Over the past few months, there has been a steady escalation in the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. Earlier this week, regional media sources reported that Uganda would support Juba in the case of a full-scale war with Khartoum. What are some potential reasons for Uganda’s to get involved in this conflict?
Historical Ties, Historical Proxy Wars
Uganda and the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party in South Sudan, have historical ties due to Uganda’s support of the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the second civil war (1983-2005). In addition to providing financial and military support, Ugandan troops were directly involved in operations alongside the SPLA. Uganda also served as a vital sanctuary and rear base after 1991, when the SPLA was expelled from western Ethiopia after the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime.
In retribution for Uganda’s support for the SPLA, the Sudanese government supported the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a proxy to destabilize northern Uganda and weaken the SPLA. Having been expelled from Uganda between 2005 and 2006, the LRA has since been operating in remote areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. Ugandan intelligence suggests that Khartoum has recently made contact with the LRA in order to use the group as a proxy in the event of renewed hostilities with Juba.
Trade and Economic Opportunity
Uganda has substantial commercial interests in South Sudan that could atrophy if South Sudan were attacked. South Sudan is Uganda’s biggest trading partner, although this relationship is disproportionately skewed in favor of Uganda. In 2008, South Sudan’s formal imports from Uganda were $246 million, while informal imports were estimated to be as much as $389 million. Furthermore, approximately one million Ugandans reside in South Sudan, not only capitalizing on the country’s postwar economic opportunities, but also escaping the dearth of such opportunities in Uganda. This is possibly the largest group of foreign nationals in South Sudan.
Influx of Refugees
Although a conflict between Sudan and South Sudan would take place far from the Ugandan border, Uganda might be reluctant to play host to another generation of South Sudanese refugees. By the time Sudan’s civil war ended, over 200,000 Sudanese refugees were in Uganda; many of these have since been repatriated. However, renewed instability in South Sudan could add to the recent influx of refugees from North Kivu province in the DRC. Earlier this month, former rebel leader General Bosco Ntaganda and soldiers loyal to him defected from the Congolese armed forces and Congolese President Joseph Kabila subsequently called for his arrest. Ntaganda had been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2006, but had been integrated into the Congolese military in a 2009 peace deal, as he was believed to be critical to the peace process as well as to regional stability. More than 3,000 residents of North Kivu have fled to Uganda since the beginning of the year as a result of instability in the province, and Uganda is already struggling to manage this most recent influx along its border with the Congo.
Security…and Regime Longevity
Finally, Uganda’s involvement in a conflict between Sudan and South Sudan would ensure its own security. Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the DRC have formed a Regional Task Force (RTF) to capture LRA leader Joseph Kony, whose movement originated in northern Uganda. If South Sudan is preoccupied by fighting along its border with Sudan, Uganda might be concerned that Juba might not be able to fulfill its commitment to the RTF.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni also sees himself as a regional patriarch, and demonstrates this, in part, by deploying the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) abroad. In addition to being part of the RTF to capture Joseph Kony, Uganda is the largest troop contributor to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Uganda is keen to remain a key player in the realm of regional security, which would necessitate its involvement in a full-scale war between Sudan and South Sudan.
Although he tends to prefer his military deployed abroad to ensure that it is not a nuisance at home, Museveni simultaneously tends to like his military large and reasonably capable in case he needs to call upon them to restore order in Uganda itself. Museveni’s heavy-handed crackdown on last year’s “Walk to Work” movement to protest high fuel prices was one example of the growing pressures for Museveni to step down after 25 years (at the time) in power. (For analysis of Museveni’s political challenges and prospects for Uganda’s future, see International Crisis Group’s report Uganda: No Resolution to Growing Tensions released earlier this month). Furthermore, a recent news report on Uganda’s increase in defense expenditures suggests that the types of equipment Uganda is acquiring might be more useful for securing regime longevity and sowing fear in the population than for addressing the country’s actual security threats.
The bottom line is that Uganda has a wide range of legitimate interests in South Sudan, but in my opinion, the most compelling reason is that a new war is a new shiny object for Museveni’s military.