Thursday January 16 2014

South Sudan may prove too difficult to manage

By Karoli Ssemogerere

On Christmas Day, I walked into Rubaga Cathedral a few minutes before 10 O’clock. The majesty of Rubaga Hill has undergone significant damage in recent years. The cap of the hill is hodge-podge of mini-enterprises, a commercial bank, restaurant, pork-joint, car washing bay, etc. And, course there is a telecom mast competing for the sweeping vistas right in front of the cathedral.

I am not a good time-keeper so when I walked into the cathedral, I was taken aback. First, the cathedral was full, all pews occupied. Mass was in progress. I looked around for familiar faces and could not see any. As I scanned around a little more, I could see a very different but profound demographic. It was a taller demographic. The Mass was in English and Luganda.

When the priest rose to offer the final blessing, it dawned on me that for once I was early enough. I then absorbed the full impact of the new demographic. The church was half filled with South Sudanese. Rubaga has been a homely community for South Sudanese; the historical residence of Uganda’s first Prime Minister Ben Kiwanuka is a South Sudanese community centre along Masaka Road. My father’s neighbour is South Sudan’s Vice President Wani Igga. But the faces in the cathedral showed quite some anguish and anxiety. South Sudan then was in the second week of bloodletting following a fallout between President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar. The narrative of the dispute has covered many newspapers but it may be impossible to capture the human and deep psychological anguish from the war up north.

A professional colleague now in Nairobi who once received scores of clients at a small dusty busy office on River Nile Ferry Road aptly put it: “From a professional point of view, it may be impossible to return to Juba to practice law.” In the run-up to South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, many Sudanese lawyers from the south trained in Khartoum attended an orientation course at the Law Development Centre. Many legal figures have travelled to South Sudan to continue this training. These lawyers in the throes of the young state were able to adeptly combine the principles of their legal training rendered partly in Arabic and the mercantile traditions with common law practices, producing workable transaction documents, agreements, contracts, business registration services and whatever passed for symbols of the rule of law in South Sudan. It is a remarkable feat considering the fact that some of these laws take decades to write and amend and in some instances, are impossible to amend.

As war broke out, it has left a lot of egg in the region. First was the arrival of “peacemaker” Gen Bashir from Khartoum - in the words of a Ugandan cabinet minister; “Bashir presides over one of the most dysfunctional governments in Africa.” Mr Bashir has a lot to gain from the fragmentation of the South Sudan polity.

Until late last year, Khartoum and Juba have been fighting over the shrinking South Sudan oil reserves. Bashir, a veteran of modern armed conflict, also knew that despite the publicity-rich airing of victories by the rebels, it would be impossible for them to hold onto so much territory without the assets of a modern army, specifically air power. Riek Machar is a former vice president of the formerly United Republic of Sudan and the signal was that Bashir could talk and deliver. However, this conversation quickly shifted back to oil.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s peace overtures secured a commitment to peace talks. Peace talks have limits and indirect incentives for more conflict. Demoralised and derailed, Salva Kiir will break the bank to rearm to recapture territory. Desperate to show muscle, the rebels may fail to realise that holding strategic outposts may be more sustainable than holding swathes of lightly inhabited territory that may be impossible to defend. In these situations, a lot of wheeling and dealing on who becomes the assistant to the Chief happens and swaps a lot of energy.

Uganda’s economy does not have the pincers to draw a lot from South Sudan. But today South Sudan is Uganda’s second largest trading partner. Given the pressure on the local market and the fact that Uganda’s job growth remains anaemic, the return of the trading classes from Juba and stories of Ugandans caught up in the conflict present Uganda in a catch-22 situation. Does Uganda have the resources to commit to a protracted struggle?

Official deployments always have an official story, a parliamentary resolution and so on. But before deployment, special forces, reconnaissance teams, intelligence teams are already on the ground. Keeping the Juba airport open, for example, carries with it the duty to operate South Sudan’s air defence system and surveillance of its skies. These details obviously have not been explained through the democratic channels.

South Sudan’s relative youth in international relations has created a practical problem. The help it needs to get needs to become more institutional rather than a single force as South Sudan may prove difficult to manage.

Mr Ssemogerere, an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.