Immediately after fighting broke out in Juba on December 15, 2013, Uganda took it upon itself to intervene. Without hesitation, it deployed two battalions into the country.
According to Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force (UPDF) spokesperson, the army’s mission was primarily to protect key installations and to ease safe evacuation of the Uganda nationals in South Sudan. However, as a member of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), Uganda’s decision to deploy its military in South Sudan was not seen as a benevolent act both regionally and internationally. IGAD has urged Uganda to withdraw its forces from South Sudan since its involvement was seen as not “helping” in the negotiations.
Others feared that the presence of the UPDF would invite other actors into the conflict and could potentially engulf the region in a war. Sudan, whose president rushed to Juba to show solidarity with the South Sudanese, also rejected Uganda’s military involvement.
Historically, Sudan perceived Uganda as a longtime supporter of the rebels seeking regime change in Khartoum. Most importantly, the South Sudanese rebels viewed Uganda’s role as playing devil’s advocate. They made withdrawal of the UPDF from South Sudan their sticking demand in the cessation of hostilities negotiations.
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Now that there is relative calm in South Sudan, it is time to look at what Uganda’s intervention in that country meant to its people and the region at large. During a meeting of the Great Lakes Region, President Yoweri Museveni went public about his troops’ involvement in fighting in South Sudan to protect a democratically elected government from being overthrown.
Initially, the primary objective of Ugandan army forces deployment in South Sudan was to protect key installations and to facilitate the safe evacuation of its citizens. This mandate had been silently sanctioned by the IGAD members in their first meeting in Nairobi. Or, at least, the Ugandans understood it that way.
In a previous article for Al Jazeera, I narrated how ethnic identity was powerful and how it was easily entangled into many issues in South Sudan. The split of the presidential guards along ethnic lines on that fateful night of December 15, was a characteristic of the disunity in our nation.
So, when a well-organised and united Nuer militant group faced a fragmented, ethnically diverse “national army”, the country’s leadership was tested. On one hand, there was a great dilemma for President Salva Kiir to send to the frontline an army whose loyalties were, at the time, questionable. On the other hand, splitting the army and leaving behind soldiers of Nuer origin would have added fuel to the already burning fire. This was particularly true of the war being fought in Bor, Jonglei State.
So what other options did President Kiir have to protect Juba, the capital, from being captured by the advancing white army? He needed a force that would work under one command and with modern capabilities. I believe this was the reason that changed the Ugandan Army’s initial role from protecting “key installations” to defending the nation’s capital by pushing back the advancing militants in order to create some breathing space for the leadership in Juba.
The UPDF did exactly that by working directly under the command of President Kiir. They used their air capabilities against the rebels in the battles along the road from Juba to Bor. Doing so, the Ugandan army helped the South Sudanese military deter what was seen as a major threat mounting on the capital.
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If there was no military support from the Ugandan army, the other option available to President Kiir would have been dreadful. If the white army (Nuer militias) had advanced into Juba, two scenarios would have ensued.
In the first scenario, the capital would have fallen and a state of anarchy would have engulfed the country. For one, the white army is a group of untrained undisciplined youth with guns and no political agenda.
Instinctively though, the soldiers of Nuer ethnic group who were still loyal to the government, would have made all efforts to switch sides and join their tribesmen. Still, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for Dr Riek Machar to declare himself president by virtue of being the leader of the one-tribe rebel group and move to the Juba to establish his government there.
In the second and more tragic scenario, President Kiir or other Dinka leaders would have every reason to resort to calling on the Dinka tribesmen to counter the white army. At this point, the Dinka ethnic group would have used its numerical advantage against the Nuer (Dinka comprise 35 percent of the population, while the Nuer are 15 percent). This scenario would have surely guaranteed another genocide on the same scale as the Rwandan one or worse.
This is why I strongly believe President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has averted a disaster that could have badly tainted the continent’s image once again. I think he deserves some credit for having acted boldly and quickly – for having done otherwise would have resulted in another tragedy in South Sudan’s history. Now regional leaders are talking of solving a problem that has partly been solved. To me, this clearly demonstrates a great example of Africans solving African problems.
Panther Alier is one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” who fled Sudan’s civil war in the 1980s. He returned to South Sudan in 2009, after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, to participate in rebuilding of his country.