The caller was eager to tell me how Ugandan troops were doing in the battle for Bor in Jonglei State. He said some had been killed. Several wounded. Others taken prisoner. He cited some figures.
I did not know whether to believe him. He was far from Bor. He was in Bentiu, the capital of rebel chief Riek Machar’s home state of Unity. And, well, he is Nuer who, incidentally, had his high school education in Iganga. That matters in the circumstances.
That was on Boxing Day – about 10 days since the shootout amongst members of the presidential guard in the South Sudanese capital of Juba had ignited death, destruction and displacement in parts of the country.
But only this week has President Museveni said something about what the UPDF is up to in South Sudan. Back to that in a bit.
I made acquaintances with my phone interlocutor early in November while on a field trip with South Sudanese journalists to the Unity oilfield, several kilometres out of Bentiu, which was our base.
When five of the people I was with, including Ugandan journalist Patience Atuhaire, where detained inside the SPLA’s Fourth Infantry Division headquarters near the key bridge at Rubkona on the edge of Bentiu, one of the people we frantically reached was Maj Gen James Koang Chol.
Gen Koang was the commanding officer. He was away in Juba. He, however, promised to order the release of the journalists. Because several people were working on the issue, it is hard to say whose word was decisive. In any case, the journalists were freed within three hours of contacting the general. They had spent 17 hours in detention.
Gen Koang has since defected. He is now one of Dr Machar’s top commanders. My man in Bentiu said the general, who, like Dr Machar, is Nuer, had no choice because an “order from above” had come down that he should be killed. So Dinka soldiers under his command turned on him. He, however, turned tables, or is it tanks. Dinka soldiers were wiped out.
What exactly happened and how it did will become clearer some day. But it is in this mess – where a President and his former deputy have splintered the SPLA in a fight for political supremacy – that the UPDF finds itself, courtesy of the calculations of its commander-in-chief.
Now three weeks after my contact alleged UPDF combat involvement, President Museveni has confirmed the fact. Initially, security officials in Kampala said the UPDF was in South Sudan at the invitation of president Salva Kiir to secure Juba airport and key installations around the capital. When did the Ugandans switch from this task to take the fight to Dr Machar?
Was this after the four-day IGAD deadline that a macho President Museveni spoke of while in Juba on December 30? Or had Ugandan troops landed in South Sudan and immediately gone to the frontline, as the account of my man in Bentiu suggests, even as the evacuation of Ugandans working and living in that country got underway?
On that Juba trip, Mr Museveni said all of IGAD would go after the former vice president’s rebels. What has become of the troops from the other countries? On top of fearing the influx of refugees, Kenya has a big economic interest in South Sudan. Just like Uganda, although Uganda is also concerned about Kony taking advantage of an unstable South Sudan to reorganise. So where are the Kenyan troops? Or is this yet another case where Ugandans shed buckets of blood only for others to swoop in later for the spoils?
How many Ugandan soldiers has Mr Museveni deployed in South Sudan? How many injured so far? How many killed thus far? What kind of matériel do they have? What is the financial cost? Who is paying? What will determine the UPDF’s exit?
Is direct combat involvement by the UPDF on behalf of one of the warring sides the best way to secure Uganda’s long-term interests in South Sudan? Suppose Dr Machar’s people win? What scenarios has Uganda constructed?
President Museveni and whoever his advisors on this question are have all the answers to these and related questions. He should therefore provide a detailed accounting to Ugandans about what he is up to in South Sudan, a new country that seems reluctant to take any lessons from the many old African countries that have screwed up before.
And isn’t it telling that President Museveni chose to speak on South Sudan publicly for the first time, even providing information on battles the UPDF has fought, not to Ugandans but to foreign leaders in a foreign capital?
Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence. firstname.lastname@example.org