20,000 graduate in first ever unified national army
Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | President Yoweri Museveni’s attendance of the first graduation of the Unified Forces of South Sudan cast him in the spotlight again as a mainstay in the security matrix of the East African and Great Lakes region. Museveni was invited by President Salva Kiir to attend the ceremony held on Aug. 30 where over 20,000 South Sudan graduates were passed out in a highly anticipated ceremony that was years in the making.
The event was held at the Dr. John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, capital of South Sudan. Garang was the leader of Southern Sudan before it seceded from Sudan in 2011 to become a sovereign state, South Sudan. Garang died in a mysterious chopper crash in 2005 and Kiir, his deputy, took over as leader.
All the while, President Museveni has played the role of elder statesman to Kiir and paid routine visits to South Sudan to mark different occasions. The graduation of the unified forces was special to Museveni because of his own attachment to the military. A day after the Juba event, Museveni presided over the retirement of 48 Generals of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) who were key in the guerilla war that propelled him to power in 1986.
“I am here to show our solidarity and happiness about what is happening here today,” Museveni said in his speech. “To see the United Force of the people of South Sudan making a nucleus of a new national force, I thank you so much,” he said.
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Museveni mentioned Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s independence leader, John Garang and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party as a host of progressive forces while offering counsel to the new batch of forces.
“For us, we never emphasize hawiya (identity), we emphasise maslaha. What are the interests of the people? We don’t care what tribe or religion you are,” Museveni added. This was an all too familiar message from Museveni to the people of South Sudan.
Media reports said the 20, 000 forces included VIP protection forces, police forces, national security services, prison services, wildlife services, and civil defense forces. President Kiir made his pledge of peace to the new national force.
“As I have been saying, I will never take our people back to war and I must tell you that you are not being graduated to take you back to war,” he said. Kiir who has faced opposition from many fronts in his country also warned the newly graduated troops against involvement in politics but instead urged them to protect the sovereignty of the country. “You are not the military wing of any party. You are now the first national security organ of the Republic of South Sudan.”
However even as the graduation of the unified force brought excitement to people in attendance, it also showed the tough work remains ahead for the government and its nascent state. The forces carried wooden guns due to an embargo the UN Security Council imposed on South Sudan in 2018. The embargo crippled the country’s ability to build a coherent and capable force meant to strengthen the state and its major component- the army.
South Sudan has gone through periods of instability with a heavily factionalised army. The graduation of the forces was a culmination of maneuvres from various political actors in the country including First Vice President Riek Machar who has had a contentious relationship with Kiir. President Museveni has been intimately involved in the South Sudan’s independence journey and also cultivating Kiir as a close ally as the country navigates the complicated path of statehood.
In October 2019 at an event in Juba to launch peace talks, Museveni using a mixture of Arabic and English, lambasted both Kiir and Machar for priding in their status as tribal chiefs.
“It is absolute rubbish to waste even one afternoon to talk about hawiya (identity). I tell you to go to hell. These mistakes that have been going on because of this rubbish hawiya of tribe, religion etc. and we have killed each other,” he added, “When you want to bring prosperity to the people yet you front identity then what are you going to do?” Museveni asked.
Uganda is the guarantor of the 2018 landmark peace agreement which stipulated the creation of a unity government. It also called for a unified army which has been one of the sticking issues of the pact officially known as the Revitalised Agreement for the Resolution of the Conflict of South Sudan (RARCSS). Its fulfillment marks an important step forward for the country.
In 2013, Museveni took a bold decision to send Ugandan troops to Juba to secure Kiir’s government after it came under fire from a mutinous army faction. Trouble started when Kiir sacked Machar after a series of disagreements and contestations with just two years after declaring independence. UPDF troops remained in Juba for months and at various intervals have re-entered the country at invitation or other national security reasons.
Before the 2018 peace agreement, there were sporadic outbreaks of violence for which Uganda bore the brunt. Thousands of Ugandans were trapped in Juba and other parts of the country when fighting broke out in 2013 and 2016. The country is a leading destination for Ugandans seeking jobs and business opportunities.
The endless fighting has also created a refugee influx in Ugandans as South Sudanese seek haven. The bulk of refugees in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in the West Nile region of Uganda are from South Sudan.
Uganda has also faced accusations of being a conduit of arms and by extension conflict perpetuation to its neighbour. In November 2018, a report by Conflict Armament Research, a body that tracks weapons supplies into armed conflicts, indicated that a network of Ugandan and U.S. companies procured military equipment that was headed to South Sudan.
The report stated that the weapons funneled through Uganda to South Sudan were in violation of an arms embargo imposed on the country by some European Union member states. The source countries were Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia.
The report noted “retransfers to the SPLA and its allies of weapons, ammunition, and aircraft originally supplied to neighbouring Uganda from the United States and EU member states.” The SPLA is the Sudanese People Liberation Army, the country’s erstwhile divided army. Museveni however was opposed to the idea of embargoes, including the UN one, arguing that South Sudan needs to build a national army for it to survive as a state.
Accusations nonetheless have remained over guns crossing to Uganda for mercenaries and other fighting groups. Museveni has also advocated for elections in the country saying elections will force the country’s many politicians into forging alliances.
In negotiations he held with Salva Kiir, Museveni said Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, widow of former leader John Garang, hold one of the five slots of Vice Presidents of South Sudan. These slots were created by the September 2018 signed in Addis Ababa.