By Duop Chak Wuol
Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is the epitome of a Pan-Africanist who can praise any world leader who likes his leadership and is known for threatening Western leaders whenever his strong-man mentality comes under attack. In this article, I argue that Uganda has outsmarted the United States in South Sudan’s civil war in favor of Salva Kiir, leading the international community and the U.S. government in particular, to believe that South Sudan’s armed conflict only needs an African solution. It was shameful mistake, but a big win for Museveni.
Less than a day after the war broke out in mid-December 2013, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardiit, who ignored early warnings that the young nation could crumble unless its leaders give up their political differences, announced on government-run SSTV that his then Vice President Dr. Riek Machar attempted to overthrow his government. Machar denies the allegation. The U.S. and other countries later determined there was no coup as Kiir claimed. The people of South Sudan were also aware that Kiir planned and self-managed the coup claim in an attempt to get rid of his political rivals.
On the 30th of December 2013, Museveni unsurprisingly presented South Sudanese rebel leader Machar with two options: accept peace or defeat. On that day, the Ugandan leader assertively claimed that the whole 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 United States that it was sending Ugandan soldiers to protect South Sudan’s vital infrastructures. 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 further, describing Museveni as “the only African stateman who truly understands how Western countries operate.”
If the United States is not hiding something, then it is reasonable to say that the U.S. 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. settle on a strong-language strategy by 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 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 United States in the South Sudan crisis.
It is a known fact that Museveni repeatedly claims that if the UN Security Council imposes an arms embargo on South Sudan, it will create a “vacuum and plunge” the young nation into “more chaos.” It is no secret that Yoweri Museveni is a known long-time ally of the West. After the fighting erupted in South Sudan, the West was placed in an uncomfortable situation. The Ugandan leader ceased the opportunity by threatening to abandon the West and work with Russia or China instead. The U.S. has no choice but to allow Uganda to meddle in South Sudanese internal affairs without taking any action. It is unclear whether Washington really believed Kampala was in fact working for peace in South Sudan.
In April 2016, Former South Sudanese Vice-President and rebel leader Machar was forced by IGAD-Plus to go to Juba to implement the poorly-designed deal; in July, he was almost kill by Kiir. After he survived the second assassination attempt, the same leaders who imposed the August 2015 power-sharing agreement didn’t condemn Kiir for trying to kill his arch political rival even though they were the ones who forced Machar to go to Juba. The reaction of the IGAD-Plus leaders was surprisingly mute and Kiir was pleased, whereas Machar was furious.
Kiir later replaced Machar with Taban Deng Gai, who the SPLM/A-IO accused of allegedly colluding with Juba against the rebel chief. This was the beginning of how the armed opposition (SPLM/A-IO) and its supporters began to suspect the existence of either an external plot to eliminate Machar or the peace was probably not meant to end the civil war.
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 publicly admitted in a news conference that he feels responsible for killings in South Sudan.
The suffering people of South Sudan are not interested in the continuation of war and they are certainly not interested in countries that are more interested in doing business with Kiir’s government than bringing the conflict to an end. What they are now interested in is real peace, not games being played by world superpowers at the UN to score needless political points.
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. He is determined to keep Kiir in power unless other East African leaders oppose his pro-Kiir stance. 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.
I must admit that finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing civil war under President Kiir and First Vice-President Taban Deng Gai is not feasible, let alone the full implementation of the now defunct IGAD-Plus imposed power-sharing deal. For those who believe that the current First Vice President and President will magically end the conflict, the question then becomes the following: is peace attainable in South Sudan under Kiir-Taban’s leadership? If so, how? The fact is that Mr. 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. It shows that the Ugandan President planned his strategy well on how he would deal with any world leader who dared to 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. This was how Museveni orchestrated his plot to keep Kiir in power, knowing his threat to cut ties with the West and work with China or Russia as well as pulling his troops out of peacekeeping missions in Africa would frighten Washington more than South Sudan’s civil war. 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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are his and should not be attributed to the South Sudan News Agency.