say.

In the DR Congo where the central government is not in control of the whole country, Uganda military sources have been reporting that militia groups opposed to Museveni, like the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), are regrouping.

In mid-March, Uganda’s Chief of Defence Forces Aronda Nyakairima rerpotedly travelled to DRC to talk to his counterpart there about the possibility of jointly dealing with ADF, a rebel group that caused havoc in Kampala with bomb attacks in the 1990s.

Uganda also almost exchanged fire at the border with DR Congo forces a few years ago over the oil Albertine oil fields and experts say it remains a potential cause for conflict between the two. Military experts have attributed the buying of jets to need to protect the oil fields.

Friction with Kenya over the Migingo Island almost sparked a military confrontation between Kenya and Uganda.

In final efforts to wipe out the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), including the group’s leader, Joseph Kony who has terrorised the region with frequent attacks over the past two decades, Uganda, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo have put together a 5000–strong force backed by the UN and AU.

Of all these, Uganda is the big boy on the battle front having fought a number of wars and some of them especially South Sudan and CAR have the weakest of armies in the region, therefore Uganda needs its hardware if its foot is to be felt.

To compile details of the arms purchases, SIPRI’s senior researcher, Pieter Wezeman told reporters that the organisation gets information from several open sources and focuses on major arms deals. He admitted that the information is not complete and that there are deals that they missed.

“It is likely that more weapons and ammunition have been imported into the region from countries that do not report on their arms exports in sufficient detail or at all,” a SIPRI report notes.

But Kulayigye said the report findings are “skewed and not balanced”. Unless whatever new arms have been acquired, however, they will only be money well spent if they are used soon. As Dr. Fredrick Golooba Mutebi warned, weapons easily become obsolete. Apart from the Kalishnokovs, all the guns that were manufactured in the 60’s are no longer in use and Russia stopped manufacturing them in 2011.