Uganda in South Sudan: Rational military power or selfish meddling? A debate

The Kampala authorities went into a state of shock when Gen. John Garang De Mabior died. His chopper, an aircraft loaned to him by the Ugandan president, fell out of the sky and burnt to ashes. There had been signs of trouble brewing. images-2

It was telling that De Mabior, a national figure in Sudan, its First Vice President under an impending separation agreement between the north and south of the country, had taken an emergency trip to Uganda amidst rising tensions within his own party.  It is not unusual for Kampala that for years has been a stopover for many real and wannabe revolutionaries, their delegations, international do-gooders and other war profiteers. The SPLA, Sudan’s ruling army and movement, it would later be revealed had been wound so tight by the time of De Mabior’s visit that many in the know expected an implosion.

As it was explained to me Dinka factions, one led by De Mabior and another by Salva Kiir Maryadit were expecting a face-off. De Mabior had apparently ordered Salva’s arrest. During the week and before his plane went missing military handlers of his guards were forced to, according to one source, separate armed representatives of the two factions by housing them in different parts of the city to avoid a violent confrontation.  A rumor had been going on that some of De Mabior’s guards had been poisoned.

The effect of his death was noticeable almost immediately. A pall fell over the city. Most sources were immobilized some of it from the initial confusion over the circumstances under which his plane had disappeared. I covered the story with Frank Nyakairu then the conflict reporter at the Daily Monitor whose father was the pilot on the doomed flight. Ironically, in the way that what goes around comes around, most Ugandans had known Nyakairu as the journalist who was arrested for reporting that the Lord’s Resistance Army had shot down a Ugandan army helicopter near the Sudan border. In a few weeks I too would get my 5-minutes of fame after the army shut down KFM (previously Monitor FM) where both Nyakairu and me had started our careers- over the coverage we offered.

Many have had their say over these events but what probably happened is that a major confrontation, similar to the one we are witnessing now in South Sudan had been avoided with Garang’s untimely and tragic death. It was mainly owed to embarrassing revelations of the ugly disagreements within the SPLA/M that KFM had been shut down.Front and center even then was the Neur leader and future Vice President Dr. Riek Machar Teny. He had thrown his considerable weight behind Salva Kiir and had been vital to what was in fact an internal coup within the party.

Some saw his actions for what they were; a careful investment- intended for a future at the Presidency. Last month, it appears, Salva traded places with the late Garang, and facing an internal revolt similar to 2005, he is rumored to have ordered Machar’s arrest. The rest is history.

imgres-1In the light of Mr. Museveni’s statements about resolving the South Sudan question, by deploying a regional force if necessary, some have questioned Uganda’s role- referred to by the British Foreign Secretary, the rather vile William Hague, as “vital”. Several world leaders including the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asked Mr. Museveni to use his experience with the factions to stem the violence.

Lets get the real politic out of the way. In any crisis there are losers and winners and while no military victor has emerged in the cycle of violence currently wrecking Sudan, the crisis has contributed significantly, if precariously to the continual role of Uganda as an influential player in the conflict laden Great Lakes.

Just to explain, Uganda’s actions are likely motivated by establishment bias. Peacemaking in the region post the 90’s Congo wars, under Ugandan stewardship ( with some backing from Western powers) , has mainly been intended to sustain the status quo as a basis for stability. Rebel factions or groups are encouraged to reconcile with the people they are fighting against in various state houses- and integrate their forces into power sharing formulas.President of Congo Kabila arrives at the opening ceremony of the Francophone Summit in Montreux

This has been the case with M23 recently and before it in the 10-year long Burundi Peace Process that ended with the presidency of Pierre Nkuruziza. Uganda also threw its weight behind Mwai Kibaki in the disputed 2007 elections and later behind Uhuru Kenyatta in last year- even if Kenyan politics like Sudanese politics has many musical chairs with the same actors.

Establishment bias segues with the language of “peaceful democratic change” that is supported by international players in the UN system and is also particularly useful for leveraging incumbent assets against domestic political opponents. However it is the notion that disagreements can be negotiated away- especially between equally balanced forces that likely drives the recourse Uganda took in South Sudan.

Ugandan servicemen have been placed under Salva Kiirs control. The actual number is unknown but probably significant for other reasons as well. There is poorly concealed discomfort with Salva’s opponent Dr. Riek Machar whose role as broker for the relationship between Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony and the patronage of SPLA’s arch enemy, the Khartoum government has not been forgotten.

It is also probable that for a long serving military leader like Mr. Museveni, a perpetual shape-shifter, albeit one as gifted as Dr. Machar, goes against the grain of unquestioned loyalty that holds together the perpetuity of long reigning regimes. Perhaps lastly but not least if Uganda’s biases are questioned as others including Machar- have what would a Ugandan - South Sudan policy encounter should he return victorious to Juba?

Is real politic enough to explain Uganda’s relations with its neighbors? Why, if the Sudan question is so volatile are the Ugandan authorities willing to risk being burned by its fire?

The answer is that no single explanation suffices.

What has been helpful to outsiders and journalists, held at bay by the culture of secrecy and obfuscation so instrumental to the armed liberation movements turned democratizing forces, is to attempt to deconstruct the composite of the state. In Uganda as elsewhere in Africa it is  a system of essentially dominant military establishments balancing control with change.

It turns out that African state-builders may have been held to a higher standard than others. When we compare them, especially mature ones today, we lose the history of the rest whose record of mayhem and murder can be looked at in retrospect and not contemporaneously through today’s multi-media world.

This is not a bad thing for post independent Africa,  but  it is a major source of the willful disfiguring of the currents behind power struggles, territorial disputes and economic wars. [Below Deputy FM Okello Oryem]

imgres-33War is a terrible business. But today’s conflicts have been made worse by the skewed application of a language of the ethics of contemporary state building.

This language of democracy, governance, elections and accountability applied to all and sundry has lead to many down the twisted garden path. I guess what am attempting to convey is that the true nature of the competition within a state, its power struggles tainted by non-ideological alliances, is obscured when discussing major crises. It holds back the path to the heart of the crisis and postpones practical solutions.

Uganda’s 2012 Draft Foreign Policy document may be a good place to look for some broad ideas around what constitutes its national interest. It  may help somewhat in explaining what is emerging over the last 20 years as a doctrine of rational military power behind her regional moves. The foreign policy vision is stated as “ A conducive regional and international environment that promotes a secure, peaceful and prosperous Uganda in which the interests of her citizens are at the center”.

However Ugandan “foreign policy” has been constructed under an expansionist platform present in one form or the other under all its leaders including Amin and Obote but more so in the last 20 or so years. Whether this is by design or the consequence of the presence of weak states around Uganda for that entire period is certainly for debate.

There are those who reason foreign policy as something that is “done” to African governments. They would be wrong half the time. It exists to as part of state-building contemporaneous with the internal pressures within each state.

It appears to me at least then that state-making is shaping up to be a multi-nation process in the Great Lakes and Ugandan participation is a direct result of the military state that sits at the heart of its so-called democratic enterprise.

More later. Over to you.