By Haggai Matsiko
Army that beat Machar’s fighters faces an unceremonious exit
A potholed runway ushers you into Juba International Airport—the most critical South Sudan government installation. A small old stuffy building with dusty window panes and a dusty cracked cement floor, the terminal is manned by policemen who don what looks like army fatigues and shout commands at travellers.
At one corner of the airport is the make-shift headquarters of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces’ (UPDF) contingent that stopped surging fighters loyal to the dismissed former vice president, Riek Machar, from kicking President Salva Kiir out of his palace—a few metres from the airport.
The UPDF soldiers, in their menacing army fatigues with Kalashnikovs and machineguns slung over their shoulders, give this part of the airport the eerie sight of a battle zone.
Behind their barricade of sand bags, the UPDF soldiers continue to overlook the security of Juba—the capital and Bor—the main city of Jonglei State. However, it is not clear for how long they will.
Six month since they arrived, Juba and Kiir’s security still solely depend on the UPDF presence, officials in South Sudan admit, especially as the two warring factions remain adamant to resume talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Yet despite its role here, the UPDF mission in South Sudan, which Uganda solely funds, hangs in balance and remains a controversial subject with the rebels, organisers of the talks, and legislators in Kampala calling for their withdrawal.
As the pressure mounts for the UPDF to quit, even the man whose presidency it is there to protect; President Salva Kiir has remained mute on their fate.
Uncertainty about the future of UPDF has also been mounting from Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African regional peace body that is conducting peace talks between the Kiir and Machar factions and others with a view of forming an interim government in South Sudan.
Following a May UN Security Council approval, some of the peace keepers expected from Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda under the auspices of the IGAD to shower up the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) have been arriving in South Sudan.
On top of these, China also pledged to send in 850 peacekeepers bringing the number of peacekeepers in the country to 19,000.
As The Independent went to press, sources in the UPDF said it was not clear what their role would remain with the arrival of the IGAD force or whether they would be asked to pull out or not. Unlike, the UN peacekeepers, who have been invited by the UN, the UPDF deployed in the country under a State of Forces Agreement, in which South Sudan invited them.
Meanwhile, since the UPDF arrived in his country, Kiir has neither met the UPDF commander nor visited their headquarters literally next door to his palace in Juba.
He has also not visited Bor, where the decisive battle that saved his government was fought.
When President Museveni travelled to South Sudan, he visited Bor alone and met with Kiir in the capital later.
The aloofness of the man who invited them into South Sudan is quite disconcerting. Does Kiir want or expect the UPDF to stay on even as the UN, IGAD, and the Chinese deploy and an interim government is formed?
In IGAD meetings in Addis Ababa whenever the question of the UPDF’s presence arises, sources say, Kiir always does not comment. In Juba, insiders told The Independent that the spate of events in his backyard seems to have overwhelmed Kiir into a state of indecision. It could also be that Kiir is, in fact, not sure of his own future.
While Kiir’s attitude towards the UPDF might be surprising, insiders say it is not shocking.
Ever since the SPLA left the bush; Kiir has taken no keen interest in the welfare and transformation of his own army. This is at the heart of an existential threat that even the UPDF with its superior fire power can do nothing about.
A “group of militias” is how sources in South Sudan describe the SPLA. During the SPLA war against Sudan, several Generals headed their own units. When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, these Generals were dispatched to different parts of the country with their coterie of soldiers.
While structurally, there is a line of command in the SPLA, no single person not even Kiir has control over the several groups and alliances that form the army.
This is why Juba almost fell under the group of soldiers loyal to Machar.
Kiir’s big mistake
President Kiir’s troubles had been simmering for sometimes before they boiled over into full-blown armed conflict with Riek Machar on December 15.
Despite contra-claims and denials, an insider in Juba told The Independent that Machar had positioned fighters from his Nuer tribe to remove President Kiir. The soldiers loyal to Machar had planned to overwhelm their Dinka counterparts, capture Juba, and send Kiir packing.
According to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity, President Kiir had been tipped off but failed to act against Machar.
Even when fighting began at the Bilfam Barracks in Juba at exactly 10:15, Kiir appeared unaware of what was going on. He was only rescued by an old warrior, Gen. Obuto Mamur Mete.
Officials close to Kiir told The Independent “that he expected no one to stage a coup because the world had moved on and could not accept such a development”.
The night the rebels chose to strike, Kiir was comfortably in his presidential palace although his Commander of Defence Forces had abandoned him—declining to implement his instructions—for a number of days. The last batch to abandon him, Kiir realised were soldiers of his presidential guard.
Sources say Kiir summoned more reinforcements for protection as fighters loyal to him embarked on a mission to defend Juba. After overwhelming the soldiers loyal to Machar at the first barracks, soldiers loyal to Kiir moved to the main barracks.
Fighting lasted throughout the night and by 10:00 am; Machar’s rebels were out of Juba.
Left alone, sources say, some had advised Kiir to flee the country. But Gen. Mamur, who had during the 90s established contact with top UPDF officials, believed he still had options. Kampala was the main one.
After establishing a sense of control on Juba on the night of Dec.15, sources told The Independent on condition of anonymity, Gen. Mamur who was in charge of the entire country’s security forces, called for help from Kampala.
Following Mamur’s call, the UPDF leadership held a meeting, which generated names for President Museveni to choose the commander. Among the names was Brig. Kayanja Muhanga.
Museveni also summoned troops and weaponry from different units. Since they had been mobilised in a hurry, the UPDF took their battle instructions and rehearsals in Juba.
Meanwhile, Gen. Mamur constantly warned that Machar’s rebels were advancing on the one hand and on the other, demoralised and not adequately trained SPLA soldiers were deserting the army and joining the rebels. At some point, only about 700 soldiers had to face fire from an army of over 26,000 with a mission to capture Juba.
As pressure mounted in Juba, the UPDF continued rehearsing and waiting for an order to attack from Museveni. They insisted they had to finish the rehearsals in order to synchronise the different units—artillery, motorised and airforce units.
What began as a skirmish in two military barracks on the night of Dec.15 had quickly spiralled into targeted attacks based on ethnicity with Dinka soldiers targeting Nuers and Nuer soldiers targeting Dinkas.
Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group, the country’s largest and Machar is a Nuer. Military sources in Juba told The Independent that when the soldiers loyal to Kiir successfully dispelled a revolt started by those loyal to Machar, Juba became a no-go area for Nuers.
Security forces rounded up civilians and shot others in the street. When the Neurs who escaped reached their strongholds, they mobilised and armed whoever could fight. The Nuer fighters were told that in Juba, the Dinkas had not saved any Nuer and as such, they also had to finish off whatever resembled a Dinka.
UPDF mission unaccomplished
A source told The Independent that although Gen. Mamur, his private guards, and another group from the Presidential Guards (Tigers), were in position to protect Juba for about 100 hours, without reinforcement from the Ugandan troops; Juba would have fallen in a matter of days. That is how UPDF ended up being deployed without the right protocols.
Following the deployment of the UPDF and their decisive war against the rebels, Juba and Bor appear to have been secured and the renegade military threat to Kiir thwarted.
Brig. Kayanja Muhanga, the Fourth Division Commander who led the South Sudan operation told The Independent in Juba that since the UPDF entered South Sudan, it has fought only one battle but it was decisive.
“The rebels retreated, they have never come back. When you hear about fighting in South Sudan, it is not here,” he said from his headquarters in Juba.
Brig. Kayanja explained that the only fighting going on is Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, which is about 1,226 kilometres north of Juba. This city is strategic because it is surrounded by the country’s largest oil deposits like the Heglig Oilfield, which straddles the border between Sudan and South Sudan.
The UPDF’s only battle in South Sudan cost them nine men “but it taught the rebels a lesson they will live to remember,” one of the soldiers told The Independent.
The battle took place a few kilometres out of Bor at a place called Tabakeka.
From the air, South Sudan is a huge expanse of flat land divided by channels of the White Nile and large swaths of what is called The Sudd—a large solid floating swampy vegetation, which is said to be the world’s largest wetland and the largest freshwater wetland in the Nile basin.
The rebels laid an ambush, encircled the UPDF, and rained bullet fire on them with an intention to push them into the Nile and its floating vegetation.
The last line of pro-Kiir SPLA fighters, who were retreating from Machar’s rebel fire, had even attempted to stop the UPDF from advancing.
An SPLA commander told the UPDF there was no way he was going to allow them to take on the enemy `white army’ that had swollen to over 26,000 by some estimates, and seemed unstoppable.
The UPDF and what remained of Kiir’s forces were about 5000. But in a battle that lasted three to five hours; from a raging force that was just a few hours shy of capturing Juba, Machar’s forces succumbed to defeat under the superior fire of the UPDF that rained from the skies, and all manner of guns, tanks and machine guns.
The battle was decided by the UPDF’s better trained, experienced, and equipped force.
The UPDF contingent in South Sudan is made up of units that have fought in Somalia, DR Congo and Central African Republic. A fair number of them are good snipers trained in Israel. And apart from the training and experience, they are well equipped with tanks, mambas and other motorised guns. And with fighter jets, they dominated the sky too.
On the other hand, while the rebels had the numbers, a good number was largely of new recruits including child soldiers—the UN accuses both the rebel fighters and government forces for recruiting over 9000 child soldiers.
Those who had deserted the ranks of SPLA, were not fighting smart, had their eyes were on Juba and, because they had registered serious gains against the government army, did not realise that the enemy they were facing had changed.
If there is anything South Sudan has failed to do under Kiir, sources told The Independent, it is to train soldiers and maintain a good force—so even those that broke ranks with the army, were amateurish, had been demoralised for a long time, were inexperienced and were poorly equipped. To make matters worse, they hadn’t received their salaries for some months.
The fight was so decisive that it is the only and last time Machar’s forces have dared attack the UPDF. After taking Bor, the UPDF dug in at the outskirts of the town.
Apart from gaining territory and getting the enemy to retreat, the UPDF captured a huge cache of arms including an anti-air craft missile launcher that the rebels planned to use to bring down the fighter jets.
“Our mission was to help in evacuation of civilians and to protect key government installations,” one of the soldiers said, “but to do that we needed to stop the rebels who were advancing to Juba.”
After the UPDF dealt the rebels a blow, the SPLA regained its momentum and also rolled them back thousands of kilometres and recaptured most of the towns that the rebels had taken.
As war rages in Bentiu, Brig. Kayanja told The Independent the UPDF’s daily routine is now training and ensuring that key government installations and people in Juba and Bor are safe.
What remains of Bor town are a few buildings constructed with iron sheets. The rest are skeletons of buildings that once housed shops and big patches of burnt earth that used to be foundations for big buildings – a gruesome reminder of what happened here six months ago.
In Bor alone, authorities say, over 2800 people were killed. In Juba, the number is also over 2000—witnesses say. In both towns, dead bodies were left where they died; on the streets. The towns are now home to several mass graves.
Like in Somalia, where Brig. Kayanja was also deployed, his force has already won the hearts of locals here.
From the boda boda motorcycle taxi riders, to hair dressers, and shop attendants – most residents are happy with UPDF for restoring security.
During the war, both government troops and the rebels pillaged and killed innocent locals, they say, but the UPDF is different.
“They saved us from the rebels that were killing people,” a young South Sudanese boda boda rider says, “now we are safe, they are good soldiers.”
Ugandans who had fled back to their home have also returned to Juba to do business.
Will the peace last?
President Kiir and his nemesis, Machar appear to be buying time but with no clear plan to either achieve victory or craft a compromise.
The destruction visited on the country because of the animosity between their Neur and Dinka tribesmen and their allies, experts say, exposes the fragility of the young nation. In just six months, hundreds of thousands of locals have lost their lives and over a million have been displaced.
The peace talks in Addis have already swallowed over US$17 million but have failed to stop the war.
Despite agreeing to form a transitional government in 60 days, there is no indication Kiir and Machar will budge. Each has adopted a strategy of accepting transition talks today, and pulling out of talks tomorrow.
Kiir’s government now claim they have an issue with comments made by Mahboub Maalim, the executive secretary of the East African bloc brokering the talks, Igad, who said the idea that a military solution to the conflict could be pursued was “stupid”.
On the other hand, Machar is objecting to the participation in the talks of civil society groups, religious organisations and other political parties, saying they were not involved in the selection process.
“We want to have direct talks with the government and the government is also willing, so it’s unfortunate that the mediators have not understood this,” rebel spokesman Hussein Mar told AFP.
He said that the deadline set by mediators is now unlikely to be met with talks paused indefinitely, and said that the situation is likely to worsen in South Sudan with talks stalled.
On June 19, when he addressed members of both the National Assembly and the Council of States, the upper house of the parliament of South Sudan, Kiir said he was aware of a plot to form the transitional unity government without him and that he would not allow it.
“They intend to constitute a transitional government without me as the elected president,” he said, “It is a red line on this and my position is unwavering on this thing. Our people overwhelmingly elected me as their president and nobody has the right and power to remove me except the people themselves.”
He blamed unnamed “foreign countries” of fomenting the plot. Machar reportedly told Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta that he is willing to stay out of the interim government.
As one leaves Juba, it is fascinating to see how busy the airport is, with arrivals and departures dwarfing the traffic at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport.
Huge commercial flights jostle for the limited runway with the small crafts of humanitarian organisation like the Red Cross and others. A Uganda businessman who plies his trade in Juba says that the airport was much busier. To him and many others The Independent spoke to, the Machar versus Kiir tussle has taken its toll.