Uganda has a crucial role and interest in supporting South Sudan’s efforts to forge a more inclusive transitional government
Reducing South Sudan’s internal strife would not just benefit the South Sudanese but is also critical for Ugandan interests, including the security of its citizens and border, reducing refugee flows and the protection of its economic investments and trade.
President Museveni and other Ugandan leaders should encourage their South Sudanese counterparts to prioritise political rather than military solutions to ongoing conflicts; support national dialogue to increase the transitional government’s inclusivity; and encourage better relations between Juba and Khartoum over key bilateral issues.
Uganda is a long-time supporter of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), rooted in its decades-long struggle against the Sudanese government prior to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
When South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013, Uganda sought to prevent the government falling to what it saw as rebels. Fearing that these rebel forces would ally with long-term regional rival Sudan, Ugandan forces intervened, securing Juba before retaking Bor alongside the SPLA.
Uganda thus became a party to the conflict – although it was perhaps the only one that largely abided by the laws of war. Uganda paid a diplomatic price for becoming party to the conflict. Uganda was not asked to participate as a mediator in the peace talks led by the Horn of Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), even though Museveni was actively involved in Igad Heads of State summits that oversaw the mediation process.
Uganda negotiated a withdrawal of its troops in October 2015 as part of the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) that ended the war. The two-year military deployment was costly – both financially and politically. Active diplomatic engagement now can both prevent the need for another deployment and at the same time secure Ugandan interests in South Sudan.
Fighting in Juba in July 2016 and an insurgency in South Sudan’s Equatoria region on the Ugandan border has once again brought the country’s conflicts to Kampala’s attention. Hostilities have driven more than 400,000 South Sudanese refugees into Uganda since July 2016. This is far more than arrived during the 2013-15 civil war, when fighting was more intense in northern regions and Ethiopia and Sudan bore most of the humanitarian burden.
Rebel groups in the Equatorias have engaged in deliberate provocations against Ugandan civilians and targeted commercial vehicles from Uganda. Yet, Uganda’s response has been more restrained than in December 2013. It deployed a military convoy to rescue civilians during the July 2016 fighting in Juba and subsequently agreed to joint South Sudanese and Ugandan police deployments patrols along key roads to protect vehicle transport.
President Museveni will naturally defend Uganda’s short-term interests, but he should also work towards longer-term stability by supporting President Salva Kiir’s pledge to bring peace through ARCSS implementation, negotiations and national dialogue.
In particular, President Museveni should use his influence on his South Sudanese counterpart and his experience of regional and international relations to shape a more sophisticated approach from Juba to resolving conflicts and bringing political opposition into the transitional government. President Museveni’s counsel to Kiir has helped smooth the way for the deployment of a regional force approved by the region and operating under the United Nations. Uganda should continue to work with the region to ensure that the force helps set security conditions that enable dialogue and an inclusive government.
Uganda should further deepen its recent rapprochement with Khartoum. Improved relations – noticeable since 2014 when both sides sought to tackle antagonism resulting from their long involvement in South Sudan’s conflicts – have already reduced regional tensions and, in doing so, allowed for more effective cooperation over South Sudan.
This is facilitated by bilateral visits by both heads of state and broader diplomatic engagement. Uganda has also committed to end its support for Sudanese rebels and should push for Juba to make good its commitment to Khartoum that it will do the same.
President Museveni’s recent attempts to get Sudanese rebels to participate in the African Union-backed peace process has also been a positive move towards finding a lasting solution to Sudan’s enduring conflicts.
While Kampala cannot solve the internal political problems of South Sudan, it can, in conjunction with other Igad members, continue to reduce the danger of an escalation in regional tensions.
As a major regional actor with considerable experience in mediation and a close relationship with the South Sudan government, Uganda can leverage these advantages to help the country overcome its political crisis through national dialogue and negotiations rather than perpetual conflict.
This will also serve as the most effective method of protecting Uganda’s own long-term security and economic interests in its neighbour.
Rashid Abdi joined Crisis Group in June 2015. He is Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director based in Nairobi.
Originally published in Daily Monitor.