Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a long-ruling autocrat with a history of using deadly force to crush political protests, is telling his security forces to start buying their riot-control vehicles from a new source: a Canadian-owned armored car factory.
The factory in Uganda is the latest step in the global expansion of Streit Group, whose founder and chairman is Canadian businessman Guerman Goutorov. Its move into Uganda has prompted criticism from Ugandan opposition leaders and independent arms-control experts.
Streit’s armored vehicles have appeared in war zones such as Sudan’s Darfur region, Libya and South Sudan – countries that were subject to Canadian and United Nations arms embargoes or sanctions. The company’s expansion into East Africa is raising fears its vehicles could be used by Ugandan security forces to crush opposition protests.
Two years ago, at least 54 people were killed when Ugandan security forces – some in police vehicles – fired at demonstrators protesting the arrest of an opposition leader in the final weeks of a national election campaign. It was the deadliest in a series of crackdowns on protests in the country in recent years.
Now the President, who has dominated Uganda for the past 36 years after leading a military takeover in 1986, is telling the country’s police and army to acquire their armored vehicles from a joint venture of Streit and the commercial arm of the Ugandan military.
“I will no longer allow buying from other sources when this capacity is here,” Mr. Museveni said at the factory’s official opening in July, according to a report in the Nile Post, a Ugandan newspaper.
“With this factory, we can rule out imports,” he told Mr. Goutorov and others at the ceremony.
“You have turned insecurity into an opportunity. For rioters, bank robbers and terrorists, you have got answers for all of them. … Riot control police now know the address where to get their equipment.”
Streit Group, founded in Canada in 1992, is today based in the United Arab Emirates. It describes itself as one of the world’s biggest armored vehicle manufacturers, with a work force of 3,000 in five production plants (including one in Canada) and the capacity to produce 500 vehicles a month. It recently hired Hollywood actor Steven Seagal as its “brand ambassador.”
In its corporate videos, Streit boasts that its vehicles have “30 years of successful war-zone experience” in countries worldwide. Vehicles for police and special forces are its second-biggest product line, it says.
In one of its videos, heavily armed police leap out of a Streit vehicle to confront protesters. “Riots and protests put people’s lives in danger, and we are there to provide the best solutions to resolve them,” the video says.
Uganda’s main opposition party, the National Unity Platform, says the Canadian-owned company is helping to prop up a dictator.
“These vehicles are going to be used to abuse the rights of the people, the right to demonstrate, the right to freedom of speech,” said Alex Waiswa Mufumbiro, an NUP spokesperson.
“Uganda is not at war, so why is the government spending money on military security instead of food security, unless their plan is to suffocate us?” he told The Globe and Mail.
Alex Neve, a human-rights lawyer and former secretary-general of Amnesty International’s branch in Canada, says Ottawa should make it clear to Canadian-owned companies that they will face significant consequences – including possible criminal investigations – if they supply arms or equipment that could be used by security forces for the violent repression of protests or other breaches of international human-rights laws.
The Globe contacted Streit Group officials to seek a response to these concerns, including Mr. Goutorov and media contacted Marija Cerauskaite, but they did not reply.
Streit has a controversial history. In 2015, the United States imposed a US$3.5-million penalty on two of its subsidiaries for selling vehicles manufactured in the US to several countries – including Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan – without export permits after retrofitting them with ballistic steel and bulletproof glass . Additionally, Mr. Goutorov was personally fined US$250,000.
In 2016, UN reports documented how Streit had sold dozens of armored vehicles to Sudan, Libya and South Sudan despite international bans on arms sales to those countries. Some of the vehicles ended up in war zones, including Darfur. An independent group, Control Arms, reported that Streit vehicles were seen in combat zones in South Sudan.
In 2019, The Globe witnessed Streit’s armored personnel carriers on the streets of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, where they were deployed to key locations to support the military regime that had seized power in a coup earlier that year.
And in 2020, The Globe documented how Streit vehicles – equipped with powerful water cannons – were deployed by riot police in Belarus to suppress pro-democracy protesters.
Streit Group has denied breaking any laws or regulations. In the past, it has argued that its sales do not violate Canadian or UN controls on military exports because its vehicles are not shipped with weapons attached.
Independent researchers, however, have pointed out that Streit’s vehicles are often equipped with gun mounts, ready for weapons to be added. In Khartoum, for example, The Globe saw Streit vehicles with machine guns mounted on them. Photos from South Sudan showed guns on the company’s vehicles there too. At the opening of the Ugandan factory, Streit representatives explained how machine guns could easily be added to the turrets of the company’s vehicles.
Until recently, Canadian export rules applied only to equipment produced in Canada, which exempted Streit’s biggest production facility, in the United Arab Emirates. But federal rules introduced in 2019 require Canadian citizens to obtain a brokering permit if they arrange or negotiate an arms transfer from one country to another. The permit can be denied if Ottawa determines the equipment could be used to violate international human rights law.
Last year, Washington imposed sanctions and visa restrictions on several senior Ugandan officials, including a top military intelligence chief, for their roles in the killing of opposition supporters and for other human-rights abuses. Canada did not impose similar sanctions.
Uganda’s Chief of Defense Forces, General Wilson Mbadi, told the gathering at the Streit factory opening in July that the factory would allow Uganda to protect itself from arms embargoes. He also predicted that it could make Uganda an exporter of armored vehicles.
mr. Neve said that Uganda has not signed the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which regulates international trade in conventional weapons. “That points to a grave concern that Uganda may be prepared to sell arms to governments even if there is a serious risk they would be used to commit human-rights violations,” he said.
Mike Lewis, an arms-trade expert who has worked for Amnesty International and for a UN expert panel on Sudan, said Uganda is a “weakly regulated jurisdiction” where the new factory will “make it easier for Streit Group to export its products without restriction .”
Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with Project Ploughshares, an arms control advocacy group, said it’s really not clear what Canada is doing about Streit and Mr. Goutorov.
“It’s become routine to learn that Streit vehicles were recently procured by repressive governments or found to be circumventing an embargo,” he said.
“Canadian arms controls exist to stop the provision of weapons to human-rights abusers. If escaping those obligations is as simple as setting up shop on the other side of a border, then something isn’t working right.”
Part of the challenge, Mr. Gallagher said, is that “Streit’s manufacturing facilities are increasingly located in states with weak export controls. … As a result, we will only see more instances of these vehicles deployed by authoritarian governments, not less.”
Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said the department will not comment on Streit Group or any individual arms-export permit or application. But based on the department’s annual reports, it has not issued any “brokering permits” for sales to Uganda since the new controls were introduced in 2019, she said.
“Canada is committed to a rigorous arms export system and carefully scrutinizes all export permit applications,” she told The Globe.
Another potential issue is Streit’s relationship with Russia, Mr. Goutorov’s country of origin. Many of Streit’s armored vehicles have been built on chassis from Russian truck manufacturer Kamaz – a company that was placed on Canada’s sanctions list this year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The company’s brand ambassador, Mr. Seagal, received Russian citizenship in 2016 and has frequently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2018, Russia appointed him as an unpaid envoy to the United States.
Separately, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is investigating whether there are links between the Russian government and armored vehicle manufacturers in Canada, The Globe has learned. It’s not clear whether CSIS has any evidence or which companies are being investigated.
It is also unclear whether Streit still has any business dealings with Russian companies such as Kamaz. Streit Group officials did not respond to queries from The Globe about its business connections in Russia. But in setting up a factory in Uganda, it has chosen a country with close ties to Moscow.
In one of the many business deals between the two countries in recent years, the Ugandan government announced that Kamaz had agreed to set up a factory in Uganda to build trucks for the African market.
mr. Museveni is one of Russia’s closest allies in Africa, and his government is a frequent buyer of Russian military equipment. He has tacitly supported the invasion of Ukraine, publicly citing Moscow’s official justifications for the war and declining to support any UN resolutions that denounce the invasion.
mr. Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, a long-time military commander who is considered a likely successor to his father as president, has often praised Mr. Putin and has said that he was “absolutely right” to invade Ukraine.