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Ugandan intervention holds little hope for South Sudan conflict

Ugandan troops being trained by US Army instructors in 2008. US Dept of Defense

As the rival factions in the current conflict in South Sudan are about to sign a ceasefire deal in Addis Ababa, concerns remain that Uganda’s military intervention in the South Sudanese civil war continue to threaten further regional escalation along well-established and predictable patterns. Uganda’s decision to side with Salva Kiir’s government may have had the short-term effect of facilitating a ceasefire, but in the long term it must be seen in the context of complex regional patterns of insecurity and instability.

Positioned at the nexus of the east and central African regions, Uganda has been exposed to, and involved in, both regions' conflicts for a considerable period of time. The country’s most notorious rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, has been active for some two decades now across northern Uganda, and more recently also in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). But Uganda has also experienced multiple other rebellions prior to and during the 23-year rule of Yoveri Museveni. An amnesty law of 2003 has ended some of these rebellions, but the east and north of Uganda remain unstable and volatile regions.

As most currently active rebel groups operate across borders, Uganda has been particularly affected by instability in the eastern part of the DRC. While more recently collaborating with the UN mission in the DRC and the Congolese government, Uganda (alongside Rwanda), has also been accused of backing another rebel movement in the DRC, the M23. Uganda is also blamed for the collapse of a peace agreement between the Congolese government and the rebel movement.

The more recent military co-operation between Uganda and the DRC has to do with a commonly perceived threat from the ADF-NALU forces. This is an alliance of groups that have mounted an insurgency against the Ugandan government for almost ten years from bases in the eastern DRC, thus posing a threat to both governments.

This Islamist rebel group allegedly has links to Somalia’s al-Shabab, creating fear that violent political Islam will spread further into Uganda and the DRC and raising the spectre of more instability similar to that which Kenya has experienced over the years.

Bad neighbourhood

From a Ugandan perspective, then, the calculation is fairly simple: another failing state at its borders poses an incalculable risk to its own security. While other neighbouring countries, especially Sudan, have also come out in support of the government of Salva Kiir, and the UN had asked Museveni early on in the South Sudanese civil war to help mediate between the opposing forces, enthusiasm for Uganda’s military role has been fairly limited.

Uganda: border instability. CIA

Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan have voiced concern, as have political groups within Uganda.

In South Sudan itself, a range of civil society groups have questioned Uganda’s motives for intervention. While the entire region is likely to suffer from a complete implosion of South Sudan, there is little appetite to countenance Uganda’s rise, on the back of its military intervention, to regional hegemony.

Uganda’s unilateral military action, albeit with the consent of Salva Kiir’s government, has also undermined the effectiveness of the mediation effort by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. A meeting of the group and international partners for this week was cancelled by South Sudan. While the talks in Addis Ababa may now produce a ceasefire agreement, its durability remains questionable, and a long-term sustainable political settlement is a far way off.

In other words, the South Sudanese government may well feel emboldened by the military support that it has received from Uganda and sense that a military victory is now within its grasp. Uganda has strengthened Kiir’s position in the Addis Ababa talks and weakened that of his rival Riek Machar whose hopes to to overthrow the current government by military force have significantly diminished following Uganda’s military intervention. Yet, the problems that have sparked South Sudan’s current violence have existed for a long time, since well before the country’s independence in 2011. Resolving them, and strengthening regional stability, requires more than a military defeat of one side or the other.

Without a broader regional approach – and a consensual one at that – neither South Sudan nor the region as a whole are likely to see more stability in the future. Uganda’s military intervention, thus, may bring some short-term benefits to Kiir and Museveni, but offers no sustainable long-term solution for either South Sudan or the region.