The United States has announced plans to supply four drone aircraft to Uganda and Burundi to help fight Islamist militants. The supply is part of a US$45 million military aid package to both countries, which provide the bulk of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. Aiding Uganda’s and Burundi’s military commitments should increase US influence in East Africa, as well as counter the rising regional influence of powers such as China, India and Brazil. While the supply of US drones may increase strategic competition in the region, it may also be welcomed by other influential powers because of the threat posed to their East African interests by continuing Somali instability.
Burundi and Uganda have committed heavily to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, which is attempting to stabilise Somalia and fend off efforts by the Islamist militant group Al-Shabab to take power. According to Bloomberg, Uganda and Burundi had 6,200 troops as part of AMISOM as of March 2011, and were committed to sending 4,000 more soldiers by the middle of the year. This has increased the terrorist threat in those two countries, with Al-Shabab having released a series of statements in recent years threatening to commit terrorist attacks in both Burundi and Uganda. Twin bombings in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in July 2010, killed 74 people who had gathered at a restaurant and a rugby field to watch a football World Cup match; Al-Shabab claimed responsibility.
Supplying the drones is likely to increase US influence in East Africa, which has come under increasing attention from rising powers such as China and India. According to Forbes, China has invested over US$20 billion in Sudan, which has funded initiatives such as dams and refineries, and a 1,600-kilometre oil pipeline to the Red Sea. Reuters reported that trade between India and Tanzania stood at US$1.3 billion in 2010; India also gave US$180 million to the Tanzanian Government for the upgrading of water supplies. Trade between Tanzania and the US, on the other hand, stood at US$207 million in 2010. Rapidly increasing Chinese and Indian influence threatens to diminish the influence of the US in East Africa. The military contribution to Burundi and Uganda is thus a significant one. While China and India are able to rival the US economically, the US currently wields considerable military superiority, something which the drones deal helps to emphasise.
Strategic rivals such as China and India, while likely to be wary, could also stand to benefit from the US initiative. The stated purpose of supplying the drones was to help curb Somali instability, which has also affected the interests of China and India in the region. Somali pirates exist, in large part, due to the instability in Somalia; ships bound for China and India alike are affected.
India and China have also increased investments in Ethiopia, which borders Somalia. China, for instance, has invested US$2.5 billion in Ethiopia. Bilateral trade totalled US$800 million in the first half of 2010. This is comparable to trade between the US and Ethiopia, which totalled US$892 million in 2010. India has also firmly established itself in Ethiopia, with Bloomberg reporting that 400 Indian firms have invested a total of US$4.7 billion in the country as of May 2011. Due to the proximity of Ethiopia to Somalia, the supply of US drones to Burundi and Uganda to fight Somali militants could be an asset, and not a liability, for Sino-Indian regional interests.
While the move is a counter to rising influence in East Africa by powers of the “global south”, the potential benefits of this particular initiative for the region, means there are unlikely to be many negative reactions to it. Should that be the case, however, the US may see it as an opportunity to further expand its influence in Uganda, Burundi and the region at large, which may eventually lead to increased competition in the region from the other powers.
Bruno de Paiva
FDI Indian Ocean Research Programme