18 January 2017

East Africa: South Sudan's Puppet Master

Photo: PPU
President Yoweri Museveni and Out-going U.S. president Barack Obama.

President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda is the epitome of a Pan-Africanist. He is known for threatening Western leaders whenever his strong-man mentality comes under attack. He has outsmarted the USA in South Sudan's civil war in favour of President Salva Kiir by leading the international community and the U.S. government in particular, to believe that only an African solution can resolve South Sudan's armed conflict. It is a shameful mistake, but a big win for Museveni.

The current fighting erupted in mid-December 2013, when President Kiir announced on government-run SSTV that his then-Vice President, Riek Machar, had attempted to overthrow his government. Machar denies the allegation and the U.S. and other countries later determined there was no coup as Kiir claimed. Indeed some believe Kiir planned and self-managed the coup claim in an attempt to get rid of his political rivals.

But on December 30, 2013, Museveni unsurprisingly presented rebel leader Machar with two options: accept peace or defeat. On that day, the Ugandan leader assertively claimed that the East African region was ready to confront Machar militarily if he refused to accept peace. Museveni, who already had troops in South Sudan before war broke out, convinced the U.S. that he was sending more Ugandan soldiers to protect South Sudan's vital infrastructure. However, when Machar questioned his decision, Museveni changed his initial position and said he was sending troops to rescue Ugandans trapped in South Sudan. Museveni allegedly asked the U.S. government to fund his mission. However, Washington scrapped Museveni's financial request because his military mission in South Sudan was deemed questionable.

It is also worth mentioning that Museveni's unwavering involvement in South Sudan's internal affairs was motivated by economic opportunities in South Sudan.

In one of his 2012 letters I obtained, Kiir talked about how his plan to purge his "visionless adversaries" will succeed. In the message, the South Sudanese leader repeatedly praised the Ugandan leader for giving him what he described as "the most life-changing piece of advice" no one had ever given him. Kiir went farther, describing Museveni as "the only African stateman who truly understands how Western countries operate."

If the U.S is not hiding something, then it is reasonable to say that it was was and is still confused regarding what to do about South Sudan's crisis. For instance, weeks after the war broke out, the U.S. settled on adopting threatening language in its policy without taking any real action. What is even more surprising is that Washington embraced the Kampala argument.

Months later, U.S. officials followed Museveni's footsteps, with its former ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice asserting that imposition of arms embargo on South Sudan would undermine a democratically elected government. She added that Kiir's government would not be able to defend itself against Machar's forces. Rice also claimed that banning weapons and ammunition sales to the South Sudanese government would not solve anything because she believed Kiir's ally, Museveni, would not enforce it.

It was clear Rice's statements were based on Museveni's thinking rather than empirical evidence. Since such unsubstantiated assertions made by a senior U.S. government official could not be justified, it left many people questioning the official position of the U.S in the South Sudan crisis.

It is no secret that Yoweri Museveni is a known long-time ally of the West. After the fighting erupted in South Sudan, Museveni seized the opportunity to threaten abandoning the West and working with Russia and/or China instead. It is unclear whether Washington really believed Kampala was in fact working for peace in South Sudan.

In April 2016, Machar was forced by IGAD-Plus to go to Juba to implement a poorly-designed peace deal. Three months later, in July, he was almost killed by Kiir. But even after he survived the second assassination attempt, the same leaders who imposed the August 2015 power-sharing agreement did not condemn Kiir for trying to kill his arch political rival. Kiir was pleased, whereas Machar was furious.

It is clear the August 2015 peace deal was ill-planned. In November 2015, I warned that the IGAD-Plus's compromise peace agreement is pregnant with a noisy baby.

The U.S. has recently launched a relentless diplomatic campaign at the UN, advocating for imposition of an arms embargo on South Sudan and targeted sanctions. But Washington finds it difficult to advance its resolution after ignoring the same proposal for more than two years. The countries that now oppose the imposition of an arms embargo are Russia, China, Egypt, Angola, Japan, Malaysia, Senegal, and Venezuela. I believe at least two of these nations would have backed the arms embargo proposal and other targeted sanctions if they were introduced in 2014 or early 2015.

On December 16, more than a month before his presidency comes to an end, U.S. President Barack Obama admitted in a news conference that he feels responsible for killings in South Sudan.

One of Museveni's reasons for supporting Salva Kiir is that he wants South Sudan to be part of the Great Lakes Club where he runs all shows freely. If the United States and other world leaders really want to end the civil war, they can do it by forcing Kampala out of South Sudan. I believe if the international community completely forced Uganda out of South Sudan today, peace would be achieved tomorrow.

Restoring peace in the ongoing civil war is not feasible under President Kiir and First Vice-President Taban Deng Gai. The fact is that Gai has weak support, and Kiir is merely using him to further advance his Museveni-like leadership style.

Museveni's firm commitment to protect the South Sudanese leader was a success. He dealt decisively with any world leaders who dared question the legitimacy of Kiir's leadership months before the civil war began. He effectively used his diplomatic and military ties with the West against Western leaders. It was a stunning move. Museveni's maneuvering worked, and he clearly outsmarted Obama. It was a decisive victory -- an African one, and whether this victory is permanent or not remains to be seen.

Duop Chak Wuol is a graduate of the University of Colorado and Editor-in-Chief of the South Sudan News Agency. 

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