Thursday, 6 March 2014

SOUTH SUDAN: The Shadow of Regional Tensions

The deadly conflict in South Sudan, itself the culmination of a long-running power struggle within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, is increasingly drawing in neighboring countries driven by disparate security and economic interests, further complicating the crisis and efforts to reach a resolution.

The U.N. has accused both sides of South Sudan’s split of committing human rights abuses in the conflict, which has so far claimed an unknown number of lives, displaced an estimated 900,000 people both inside and outside the country and shows no signs of letting up. An agreement to cease hostilities was violated even before its ink dried, jeopardizing an already faltering mediation process led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Uganda was the first of South Sudan’s neighbors to intervene militarily, sending an estimated 4,500 soldiers to the country within four days of the outbreak of fighting there on Dec. 15. Uganda was compelled, Kampala insists, by a distress call from South Sudan’s embattled President Salva Kiir and requests from the U.N., Washington and London to step in.

One of the main aims of the intervention, Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga told parliament, was to urgently prevent a potentially genocidal situation from emerging out of the political fallout between Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. The conflict between their factions had rapidly manifested itself along an age-old ethnic fault line between Kiir’s majority Dinka and Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.

However, Uganda’s military presence in South Sudan has unsettled its other neighbors, not least Sudan. There is no love lost between Museveni and longtime Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who have repeatedly accused each other of supporting rebel forces hostile to their governments.

Bashir’s quick visit to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, three weeks after the conflict broke out was widely interpreted as a public gesture that he was ready to cast his lot with South Sudan’s government. But Juba apparently spurned Khartoum’s suggestion to set up a joint force to protect vital oil fields in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states in the north of South Sudan, which have borne the brunt of the conflict. Instead, South Sudan preferred to give that role to the Ugandan army. Bashir is now believed to be backing Machar, his longtime ally.

Khartoum fears Uganda’s military involvement will further damage Sudan’s economic ties with South Sudan, which have been significantly reduced since the South’s independence. Uganda, together with Kenya, has been pushing a $250 million infrastructure project known as the Lamu-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, which comprises a port, an oil pipeline, a railway line and a highway, and which will depend for its success on South Sudan. Uganda needs the LAPSSET corridor to transport its newly discovered oil, as it would greatly reduce the distance the oil, which must be heated at some expense for pipeline transit, would need to travel before it reaches the coast.

Ethiopia, too, has reason to object to Uganda’s military presence in South Sudan. Ugandan intelligence reports say Khartoum is now routing its support for Machar through Eritrea, Ethiopia’s bitter rival, to cover up its involvement. The Ethiopian government also fears the South Sudan conflict could exacerbate tensions in Ethiopia’s Gambella region, which borders Sudan and has a high concentration of Nuers, potentially resulting in a full-blown conflict. Indeed, the undercurrents of such an outbreak are already perceptible. This explains why Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who is the current chair of IGAD, asked Uganda to withdraw from South Sudan, saying its presence risked regionalizing the conflict and pointedly declaring that “there are other interests also from other sides.”

Although Uganda has expressed willingness to withdraw, even announcing a two-month withdrawal timeline, there is little appetite to actually do so in Kampala’s policymaking circles. For one thing, Uganda perceives itself as the guarantor of state stability in South Sudan, which remains in jeopardy. Renewed fighting has broken out in which Machar’s forces appear to be making gains, despite having initially been pushed out of nearly all the major centers in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states by joint efforts of the South Sudanese and Ugandan troops.

Moreover, Uganda’s withdrawal is conditioned on the deployment of the African Union’s African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC), an outfit that is ideally supposed to rapidly respond to crises on the continent. Unfortunately, the African Union Peace and Security Council has yet to meet to work out modalities for the deployment of ACIRC in South Sudan. A tough task awaits them in finding countries willing to contribute troops to the mission.

As it is, IGAD long ago approved a force of 5,600 troops for South Sudan, but has received none to date from its eight members. Indeed, only Uganda appears willing to contribute. The same is true of the U.N., which also agreed last year to augment its presence in this beleaguered nation by 5,500 troops but has yet to implement its resolutions with more blue berets on the ground.

Uganda’s continued military presence in South Sudan is further polarizing both sides of the conflict and directly obstructing the IGAD-led mediation, which holds the best hope for a long-term political solution. Kiir, who enjoys Uganda’s military support, has demonstrated little interest in the Addis Ababa process, while Machar has preconditioned any progress in Addis Ababa on the withdrawal of all foreign military forces as well as the release of all SPLM political figures detained since the outbreak of the conflict.

Meanwhile, Kampala is testing the patience of South Sudan’s other neighbors, who might soon feel the need to join in the conflict in order to safeguard their own interests.

To break the current deadlock, IGAD must clarify the objectives of the current mediation and, together with the AU, pressure Uganda to withdraw its forces from South Sudan, while also pushing both Kiir and Machar to engage meaningfully with the mediation process. In the absence of progress in Addis Ababa, the risk of a regionalization of the conflict looms, further complicating any efforts to resolve the crisis.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: A Jazeira-