In this blog piece, Michaela Collord explores Uganda’s intervention in South Sudan. She argues that, to date, President Museveni has skilfully muted criticism of his intervention at home and abroad, although this relative silence might be lifting. Michaela is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Oxford. This blog post was originally posted on the Presidential Power blog.
Shortly after conflict broke out between government and rebel forces in South Sudan last December, Uganda intervened in support of the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. While the Ugandan military operation was ostensibly aimed at protecting Ugandan civilians in South Sudan and keeping the peace, on January 15 Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni confirmed suspicions that the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) was involved in offensive combat operations.
Since this revelation, calls for the withdrawal of Ugandan forces from South Sudan have multiplied, both at home and abroad. However, thus far President Museveni has proved remarkably adept at subduing — or at least delaying — criticism of Uganda’s involvement in South Sudan.
Criticism at home
Domestically, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government has successfully outmanoeuvred parliamentary opposition, at least for the time being.
On January 9 the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, received a letter from President Museveni requesting that Parliament be recalled from recess so as to retrospectively approve the UPDF’s deployment on humanitarian grounds. The letter came a day after the Speaker wrote to the Minister of Defence, declaring her intention to take the initiative in recalling Parliament. The President’s letter was, however, dated December 24, prompting accusations that it was backdated in order to undermine claims that the President had deployed troops without the constitutionally required parliamentary approval.
The UPDF Act (2005) does allow the President to deploy troops abroad for peacekeeping purposes in an emergency. After repeated assurances from government Ministers that the UPDF was limiting its activities to the evacuation of civilians and other humanitarian aims, Parliament passed a motion authorizing the UPDF’s deployment on January 14. When, shortly thereafter, President Museveni revealed the UPDF was engaging in combat with rebel forces, NRM and opposition MPs joined together in criticizing the government for misleading parliament.
Tensions between parliament and the executive reached their height on January 23 when committee members expelled the Minister of State for Defence, Gen Jeje Odongo, from a meeting and instructed him to return only after locating a formal letter allegedly sent by President Kiir requesting Uganda’s help in South Sudan.
This show of parliamentary opposition nevertheless came too late, after the legislature had already approved the UPDF’s role. President Museveni used the subsequent annual NRM caucus retreat to further rally ruling party MPs to the government position. At the retreat—where MPs dress in military fatigues and attend classroom lectures delivered by the President — Museveni implied the UPDF intervention in South Sudan is apiece with Uganda’s overall aim to secure its geopolitical position within the Great Lakes Region, thereby abandoning any pretence of humanitarian priorities.
While the NRM government has successfully stymied domestic opposition for the moment, international criticism of Uganda’s role in South Sudan is on the rise. It comes, however, only after a significant delay. This slow response is indicative of the extent to which international actors — notably the United States and the UN — have grown dependent on Uganda as a guarantor of regional stability.
Analysts commenting on the fighting in South Sudan questioned Uganda’s involvement from the start, emphasising Museveni’s historically close ties with Salva Kiir, noting the UPDF’s obvious deficiencies as a neutral peacekeeping force, and condemning Uganda for obstructing a political solution to a conflict that has cost thousands of lives and displaced more than 800,000 people.
Despite these grounds for legitimate concern, the initial response of international actors was to turn to President Museveni for support. During a phone conversation in December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called on Museveni to mediate a political solution between the opposing parties in South Sudan.
The United States, which was a key supporter of South Sudan in its quest for Independence, has taken a keen interest in the conflict and reportedly consulted with Uganda and Ethiopia about orchestrating a military intervention in an effort to prevent rebels from seizing Juba.
Admittedly, some regional actors, notably Ethiopia, were quicker to question UPDF involvement. For the most part, however, it was only after a first ceasefire was agreed on January 24, and a second round of peace talks scheduled to start on February 10, that the international pressure on Uganda to withdraw from South Sudan increased significantly.
In late January, the ambassador of Norway, a major donor to Uganda, declared it was ‘now important’ for Uganda to start withdrawing troops. On February 7, Jen Psaki, US state department spokesperson, called for a ‘phased withdrawal’ of ‘foreign forces’, without mentioning Uganda directly.
The Ugandan government has so far rejected the US appeal, insisting the UPDF will remain in South Sudan until the country is stable. The current standoff could be interpreted as a sign that, despite successfully delaying criticism, Uganda has now overstepped the mark, and risks alienating major donors who are now adopting a more assertive stance.
An alternative analysis, however, suggests that the Ugandan government, and above all President Museveni, still have the upper hand. The initial delay means that pressure from the US and other international actors now appears somewhat contradictory and unconvincing. These same international actors were content to see — and may even have approved of — the UPDF intervention until a political solution to the conflict became a more distinct possibility.
What is more, the UN and US are not in a position to sanction Uganda given their continued reliance on the UPDF in Somalia, where the Ugandan force has played a pivotal stabilizing role.
Uganda’s incursion into South Sudan may not significantly alter the status quo. Domestically, Museveni has avoided a messy conflict with parliament while internationally, Uganda has secured enough agency through its strategic positioning as a regional stabilizing force to withstand international pressure.
As stated by Henry Okello Oryem, the Minister of State for International Affairs, “Uganda will not jump just because another country says so, including the United States.”
Further reading: For more on Uganda’s success in ‘securing agency’ vis-à-vis Western actors, see Jonathan Fisher’s recent article in African Affairs.