The Uganda files: How Israel arms brutal dictators who recruit child soldiers
Eitay Mack | Dec. 24, 2021 | Haaretz.com
Newly declassified Israeli Foreign Ministry documents show that Jerusalem has aided and abetted brutal leaders and military forces in Uganda for years
It was a startling declaration. After all, it’s not every day that the U.S. Treasury Department announces that two Israeli companies – in this case, NSO and Candiru – are to be placed on the list of entities operating contrary to America’s national interest. That exceptional decision, about a month ago, did not come about in a vacuum. Washington discovered that the two offensive-cyber firms sold foreign governments means of surveillance that were used against government officials as well as political activists, journalists and business people in those countries.
Shedding some light on the details, the Reuters news agency reported that NSO’s Pegasus software had been used to hack into the phones of nine American diplomats who deal with matters related to Uganda. The report did not say who purchased the spyware from NSO, but everything points to the Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni. It’s doubtful that there are many other leaders who might be desperate enough to risk breaching the phones of American officials. Museveni, who believed that Washington was fed up with him and acted to overcome vote-rigging efforts prior to last January’s presidential election and to assist the opposition movement to topple him – apparently saw no other way out.
Added to the information involving that episode are recently declassified documents from Israel’s State Archives, which illuminate the aid that Israel gave Ugandan dictators over the years. There’s a fixed pattern behind this support: First, Israel’s government helps the ruler in his effort to crush whatever forces are revolting against him, but then if the attempt to topple the government succeeds, Israel immediately changes sides and supports the new regime, with no regrets for the government with which it had cooperated earlier. Moreover, Israel typically extends such aid, in the form of diplomacy and arms, even when the regime’s brutal acts, the iron fist it wields against opponents and even its use of children in battle are well known.
The pattern repeated itself with Museveni. The archival documents reveal that in July 1985, the commander of the Ugandan army, Gen. Tito Okello, who was then also ruling the country with a brutal hand, requested military aid from Israel to quell the rebel forces opposing him. The strongest and best organized of the rebel groups was the National Resistance Army, the NRA, which was led by Museveni. According to reports filed by Foreign Ministry officials, Israel decided to assist Okello to stamp out Museveni’s uprising, in exchange for formal renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been severed by President Idi Amin in 1972.
To conceal the quid pro quo behind the thaw in relations, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry used the services of former diplomat and ex-coordinator of government activities in Lebanon, Uri Lubrani, who was a private businessman at the time. Companies he had ties with carried out the transactions on behalf of the Defense Ministry, and Lubrani himself visited Uganda on several occasions in order to coordinate weapons shipments from Israel. The connection between Israel and Okello is reflected in cables and minutes from a number of meetings held around that time. In November 1985, for example, Gen. Okello’s son visited Israel; the following month, Lubrani, a representative of the Mossad and the commander of the Border Police visited Uganda; on January 10, 1986, Okello’s defense minister arrived in Israel for a visit.
Lubrani explained the importance of the arms deliveries in a now-declassified report he drew up on January 19, 1986: “Indeed, we carried out (fortunately without these facts having been leaked to date) three special flights of chartered planes to send to Entebbe three shipments of combat material, which were apparently important to the regime both substantively and in terms of the timing, and this helped us pave the way toward advancing the effort to renew relations.”
‘No great bargain’
Officials at the two Israeli ministries knew that Okello’s government was tottering and that Museveni stood a good chance of toppling it with support he was receiving from Libya. However, they believed that in any case, Museveni would not easily be able to reverse the diplomatic progress achieved between the two countries. In a cable dated November 22, 1985, the director of the Africa Desk in the Foreign Ministry wrote: “There is no stability since the coup, and the government is not in control of the whole country. The rest is controlled by the rebels, and their forces are more united… We are being guided by the view that the establishment of relations will also be binding on the future governments of Uganda, and therefore we have an interest in diplomatic ties despite the instability of the present government.”
Additional cables show that from December 1985 until early January 1986, Israel sent three planes full of weapons and that in exchange Gen. Okello agreed that the two countries would appoint nonresident diplomatic representatives.
On December 19, Museveni agreed to sign a cease-fire agreement – which in Okello’s assessment was due to the deterrence provided by the Israeli arms. However, the agreement soon collapsed and the fighting resumed. Israel, too, continued to be involved in the goings-on in the African country. On January 19, 1986, Arye Oded, Israel’s representative to Uganda, visited the capital, Kampala, and on January 22, Okello’s helicopters fired Israeli-supplied rockets at Museveni’s rebels, forcing them to withdraw from several positions they had captured.
But the Israeli assistance was of no avail. On January 26, Museveni’s forces took Kampala, and Gen. Okello’s junta fled to the north of the country to continue the fight from there.
From January 24, when the foreign and defense ministries realized that Museveni stood a good chance of victory, they decided to halt the arms shipments and rejected every subsequent request for aid from Okello – who had now morphed from ruler to rebel. According to a cable sent by Arye Oded on January 26, a shipment of 2,000 rockets, payment for which had apparently already been transferred to Israel, was halted. In a cable he had sent two days earlier, Oded had noted that these were rockets “of the type they purchased in the third shipment, and which have proved their effectiveness.” The cessation of arms deliveries at this critical moment not only diminished the military capability of Okello’s forces, it was also a severe blow to their morale.
According to a cable sent by Avi Primor, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Africa Desk, four days after the conquest of Kampala and the consequent takeover by the new regime, a representative from Museveni was already in contact with the Israeli Embassy in Washington. The next day, Israeli representatives met with his envoys in Nairobi, and contacts between the sides began. Museveni’s representatives complained that Israel had armed Okello’s faction and had ignored their requests for aid – to which the Israelis replied that Israel supports governments, not rebels. Henceforth the Israeli Defense Ministry would back Museveni’s regime, and train and arm his military forces.
As the cables in the state archives show, the foreign and defense ministries were well aware that Libya, under Muammar Gadhafi, was supporting the new regime of Museveni and that the latter was using child soldiers in battles his forces were fighting. For example, in late August 1986 the Israeli ambassador to Swaziland, Shlomo Dayan, alerted his colleagues to the fact that Uganda was mobilizing children for the military. He also sent the director of the Foreign Ministry’s Africa Desk an article about children who had been deployed as combat personnel in the NRA, “which you may find of interest.” Apparently the director didn’t agree.
Israel also knew that forces under the new government had killed thousands and that Museveni had arrested government ministers and political rivals, executed dozens of jailed detainees and was working to establish a one-party regime. None of this brought a halt to bilateral contacts, nor did Museveni’s decision to approve the opening of a Palestine Liberation Organization office in Kampala, or the visit by Libyan ruler Gadhafi to Uganda in September 1986.
In early September 1987, senior Foreign Ministry figures met with representatives of the U.S. State Department. In the meeting, the head of the department’s Bureau of African Affairs noted that though Museveni “is no great bargain, he is Uganda’s last chance to stand on its feet.”
Museveni was definitely not a “great bargain,” but he quickly became a useful dictator in the eyes of Israel and the United States. If there’s anyone in the world who’s entitled to a pension from Israel’s Defense Ministry, it’s Museveni. Not least, because he helped Israel and the United States in their struggle against the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. Museveni also tried to promote Israeli and American interests in Rwanda, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo he was instrumental in the rise to power of the Kabila family, which had extensive security and economic ties with the Jewish state and many of its businesspeople.
When an independent state was established in South Sudan under Salva Kiir in 2011, sparking a civil war two years later, Israel sought a way to continue supporting the new regime, even though it had perpetrated crimes against humanity and was using child soldiers. Again Museveni came to the rescue and sent Kiir shipments of Israeli arms, in 2014. Israeli officials later told an investigative team from the United Nations Security Council that they had not known about this shipment, but made no effort to look into the matter and did not halt the deliveries to Museveni, despite the suspicion that he was sending them on.
Two birds with one stone
In the past year, Museveni has realized that his role as a useful dictator has ended. Despite the violence and rampant corruption characterizing his regime, Uganda has seen the rise of one of the most impressive and vibrant opposition movements in Africa, one that is sweeping many young Ugandans in its wake. It’s difficult today to support suppression of this opposition movement without incurring international wrath. In addition, geopolitical shifts have made Museveni less relevant from the perspective of the United States. Omar al-Bashir is gone, South Sudan is under a Security Council embargo and President Kiir has become a pariah.
But the Israeli Defense Ministry never misses an opportunity: If indeed Israeli-developed offensive cyber technology was sold to Uganda, the export can be assumed to have had ministry authorization. That green light would have been given even though ministry officials knew that Museveni was fighting for his political life and had become embroiled in disputes with the United States. The government in Kampala even dared on January 16 of this year to prevent the U.S. ambassador to the country from visiting the leader of the opposition, Bobi Wine, while he was being held under house arrest. Last February, The New York Times reported that President Joe Biden had lost patience with Museveni and was considering imposing sanctions on him and others responsible in Uganda for election-related violence and infringement of democracy, in January.
As has been reported in the past, Israel’s NSO company apparently does not balk at selling surveillance systems to regimes that have no red lines with regard to their citizenry. As long as those affected by Pegasus are civilians, the company seems not to be concerned – although now even it is appalled that its technology was used against U.S. diplomats.
This is an excellent opportunity for the United States to kill two birds with one stone – without sentiment: NSO and Museveni. But in contrast to the legal entanglements plaguing the company and the dictator, justice will likely skip over the Israeli Defense Ministry once more. Undoubtedly at some point in the future the ministry will authorize the sale of yet another company’s malware to the next dictator who will follow Museveni.