Late last year, the Uganda Peoples Defense Force (UPDF) entered South Sudan and began fighting on the side of the South Sudanese government. Initial reports of Ugandan troops sent to engage the rebels in South Sudan were denied by the Government of Uganda; however, the administration of President Museveni has since admitted to Uganda’s involvement in the conflict within Uganda’s northern neighbor. The explanations as to why Uganda would send troops into South Sudan have been less than satisfactory or forthcoming.
In the last week, the government of embattled South Sudanese President Salva Kiir revealed that his government funds the activities of both the Sudan People’s Liberation Front (SPLA) and UPDF in this civil conflict. While this poses serious questions for the people of South Sudan, it is also of great concern for the people of Uganda. Not only has the government sent troops into an internal conflict in another country, but the troops are being paid by the host government.
Furthermore, the misinformation and lack of transparency about troop movement into South Sudan indicates a more worrying problem for Uganda. Although Uganda has been relatively stable under the leadership of President Museveni, the narrative of Uganda has been shaped by conflict and the role of the military in that conflict. From the fight against Obote to the protracted war with the LRA to involvement in regional events like the ones discussed here, Uganda has been defined by its experience of and involvement in conflicts.
The end of fighting between UPDF and LRA forces within Uganda was a great achievement for the stability and development of Uganda. This has led to a questioning of the narrative of Uganda and that of President Museveni at a fundamental level. In this new context in which Uganda is less defined by conflict and more defined by civic engagement and budding stability, Uganda searches for a new narrative.
This brings the discussion of Uganda’s involvement in South Sudan full circle and generates a few lingering questions that only time can answer. First, is this use of UPDF troops a way of pacifying the army and lessening the chance of a coup? With the recent defection of high-ranking military officials from Museveni’s government to opposition parties, this could be a very real risk. Second, is this a diversion meant to keep attention away from shady deals with MNCs? The recent discovery of viable oil reserves and other land based development projects have led to the altering of land rights and land records at multiple levels. These changes benefit the state and elites, but rarely those who originally owned the land. Finally, in a more positive light, could this be Uganda trying to redefine itself as a regional leader in East Africa and the East African Community (EAC)? Kenya’s position as the regional leader has been brought into question through the ICC indictment of President Kenyatta and other government officials, the Westgate attack and subsequent security questions, and the faltering social cohesion of the country as a whole. While it is unlikely that Uganda could unseat Kenya anytime soon, it certainly appears that preparations are underway, should the opportunity arise.