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Uganda in chopper saga again

By Haggai Matsiko

UN investigates Shs143bn deal involving South Sudan

Uganda is once again under UN investigations surrounding the alleged purchase of classified military equipment from Russia, including four Mi24 attack helicopters that ended up in possession of the South Sudan government.  Details indicate that Uganda may have bypassed parliamentary objection and acquired a $170 million loan from a Russian bank to fund the arms deal.

It will be recalled that in late February this year, the UPDF Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Katumba Wamala, the Minister of State for Defense; Jeje Odongo, and the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defense, Rosette Byengoma went to parliament seeking permission to acquire a loan of that amount.

Gen. Katumba told members of the Committee on National Economy that the country needed to acquire the sophisticated equipment because of the volatile situation within the country and the region, especially in Congo and Somalia.

In that meeting, the legislators declined to approve the loan. But somehow, the loan was later acquired, a military source claimed. The Independent could not verify the details of the specific batch weapons Uganda received as part of the deal.

But our investigations found that the end user certificate used to purchase the helicopters under investigation was provided by Uganda. It is not the first time such is happening. In 1997, Uganda signed a purchasing agreement for four helicopters from Belarus supplied by UK-based Consolidated Sales Corporation (CSC) owned by Emanuel Katto. Of these, Uganda received two—the infamous junk helicopters. The other two, which were in much better shape but were also over-priced went to Rwanda.

In the recent deal, it would appear that the helicopters under UN investigation in Juba were acquired using Ugandan taxpayers’ money.  If so, it is unclear why that is the case because South Sudan is said to have money ready to finance its military expenditure. It had set aside a whopping $850 million war-chest to crush the rebellion shortly after it broke out.

Asked to comment about the arrangement under which Uganda helped South Sudan acquire the helicopters, Ambassador James Mugume, the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Independent that he did not have the details of the said deal.

“We have an agreement with them (South Sudan),” Ambassador Mugume said, “I have heard about the helicopters but I do not have the details, I need to ask our technical people.”

Ministry of Defence Spokesperson, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda could not comment. Apart from the Mi24s, South Sudan has since the war broke out in December 2013 made numerous weapons purchases.

The UN Panel investigating says China, Sudan, Israel and other countries had supplied South Sudan.

Kenyan connection

In another twist to the saga, The Independent has information that money that could have moved from South Sudan ended up in a commercial bank in Kampala.

Apparently, between March and April, this year, South Sudan paid about € 40 million (about UGX143 billion) through a Ugandan-based commercial bank to a Russian Company for the acquisition of four Mi24 attack helicopters.

An investigation by The Independent has found that South Sudan first paid € 20 million and later another €20 million. The payment was in the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), owned by among others the family of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

A highly placed source privy to the details of the deal told The Independent that amongst the transaction documents show that South Sudan Minister of Defence, Kuol Manyang Juuk, handled the transaction.

South Sudan’s preference to transact through Kampala and not Juba is being cited as an indication of the South Sudan’s determination to keep under wraps its acquisition of the fighter helicopters. If that is the case, then it appears that the choppers cited by the UN in Juba might have been part of a bigger consignment split up between Uganda and South Sudan. The CBA money transfer also appears to show that South Sudan reimbursed Uganda. The Independent was unable to establish if the money was returned to the Consolidated Fund.

The purchase has come under investigation because the UN suspects that the Uganda aided South Sudan in the acquisition of the weapons which are suspected to have encouraged South Sudan President Salva Kiir to prolong the war in his country and hold back from signing a peace deal with rebels led by his former Vice President Riek Machar who are fighting him. The weapons are alleged to have been used in committing war crimes.

The secret operation and the stealth acquisition of fighter helicopters offer a rare window into how far Kiir’s government was willing to go in the struggle for power in a conflict that has claimed 10,000 lives, made over half a million flee the country and over 1.5 million get displaced internally.

The accusers point to a number of events to allege that Uganda provided the end user agreement South Sudan used to get helicopters.

Kiir is suspected to have delayed to sign the peace deal because after the new weapons acquisition he felt in better position to defeat the rebels.

This is the reason he twice snubbed signing the peace deal defying calls by the African Union and the entire international community. Kiir finally signed the accord on Aug.26 following intense pressure and a threat of sanctions from the UN.

At the height of the war, UN members led by the U.S. and the UK had suggested that an arms embargo is slapped on South Sudan. But the Security Council did not impose the embargo meaning that the South Sudan remained free under international law to acquire arms, ammunition and other military equipment and parts, as well as any related training in their use, maintenance or repair.

Before this saga, Uganda in mid-October, 2014 signed a long-term agreement on military cooperation with Juba that enables it to buy weapons and technological support on behalf of South Sudan.

The agreement was signed by Juuk and his Ugandan counterpart, Crispus Kiyonga. This followed a visit by President Salva Kiir to the Uganda where he together with other regional leaders attended a summit on the Standard Gauge Railway.

Uganda’s Defence ministry officials appeared before parliament requesting approval of the $ 170 million loan February 2015, four months after the agreement was signed.

Those who suspect that Uganda bought for South Sudan cite the loan and the source of the arms—Russia—and the fact that Uganda was looking for a loan approval just a month before the South Sudan transaction.

Other reports claim that the purchases were made from Ukraine. Uganda is reported to have secured and end user certificate for helicopters from Ukraine.

Uganda has in the past also purchased weapons from Ukraine. According to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report, between 2005 and 2009, Ukraine supplied second-hand combat aircraft and helicopters to Chad, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Uganda.

Just last year, according to a report by the Ukrainian State Export Control Service on international shipments of certain types of weaponry in 2014, Uganda acquired 3,000 rifles. The name of the supplier being mentioned as having supplied South Sudan is the same as that of an old supplier of Uganda.

Other sources claim the two countries could have both acquired arms from both Russia and Ukraine.

UN investigates

A highly place diplomatic source has told The Independent that all these claims are being investigated by the United Nations Panel on South Sudan. The panel also indicated as much in its Aug.21 brief to the Security Council.

“The Panel is investigating the involvement of regional States in arms transfers, including the possibility of acquisitions made by neighbouring countries on behalf of the Government of South Sudan,” the Panel noted.

The Panel is also interested because the government of South Sudan has signed security cooperation agreements with both Egypt and Uganda under which it could acquire arms through these countries.

South Sudan has a right to acquire arms but it is obligated to ensure that arms, ammunition and equipment are not used in violation of international humanitarian and international human rights law, the Panel added in its report.

Most importantly, the panel is looking to find out if Uganda aided the Juba establishment to breach the ceasefire agreements that prohibited them from acquiring arms.

South Sudan government and the rebels had continued to acquire arms and ammunition that the international body said were instrumental in prolonging and escalating the war.

“Both sides have continually violated their commitments to cease resupplying their forces with arms and ammunition,” the UN reported. The Panel noted that it would continue looking into the transfers, including their sources and the trafficking networks behind them, their impact on the war and their role in violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Uganda is free to acquire on behalf of South Sudan or sell weapons directly to the country. But the trouble, according to experts, is when such weapons are used to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity as is suspected to have happened in South Sudan.

Uganda has already been accused severally in South Sudan. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) accused the two countries of using cluster bombs during the two year war.

If it is established that Uganda aided the acquisition, it will be blamed for having enabled President Salva Kiir’s government to prolong the war.

As part of their investigations, the Panel has obtained evidence of the presence in South Sudan of at least four Mi-24 helicopters flying the South Sudanese flag.

It noted in its report that the helicopters, which have eight-person transport capacity and ground-attack capacity, were used in an attack support role by SPLA in recent fighting in Upper Nile State, including around Kodok and Doleib Hill.

“SPLA did not possess operational helicopters with ground-attack capacity before the outbreak of the war,” the report noted.

Imagery obtained by the Panel shows an SPLA Mil Mi-24 fitted with two B8V20 launch pods on the two missile attachment points located on the left stub wing, the report notes, each capable of firing twenty 80mm S-8 unguided rockets. It adds that it is likely that the same launch pods are located on the right stub wing, making the total allowance of the helicopter up to 80 rockets.

However, on closer scrutiny of the acquired pictures, the UN Panel noted in the same report that it was likely that “this helicopter is not newly acquired by South Sudan”.

As such, the UN did not confirm whether the helicopters had been acquired and when.

The Independent’s investigation, however, confirmed that the helicopters had been newly acquired and reveals how exactly the deal was sealed. South Sudan government spending on its military sector rose to $1.6 billion in the current year’s budget, the experts report. Decreasing sums are meanwhile being spent on economic and social development in one of the world’s poorest countries.

According to the Panel, new Mi24s cost $10 million each. Going by this rate, the four would have cost South Sudan $ 40 million. This, however, would not cater for the brokers of the deal.

Apart from the helicopter deal, reports indicate that Juba had also obtained $21 million worth of arms, ammunition and related materials from a Chinese weapons maker last year. However, China is said to have later halted military sales to South Sudan.

As for Israel, the Panel reported that Israeli-produced IWI-ACE automatic rifles were in the possession of South Sudan soldiers, national police and bodyguards of high-ranking officials and army officers. Some of these weapons, the report noted, were delivered prior to the outbreak of fighting in late 2013.

The Panel did not say whether the weapons came directly from Israel to South Sudan.

Uganda arms dealers’ haven

It also seems some weapons agents get weapons from suppliers with documentation claiming they were for Uganda and sell them to buyers in the region.

There have been reports showing that weapons ordered for Uganda have been finding their ways in the hands of rogue elements in DR Congo, CHAD and South Sudan.

At one point, a member of the UN Panel reported to the international body that they had recovered from rogue elements in CHAD, Central African Republic (CAR) and DR Congo weapons made in Israel.

Israel officials suspected Ugandan officials were orchestrating such deals.

It appears, therefore, that arms dealers have turned Uganda into their regional base, according to some players.

For instance, in July this year, private security contractors based in Uganda trained fighters, comprising Ugandans and South Sudanese, to fight in the South Sudan war. They also had mercenaries from other countries in a deal said to be worth millions of dollars allegedly paid for by the Juba establishment. The deal included training of pilots at a private airfield a few kilometres from Entebbe called Kajjansi Airfield. From here, and after the training, the fighters would be airlifted to South Sudan, sources familiar with it revealed.

The secret operation was exposed after the contractors failed to deliver the agreed upon number of the mercenaries at the agreed time, leading to disagreements. Observers said the mercenaries were meant to launch a thorough onslaught against the rebels after Kiir’s government realised that the Ugandan army that had deployed in the country at the height of the war and repulsed the rebels was only keen on keeping stability and not fighting the rebels into defeat. The UPDF troops have since left South Sudan but its interests remain.

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