KAMPALA — Ugandan President Museveni has been very active in the South Sudan conflict since it erupted in mid-December, but many Ugandans would prefer their country to remain more detached.
During a late December press conference, Museveni issued a stern warning to rebel leader Riek Machar, South Sudan’s former vice president.
“We gave Riek Machar some four days to respond, and if he doesn’t we shall have to go for him, all of us," Museveni warned. "I hear they are in the provinces trying to make trouble, but they will be defeated should they not come for peace.”
Museveni also sent troops to South Sudan, which the Ugandan military claims are merely guarding the airport and government buildings. But Uganda’s involvement in the conflict has been controversial on both sides of the border, including among Ugandan lawmakers themselves.
“The rhetoric itself denies Uganda the chance of playing a neutral role," said Wilfred Niwagaba, one of eight Ugandan MPs who held a news conference in late December rebuking the president for taking sides in the conflict and for plunging the country into war without the approval of parliament.
"We lose what we would have otherwise gained as a neutral arbiter, so we cannot participate as an arbiter in the Sudan. And regardless of how finally the war ends, our leadership will still be viewed as a partisan and biased partner," he added. "So the benefits of us remaining neutral would have definitely outweighed the advantages, if any, that are being obtained now.”
Niwagaba said that among other things, the government has not fully explained the rationale for getting involved in South Sudan.
“We do not know the cost of that war, both materially on the taxpayer of Uganda, and two, the human cost," Niwagaba noted. "Our country now seems to be involved in so many wars. We are in Somalia, now the Sudan, the Central African Republic, but government has never come up to give us accountability. Who spends on these troops? And is it worth the cost?”
Uganda was a strong supporter of the SPLA during South Sudan’s independence war. Paul Omach, an expert on security studies at Kampala’s Makerere University said that as a result, Museveni enjoys considerable influence with his northern neighbor, particularly with South Sudan President Salva Kiir’s government.
“They talk at a personal level, those people come to him to consult," Omach said. "That’s what he wants, like a father figure. Like a big brother - he talks to them, and they listen to him.”
Museveni could be afraid of losing this influence were Machar to take power, Omach said, adding that such overt partisanship is risky, because it is not clear who will ultimately take control of the country.
“Does Salva Kiir have the capacity to survive? Do the Sudanese really want him? Does he have massive support? Now if he doesn’t have, then we would have boxed ourselves in a fix by supporting the wrong horse,” he said.
South Sudan’s politics are complex. Now that Uganda is involved, Omach said, it may find it difficult to extricate itself. He said that instead, it should be up to regional bodies like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to mediate.
“It would have been better if it was done under the auspices of an organization like IGAD," Omach suggested. "Then it cushions Uganda. But the fact that it went there as a lone intervener, the suspicion that you are advancing your interests or ulterior motives becomes much stronger.”
Despite dissenting voices in Kampala, more Ugandan troops were sent to South Sudan in early January. For now, at least, Museveni seems to have no intention of backing down.