People & Power

Why fighting in South Sudan is bad news on several fronts

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By Bernard Tabaire

Posted  Sunday, December 22  2013 at  02:00

In Summary

Speaking of Kony, he may well take advantage of the chaos in South Sudan to sneak in from the Central African Republic and reorganise. Uganda will not have any of that. Hence Mr Museveni may be very invested in his role as mediator.


Whatever it was – attempted coup or not – it is now clear the events of the night of Sunday, December 15, in Juba were serious indeed. Within days, 700 had been killed. Tens of thousands had fled their homes for the various UN compounds in several cities.

By Thursday afternoon, the South Sudanese military was confirming the fall of Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, to fighters opposed to President Salva Kiir’s government. Bor sits 203 kilometres to the north of Juba. A civil war, it appears, is underway in South Sudan.
Jonglei is one of the country’s three oil states, the others being Unity and Upper Nile. Media reports were suggesting tensions had spread to the two states as well.

An escalation in tensions would mean fresh disruption of South Sudan’s oil production. For a country that almost entirely relies on oil money for government revenue, this poses grave danger to the economy. The suspension of oil production and the subsequent war with Khartoum early in 2012 sent the South Sudanese economy into a plunge.

Everything was normalising following the resumption of oil exports in April this year. I saw a bit of the normalisation on a visit to Unity State’s oilfield early last month. There was frustration, but there was hope because of the obtaining peace, which many thought would last.
Work on a site where a small refinery would sit had virtually stopped because equipment coming from Mombasa had been stuck for more than four months somewhere far away in the state. The rains had washed away what passes for roads.

Hope lay in the fact that the land would dry out and the machines would be on their way. With oil revenues pouring in on the back of increased production, the state would begin to address its needs.

In an interview with journalists in the state capital Bentiu, Col Mabek Lang Mading, the acting deputy governor and SPLA veteran, said oil money would be used to deliver, in order of priority: security, roads, primary healthcare, education, and clean drinking water.

That hope may well be on its way to souring (oil workers at Unity field had turned against each other with spears and sticks and about 200 of them were being evacuated as of Thursday) because big politicians in Juba with big egos and ambitions have failed to resolve political differences through negotiation and compromise.

The civil war also complicates South Sudan’s hopes in the region. The country may now not be admitted to the East African Community next year as earlier planned.

Salva Kiir, Riek Machar, Peter Gadet Yak, Taban Deng Gai, Pag’an Amum are failing to run their new country. You would think South Sudan has learnt from the abundant mistakes many African countries, including Uganda, have made over the decades.

Of course, the neighbours are worried. Tens of thousands of Ugandans and Kenyans work in South Sudan. So at individual level, East Africans have a real stake in the stability of that country.

At government level, concerns revolve around the influx of refugees.
But more important is that Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and IGAD generally will be loath to see South Sudan fail after spending decades supporting the SPLM/A and its cause for the dignity of South Sudanese in their own homeland.

The UN has apparently asked President Museveni to get the warring sides to talk peace. We wait to see how that goes with an initial foray by some of the foreign ministers from the IGAD countries, including Uganda.

My sense is that the Machar group may see President Museveni as partial toward President Kiir’s side. After all, no one has forgotten that after his attempted coup against John Garang’s leadership of the SPLM/A in 1991, Dr Machar joined with Gen Hassan el-Bashir’s regime and would in due course introduce that mad man – Joseph Kony – to Khartoum with deadly consequences for tens of thousands of innocents in several countries in the region.

Speaking of Kony, he may well take advantage of the chaos in South Sudan to sneak in from the Central African Republic and reorganise. Uganda will not have any of that. Hence Mr Museveni may be very invested in his role as mediator.

Curiously, what will he say to the parties? Will he tell President Kiir to tackle corruption, stop third term ambitions in 2015, and stop dictatorial tendencies – things the Machar people are accusing their leader of? That would be a rich conversation between kettles of a certain colour.

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