The first group of 90 Ethiopian peacekeepers have arrived in the South Sudan capital Juba, as the elements of Igad’s regional Protection and Deterrent Force begin to fall into place.
Their arrival a fortnight ago, however, does not pave the way for the near-term withdrawal of Ugandan troops from the conflict as the numbers are far below the required 2,500 boots on the ground.
But experts still see the deployment as a potential game changer as it places Ethiopia squarely at the centre of efforts to return peace to South Sudan.
It also raises questions on how the Ugandan and Ethiopian militaries will relate in the volatile country. The two countries are said to have held a couple of high-level meetings in the past four months.
Commenting on the impact of this on Uganda’s tenure in Juba, Uganda People’s Defence Force deputy spokesperson Maj Henry Obbo said: “The force that has arrived is very small and they are here just to prepare the ground for the regional force. When the other units are fully on the ground, we shall withdraw.”
The Riek Machar side in the conflict has demanded the withdrawal of Ugandan troops as a precondition for further progress in the peace negotiation.
Igad confirmed the Ethiopian deployment. “The information that is publicly available on the force at the moment is scanty. What I can tell you certainly is that the Igad Monitoring and Verification Mechanism now forms part of UNMISS under the mission’s reinvigorated mandate — and a first detachment of Ethiopian troops within the Igad MVM PF arrangement arrived in Juba towards the third week of last month,” said Igad spokesperson Tigist Hailu.
Kenya and Rwanda are supposed to contribute troops for the mission but are yet to do so. The so-called Troika countries — the US, Norway and UK — who had promised to finance the force are yet to commit funding to the mission.
The regional force is expected to provide protection for the Igad monitors investigating human-rights abuses and protect key installation in addition to performing UNMISS tasks.
It will also replace the estimated 4,000 Ugandan troops that have been standing between former vice president Riek Machar’s rebels and the government in Juba.
The 2,500 Igad troops are supposed to form part of the 12,500 strong United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
Currently, UNMISS has 7,000 troops on the ground, a number it is supposed to top up by 3,000.
However, a key challenge is the pace of deployment of the additional forces as well as the disposition of these forces in fulfilling the mandate to protect civilians.
Though the UNMISS troops are supposed to deploy in August, it remains unclear what the deployment schedule will be for the approximately 2,500 troops expected to serve in the Igad Protection Force under the UNMISS chain of command.
A related issue is the anticipated participation of an infantry battalion from China in UNMISS. China has a strong economic stake in the oil sector in South Sudan, and it has been reported that it may primarily be interested in defending its workers at oil facilities.
“A key question is how amenable these troops will be to protecting civilians not directly linked to these facilities,” said the UN Security Council report for June.
While Ethiopia is also hosting and chairing the peace negotiations, information indicates that the Security Council last week tipped an Ethiopian general to command the enlarged UNMISS force.
The new role puts Ethiopia at the centre of the South Sudan war.
Ethiopia already has over 2,000 troops as part of the UN troops in the Abyei region, the contested border area of South Sudan and Sudan. This UN group is also commanded by an Ethiopian general.
“This may turn out to be a game changer. The burden of bringing peace may fall on them now that other countries that were supposed to deploy are quiet,” said regional security analyst David Pulkol, formerly chief of Uganda’s external intelligence agency.
“Ethiopia is fed up with the ping pong between Machar and Kiir. They want to see an end to the war and have the capacity to even deploy 22,000 troops or more. The peace talks are not making any headway now; the talks were postponed indefinitely and we need a way forward,” said an Ethiopian official who preferred anonymity.
Uganda deployed troops in South Sudan on December 15, 2013. In March, Kampala said that it was ready to withdraw from South Sudan as soon as the Igad led force was on the ground. However, as Uganda waits for the vacuum to be filled, there is rethinking in Kampala on how they would work with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia needs to play a neutral force and not be seen to side with Dr Machar, since Uganda has declared support for President Kiir and its troops are fighting alongside the South Sudanese army.
“They must find a working position with Ethiopia and stop the situation from degenerating. The two countries must take a decision to identify and empower a moderate group to take charge and isolate the extremists,” said Mr Pulkol.
Said the Ethiopian source: “The hard question for us is whether we are just going to watch as the situation deteriorate. There is a political vacuum and tension is building in Juba.”