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South Sudan Falls Out With Uganda

Relationship between neighbours which have been allies for at least 20 years appears strained, if not close to collapse.
By Badru Mulumba
The recent decision by South Sudan to expel the Ugandan army reflects deep frustrations over two years’ of failed negotiations with the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.



In a meeting of the South Sudan Security Committee late last month, chaired by South Sudan president Salva Kiir, the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces, UPDF, operating in the region were asked to leave.



“To avoid mistakes of the past, the government of Southern Sudan will not allow the UPDF to make military operations against the LRA inside Southern Sudan territories,” read the committee’s resolution. “[The] SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) and other organised forces [are] put on alert to protect Sudanese citizens from LRA indiscriminate attacks and abduction.”



Ugandan forces have operated in South Sudan since 2002, when the Khartoum government allowed them to attack the LRA, who had used South Sudan as a base for more than a decade.



That agreement, which was made before South Sudan was recognised as a semi-autonomous region, apparently expired in 2006 and has not been formally renewed with the regional government.



And as recently as last week, UPDF troops forces pursued LRA rebels in South Sudan who were reportedly heading for northern Uganda after raiding an SPLA outpost at Nabanga.



The South Sudanese – unlike the Khartoum government – have had good relations with Kampala for at least 20 years. Now the cooperation between them appears strained at best, if not close to collapse, after rebel leader Joseph Kony twice failed to appear to sign a peace agreement that has been two years in the making.



Following Kony’s no-show in May, Uganda demanded military action against the rebels. But South Sudan’s vice president Riek Machar, the chief mediator in the LRA talks, called for patience after Kony last week asked for the peace talks to be resumed.



A breakdown in relations between South Sudan and Uganda would shake up the regional dynamics and throw into doubt any plans for joint military operations against the LRA, currently holed up in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.



Kony and his top commanders are wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during a 20-year conflict in northern Uganda.



The split between the former allies grew out of allegations that Ugandan forces killed and kidnapped Sudanese civilians in June while posing as LRA rebels.



Machar accused the Ugandan military, not the rebels, of responsibility for a June 14 attack in the Nabanga area that had initially been blamed on the LRA.



The incident followed an earlier LRA attack on South Sudanese forces at a border outpost, in which at least 20 people were killed, about half of them soldiers. The Ugandan army says it was in the area pursuing the rebels after that attack, but a spokesman insisted it played no role in the June 14 attack, and would never masquerade as the LRA.



However, Machar told the South Sudan parliament on June 30, “This [June 14 attack] was alleged to be the LRA. I sent the committee to go and investigate it. The rest of the evidence is there. Indeed, it didn’t turn out to be the LRA, but they were UPDF.”



The investigation was conducted by the Cessation of Hostilities Monitoring Team which keeps watch on the ceasefire that has been in effect for two years between the LRA rebels and the Uganda government.



Investigators also linked the UPDF to an attack on a number of homes at a border village where attackers looted food, household goods, and abducted a 31-year-old man. The abducted man was found dead three days later, some three kilometres away from his home, along the route of the attackers’ withdrawal. According to the report, the dead man had an injury to the head and a stab wound on his back, presumably from a bayonet.



“Apparently, it was assumed that the perpetrators were LRA, but as the report clearly states it is a squad of UPDF that masqueraded as LRA,” Machar claimed in a letter to Ruhakana Rugunda, the Uganda’s interior minister and chief negotiator at the talks.



The request for Ugandan troops to leave is the clearest rebuff yet of Kampala’s attempts to encourage southern Sudan to deploy its own forces against the LRA.



“It’s now apparent that the presence of Uganda People’s Defence Forces can’t solve the LRA problem in southern Sudan any more,” said Beatrice Samson, a member of the South Sudan parliament representing an area that has seen the worst fighting between the UPDF and the LRA war in the last six years. “This is because they have also resorted to masquerading as LRA and killing people. The only entity and institution that can protect the people of southern Sudan is our gallant soldiers, the SPLA.”



Ugandan officials, meanwhile, downplay the split, and claim that the situation is a misunderstanding.



"It cannot be our army [that is responsible for the killing of civilians]... Our army is disciplined," Ugandan foreign minister Sam Kutesa told news agencies in Kampala.



"[The] UPDF is not involved at all [in such attacks]," said military spokesman Captain Chris Magezi. “It is not our method of work."



While the neighbours’ relations are now strained, a high-ranking Ugandan officer has suggested that South Sudan and Uganda still need each other.



Major General Ayuen Alier told the New Vision newspaper in Kampala that it was Uganda that helped South Sudan to win self-rule, and the region still needed support it wanted total independence. A vote on independence is planned for 2011.



“I want to assure you that there is no serious problem between the UPDF and the SPLA,” he said.



UPDF army chief General Aronda Nyakairima argued that the Ugandan military presence in South Sudan had stopped Khartoum lending the Ugandan rebels its support, as used to be the cae.



“I want to assure you that the situation with our neighbour is normal. There is no more business of (Sudanese president Omar) al-Bashir supporting the LRA and sending planes to hit our border district like Adjumani,” said Aronda.



Despite such assurances that the problems can be resolved, talks on withdrawing Ugandan troops from South Sudan are expected be held in the coming weeks.



Badru Mulumba is an IWPR trainee.