Embattled South Sudan President Salva Kiir has set new conditions for the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from the country, which potentially complicates an already protracted search for a settlement to the eight-month old conflict.
As countries contributing troops to the Igad-sponsored deterrent force begin to make good on their commitments, President Kiir said during the Independence Day celebrations on July 9 that the Uganda People’s Defence Force will only leave South Sudan after permanent peace has been achieved.
This is at variance with an earlier understanding with regional countries that the arrival of regional forces would pave the way for the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from the conflict.
An Igad force, which is supposed to replace the Ugandan army, started deploying in South Sudan a fortnight ago. Rwanda last week confirmed it had completed deployment of a battalion of 800 peacekeepers in Malakal town, in Upper Nile State, some 650km from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, while Ethiopia, which deployed the first contingent of 90 troops, is expected to send in an additional 700.
“Rwanda has completed deployment of a battalion of 800 officers and men in South Sudan,” said Rwanda Army spokesperson Brig Gen Joseph Nzabamwita.
The deployments by Igad and the UN form part of an international effort to help end the eight-month conflict that has ravaged parts of the world’s youngest nation, killing thousands of civilians and displacing over 1.2 million people.
The force arrives at a time when the peace negotiations in Addis Ababa have stalled amid growing anxiety about the fate of a shaky ceasefire deal signed by the warring parties.
Reports by various monitoring groups indicate that there is a rapidly deteriorating political, security, and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan resulting from the violence caused by the country’s political and military leaders.
Uganda deployed its troops in South Sudan to fight alongside the South Sudanese military. President Kiir has defended the deployment, saying Ugandan troops had been deployed via a “sovereign agreement” and would remain in the country until their mission was achieved.
President Kiir lashed out at Igad, which is mediating the peace process, saying it has been ineffective in holding the rebels to account for violations of the ceasefire deal. He wondered why they did not attend the Independence celebrations.
“I don’t know why Pagan Amum and Deng Alor did not come. They said when we met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last month that they would attend the Independence celebration,” the Sudan Tribune quoted President Kiir saying.
Pagan Amum is the suspended secretary general of SPLA party and Deng Alor is the suspended Second vice president of South Sudan. They were among former 11 detainees now in Addis Ababa.
The president told the small crowd that was in attendance: “I would have asked the Igad leaders if they had come; how long our forces would continue to remain in trenches in the light of these violations by the forces loyal to Riek and his group.”
The remarks have raised concerns about President Kiir and his government’s commitment to the peace process given that the rebels, led by the former vice president, have demanded the withdrawal of Ugandan troops as a precondition for further progress in the peace negotiation.
Also regional governments, Ethiopia, Sudan as well as the US and UN have demanded Uganda’s withdrawal from South Sudan, saying it would regionalise the conflict.
Uganda’s continued stay would mean Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda, which is also charged with monitoring activities of forces in the war torn country, would report on Uganda to Igad, of which Uganda is a member.
How Uganda would be handled by the regional bloc is the big question. Already, Uganda is not part of the peace negotiations in Addis Ababa because it took sides in the war. It has, however, been participating through the Heads of State Summit.
Though it has earlier said it would withdraw and pave the way for Igad forces, Uganda now says it will maintain its presence in South Sudan as long as the government requests it.
“Uganda’s position is very clear; we have a military and security agreement with the government of South Sudan and if they request that there is a need for military help from Uganda, we shall stay and help,” said International Affairs Minister Okello Oryem.
According to Mr Oryem, there will be clearly marked boundaries between Uganda and Igad forces. UPDF, he said, may withdraw to its old position east of the Nile or stay in Juba as per the agreement with President Kiir’s government.
The regional force that is meant to replace Uganda is expected to be a neutral and deterrent force that will secure vital installations including oil fields. It is expected to provide protection for Igad Monitoring and Verification team. It will also replace Ugandan troops that have been standing between Riek Machar and the government in Juba.
The 25,000 regional troops will, however, form part of United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The UN troops are 7,000 on the ground but expected to increase to 12,500 with a new mandate under chapter seven of the charter of the United Nations.
The troops are permitted to use all necessary means to protect civilians under threat of physical violence, irrespective of the source of such violence, within its capacity and areas of deployment.
To deter violence against civilians, including foreign nationals, especially through proactive deployment, active patrolling with particular attention to displaced civilians and to implement an early warning strategy.
It will also monitor and investigating human rights abuse, create the conditions for delivery of humanitarian assistance and supporting the Implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement.
The viability of the regional Peace and Deterrent Force will however depend on the mandate given.