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Uganda’s South Sudan adventure

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why supporting Salva Kiir may turn out to be Museveni’s most ill-advised military intervention

The Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) recent military adventure into South Sudan follows a pattern that has made our country a regional military hegemon and our president, one of Africa’s most influential presidents. Our armies (or their offshoots) now stand guard from the Gulf of Eden (Somalia) on the Indian Ocean to Kinshasa on the Atlantic Ocean. Museveni can now project power from Bor in South Sudan to Eastern DRC. With Rwandan troops (an off-shoot of UPDF) in Central Africa Republic and Joseph Kabila’s army (an off-shoot of Rwanda) in charge of all the Congo, President Yoweri Museveni has overtaken Julius Nyerere as Africa’s most militarily interventionist president.


I used to oppose Uganda’s military meddling in the internal political affairs of neighbours purely on moral and short term fiscal considerations. However, time has colluded with the law of unintended consequences to give Museveni an upper hand in this debate – albeit by default. Regardless of his short term subjective motivations in these interventions, the objective outcome of Museveni’s actions has actually been good for Uganda and the region. Short term costs have been loss lives of our soldiers and strains on our treasury. However, the long term unintended consequence of Museveni’s military interventions abroad has been the integration of the economies of those countries with Uganda’s. Indeed, the greatest achievements of statesmanship have historically resulted from this law of unintended consequences.

For example, Museveni has spent the last 28 years of his presidency arguing for the economic integration of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. One cannot count the number of summits, mini summits he has attended and official or unofficial letters he has written to promote this cause. Yet today Tanzania remains elusive while Kenya has always enjoyed a degree of integration with Uganda. On the other hand, Rwanda had been our neighbor forever with little trade and investment between it and Uganda. Then Museveni supported the RPF to capture power in Rwanda. Since then everything has grown rapidly – the density of communication, exchange of technical skills, trade and investment, flow of tourists and influx of Rwandan students to Uganda schools have rendered the border almost meaningless – even without any summit or protocol signed.

Museveni supported the SPLA against Khartoum and has made Uganda the guarantor of South Sudan sovereignty. Since its independence, South Sudan has become the largest destination of Ugandan exports – both foods and manufactured goods. In 2012 it totaled $240m. On the streets of Juba, its main markets, motor vehicle repair garages, boda boda and taxi stages – everywhere Ugandans abound doing business. And I know many Ugandan deal-makers who have used the influence of our government in Juba to secure multimillion dollar contracts there. In the estate where I live in Butabika, 40% of the houses are owned by South Sudanese.

And so has been Uganda’s military invasion of Congo from where our soldiers returned with Congolese wives. In Kikubo today, you find hundreds of lorry trucks from eastern DRC packing goods headed for that country. With a large influx of Somalis into Uganda, soon trade between Kampala and Mogadishu may become a major profit center for our enterprises. The lesson here is simple but fundamental – that the greatest achievements of statesmanship are not always those that were intended.

The most insightful presentation of this argument is Charles Tilly’s elegant paper, War Making and State Making as Organised Crime and Robert Bates book, Violence and Prosperity; the political economy of development. They argue that European monarchs had to fight wars abroad in order to ensure security at home. They made bargains based purely on contingent military needs to increase tax revenues or bolster their ability to borrow money to keep soldiers in the field. These bargains led to the evolution of strong states that constructed elaborate tax administration systems, democratic institutions like parliaments and fostered growth enhancing policies and institutions.

Today, a section of the global intellectual elite (led by Prof. Jeffrey Sachs) argue that building institutions and robust economies is a moral imperative that can only be realised through kindness and charity. This naïve and moralistic approach to development ignores the lessons of history – that progress is a result of enlightened self-interest driven by immediate necessity. It is possible that the international community, by guaranteeing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of weak African states may have achieved short term humanitarian objectives at the price of disabling the incentives that create effective states.

Yet even with this positive view of Uganda’s military adventures abroad, I am disinclined to support the recent foray into the South Sudan conflict. This may be one of those ill-conceived military interventions Museveni has initiated. First, the objective of integrating Uganda with South Sudan had already been achieved, albeit by circumstances rather than by design. Second, this is a war among our allies. Uganda’s role should have been to help them find political accommodation with one another rather than take one side and offer our army to help one side defeat its adversary.

For example, what is the overall political aim of Uganda’s military intervention in South Sudan? What are the military objectives UPDF has and how do we measure their success? How long is this intervention supposed to last and what is our exit strategy? Without answering these questions, Uganda has deployed blindly into a troubled country, a factor likely to turn this into an open ended commitment like America’s intervention in Vietnam (1965) Iraq (2003) and now in Afghanistan (2001); and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In all these cases, these super powers were humiliatingly defeated.

Previously we intervened in Rwanda, DRC and Sudan indirectly to help an ally build their own capacity to fight and win. In all these cases we have supported rebel movements with a legitimate cause against incompetent, brutal and corrupt administrations. Now we have intervened directly to help a corrupt, weak and intolerant government hold unto power in circumstances where it has lost political legitimacy and the internal military capacity to sustain itself. Why should we support a president, Salva Kiir, incapable of holding power against a motley crew of poorly armed, poorly trained and poorly resourced insurgents? Any government that cannot defeat an insurgency has no reason to exist; and Uganda should not be propping it.

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