Uganda will not interfere in the current standoff between Khartoum and the South over oil-rich Abyei state, which northern troops overrun a fortnight ago.
But it warns that Khartoum’s action is futile as it runs counter to global opinion and provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
While acknowledging the significance of Southern Sudan to Uganda’s security and economic interests, Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga ruled out immediate military intervention, even as northern militias were progressing further south after a lightning attack that dislodged the SPLA administration from Abyei.
“We’ll continue to play our role as part of the team that guaranteed the CPA. Any spoiler will be dealt with politically and diplomatically, and if this fails he will be dealt with by any other means. Khartoum should play by the rules of the CPA and practise the principles of good neighbourliness,” Mr Kiyonga said.
He added that the South spoke with one voice when they voted for independence in the January referendum and their decision enjoyed universal support.
Mr Kiyonga’s comments were in consonance with those of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, Land Forces Commander, Lt Gen Katumba Wamala, who said any involvement by Kampala will initially be diplomatic.
“We hope sober minds will prevail, but UPDF can’t get involved in that conflict. At a diplomatic level, we will push to calm the two conflicting sides because, as people who were engaged in the CPA, we have to ensure that it does not collapse.”
The National Congress Party (NCP) of the Khartoum government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) of the South are the two CPA partners of the 2005 peace negotiations in Kenya. The South is on the verge of attaining independence this July, so collapse of the CPA would complicate matters for regional intergovernmental bodies, the African Union and the international community.
First, with 15,000 people already displaced by hostilities in Abyei since May 20, any escalation of violence would result in mass exodus of refugees.
Secondly, conflict in the Sudan offers fertile ground for terrorists to roam and execute attacks on the region — considering that before the 1998 bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Sudan was a haven for al Qaeda terrorists.
Thirdly, escalation of conflict in Sudan would affect insecure countries like Somalia, which could export terrorism to the region. Moreover, Uganda, which has about 4,500 soldiers in the African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia, no longer maintains troops in Sudan as it did during the years it was fighting the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.
With pursuit of the LRA in the Central African Republic, and now the developments in Abyei, Uganda might find its security organs overstretched. But Wamala says this is out of the question. “We have enough resources for Somalia. We’ll not sacrifice Somalia for anything; if we have to do an internal reorganisation so be it.”
Gen Kiyonga says that while there is evidence that LRA leader Joseph Kony has tried to link up with international terrorists, he is currently too weak and insignificant and is just hoping for survival. He also thinks Kony is such a liability that even Khartoum would not pick him again.
He adds: “Kony is not just a problem for Uganda and other countries in central Africa — even the US want to see that he does not rebuild his strength.”
Khartoum seized Abyei 10 days ago in what was seen as the North’s attempt to manipulate the results of a referendum in the semi autonomous state in July this year to decide whether it would remain part of the North or go with the South. The referendum follows the one in January on secession of the South from the Arab north.
In a matter of days, Abyei was besieged by Khartoum government troops and set ablaze last week.
Instability in Sudan could mean sustained periods of fighting and an influx of refugees to the region — an all too familiar headache for Uganda. Wamala said: “Not too long ago, Uganda hosted many Sudanese refugees. Now, if the centre cannot hold in Sudan, then there is cause for worry.”
On May 20, SPLA soldiers ambushed a convoy of Sudanese army and UN peacekeepers in Abyei. Twenty-two soldiers of northern Sudan army died, prompting the North to seize the state the following day.
Reports by news agencies, however, say that Abyei’s oil reserves are not that huge, and that extraction could be over in 10 to 15 years. The reserves are just 1 per cent of Sudan’s 6.8 billion barrels of oil reserves, the BBC reported.
Therefore, the fight over Abyei is mainly for the North to access grazing land for its Misseriya Arab tribe at the expense of the indigenous Ngok Dinka tribe of the south.
In fact, government officials in Kampala who have been close to Juba and the CPA schedule say Abyei is simply bait that the North is dangling before the South in the hope that the latter reacts militarily. This could trigger a long war whose resolution would be beyond the scope of the current CPA.
For Kampala, Sudan is more than just another African country flaring up. Besides acting as a buffer in the two-decade insurgency that ended with the eviction of the LRA from Southern Sudan bases to the DR Congo and Central African Republic, Juba has emerged as a major export partner. Formal and informal receipts are estimated in excess of $1 billion in favour of Uganda.
Last year, President Yoweri Museveni told a closed-door meeting of UN Security Council representatives in Entebbe that the referendum in Southern Sudan should not be delayed. “Uganda will cope with any fallout from the referendum, as it has done since 1955 — but for a brief 10-year lull,” he said.
Report by Michael Wakabi and Julius Barigaba