So Uganda has rushed troops to South Sudan, presumably to shore up the embattled regime of President Salva Kiir.
The current crisis in Africa’s newest independent nation broke out about three weeks ago, with an alleged attempted coup. Kiir blamed his former deputy, the rather swashbuckling Dr Riek Machar. Kiir sacked Machar and other leaders in July, in a purge against rivals inside the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The ensuing bloodbath has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than 200,000.
The result of this latest adventure in South Sudan is that critics are now talking about President Yoweri Museveni’s “imperial over-reach”, and some are even predicting that this could lead to his end.
This, they say, is because the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) is now actively deployed either as a peacekeeping or combat force in more countries than any other military in the world barring the US army: It is in northern and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic (chasing Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony), Somalia, and now South Sudan.
With a population of 37 million, Uganda can comfortably afford to have 370,000 men and women under arms at home and abroad. Right now it has less than 100,000. The problem, therefore, is not the numbers, but the cost and price in lives lost. The country just can’t afford the cost…unless someone is picking up the tab. And it can manage the price in lives, if it can keep the media away.
In Somalia, the international community is paying the bill. The Americans are underwriting some, if not all, of the Kony-hunting in DRC and CAR. It is not yet clear who is writing the cheques for the latest South Sudan expedition. Uganda itself has never quite been able to fully fund these missions from its pocket. The late 1990s and early 2000s adventures in DRC were possible partly because the UPDF was able to lucratively forage in the forests, plantations, and rich mineral mines of the DRC. However, South Sudan is no eastern DRC.
Beyond costs, the latest entrance into South Sudan is different than other past military undertakings outside its borders, because it is the first time – whether it is supporting Kiir or Machar – that the UPDF is putting its foot in what is essentially a factional party fight. In the past, the lines were less murky…either it supported the rebels, or the government. It is also the first time that it is going against a faction in a group that it helped take power.
The popular view is that these peacekeeping efforts and military adventures help Museveni, and other African leaders who are in the business, to keep troublesome officers out of the country and restless troops busy – and contented (because at least their peacekeeping salaries are generally paid and on time).
Yes campaigns abroad sometimes give the military a prestigious project to focus on and take their emotions away from petty local issues. However, I sense leaders like Museveni are playing at something bigger, although more selfish too.
Though effectively there has been no war to speak of on Ugandan soil for nearly 10 years now, terrorism, the Kony hunt, and Somalia have enabled Museveni to keep national security as the Number One issue on the country’s political agenda.
In the past, that allowed Museveni to run elections on a global security platform that only a rival like Col Kizza Besigye came close to challenging, but could never quite shake off the grip Kaguta’s son has on the crown.
However, with CAR, the impending troop surge in Somalia, and now South Sudan, my reading is that Museveni has all but closed the discussion about his succession inside the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). Who else has the stature to manage such a complex situation, many will silently ask.
At the same time, though, we are actually seeing in all this a far-reaching re-ordering of the Uganda state and those in the African peacekeeping nations.
First, because external military engagements are increasingly assuming a high profile in national politics, the government of the day has acquired new powers to determine what the national agenda will be. It can unilaterally go to South Sudan, as Museveni’s government has done, and change the terms of local political debate.
Secondly, it has made “continuity” a critical element in political change in ways it hasn’t been before. Thus the internal community’s position on a post-Museveni order will largely be determined by which candidate – and party – is willing to continue committing the military to places like Somalia and CAR. Immediately we can see that this favours the incumbent party (NRM), and is a disadvantage for the Opposition – unless it adopts the government’s existing security policies, raising the question of why it should be elected if it is not going to change anything. The coffee is brewing. We need to wake up and smell it.