Sunday January 19 2014

Has the West reduced Uganda to just a supplier of cowboys?

By Alan Tacca

As everybody knows, very soon after the current conflict in South Sudan erupted, Uganda’s President Museveni deployed hundreds of troops across the border and apparently all the way to Juba, South Sudan’s capital. Even before one of the two main belligerents, former vice president Riek Machar, blinked, the boots of the Ugandan fellows were already trampling the soil of his motherland.
From a distance, I cannot tell whether an angry Nuer is as dangerous as an angry Dinka, but we, Ugandans, often luxuriate in the glory of having a president and commander-in-chief, as well as tens of thousands of soldiers, who do not tremble before the fury of ordinary mortals. So our prayer must be that rebel leader Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir continue (or start) regarding themselves as ordinary mortals. This would leave the options of the UPDF completely open, whichever way the balance of the conflict goes.

Of course, many Ugandans are asking – some in very harsh tones – what the hell the UPDF is doing in South Sudan. A useless question, since in such matters Ugandan officialdom habitually gives different explanations, which have the effect of cancelling out each other, leaving the Commander-in-Chief with a lot of room to give the “true” explanation, and to adjust the explanation little by little as we go along, until the official truth looks as right as the situation demands.

So, paradoxically, we may never know exactly why the UPDF went so quickly into South Sudan until we are given the reasons for getting out; that is, if and after the UPDF gets out.
However, there is a seemingly quarter-official (or officially tolerated) rumour related to the deployment that is food for thought.

The rumour goes that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called President Museveni and asked (perhaps even begged!) him to intervene in the conflict and prevent a genocidal development. Never mind that this does not match exactly the other explanation that the UPDF was deployed to help evacuate Ugandans trapped in the warring country.

But then, of course, an army, too, has a right to kill two birds with one stone. Or even four birds; because we are also supposed to think that IGAD (kind of) gave the mandate for such action. And more recently, a plea from president Salva Kiir for help has come into the picture.

Going back on track, the government functionaries and NRM admirers who have been proudly spreading the Ban Ki-moon rumour make the UN Secretary General look like one village superintendent unilaterally and informally calling another village superintendent… The ladies and gentlemen who are more versed in these things will educate us whether that is how the UN works.

Anyway, whether the Ban-Ki-moon story is true, half-true or a fiction, the message is that Gen Museveni is the bold honcho in the region whom the West (okay, the international community) can depend on to swing into military action whenever required. The capability of his army, the UPDF, as a fighting force has also grown into a song, the long fingers of some of its senior officers notwithstanding.

On balance, that is not necessarily a bad thing. A pacifist world is not possible. There must be men and women ready to do the killing. Is there war in the air? Call the Ugandan cowboys.

I have told you how this makes us feel exalted, like we are walking on springs. My only worry is that Uganda could be relegated to a one-purpose country: cowboy supplier and nothing much else. So, when the gentleman from the White House in Washington is visiting Africa, he artfully dodges our nice little territory and touches the soil next-door. When it is the Japanese prime minster, as happened recently, the nearest you hear he has come is Mozambique.

One should be forgiven for making the conclusion that the reward system in international relations may have other considerations it regards as more important than the supply of cowboys.

Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator