By BARBARA AMONG Special Correspondent
February 23, 2014[EA] — Renewed fighting between forces loyal to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar is making nonsense of the ceasefire agreement reached in Addis Ababa last month, as it threatens to drag in more regional players.
The fresh fighting, which erupted just days after Uganda succumbed to pressure and announced it would pull out its troops from the country within two months, is also casting doubt on Kampala’s withdrawal plan.
READ: Uganda plans South Sudan troops quit
With warring parties trading accusations over who is responsible for triggering the latest breach of the truce, Uganda now says it could stay much longer in the world’s youngest nation.
Besides, the African Union plans to deploy its troops — the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) — to Juba by April, and according to the Uganda army spokesperson Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, some countries including Uganda, have offered to contribute troops.
This means Kampala could integrate into the African Union forces instead of withdrawing.
“Uganda supports the AU’s framework, but one thing is clear: We will not allow a vacuum to be created. We will not allow the rebels to reoccupy areas we had captured,” said Lt Col Paddy Ankunda.
The Uganda People’s Defence Forces have been involved in the conflict in South Sudan since the war broke out on December 15.
Besides Uganda, the war has attracted four other countries: Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea, and is threatening to drag in Rwanda, Tanzania and Angola.
The question then is, what is so special about South Sudan?
Uganda stands alone on the military front at the moment, and Kenya, which hosted the Naivasha peace talks that led to the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to end the second Sudanese civil war, has continued to play a diplomatic role.
Ethiopia and Sudan have asked Uganda to pull out its troops, saying its involvement could regionalise the war, while Eritrea has been in talks with Khartoum about the ongoing fighting.
This fear is shared by Uganda’s biggest military ally, the US, which last week released a strongly worded press statement warning that Kampala’s insistence on fighting alongside President Salva Kiir would jeopardise the Addis Ababa negotiations.
Ugandan MP Simon Mulongo, a respected voice on defence and security matters, asserts that while Sudan looks at the crisis as economic sabotage because of its interest in oil production in the South, East African countries — Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda — see Juba as a trading partner.
Ethiopia and arch enemy Eritrea see South Sudan as a strategic base in term of security and natural resources such as the Nile waters.
It is Ethiopia’s role as the peace maker that has drawn in its longtime rival Eritrea, said to support Dr Machar.
“The interest of each of the regional players will shape the war,” said Mr Mulongo.
While Uganda points to security and economic reasons for its continued stay in Juba, Ethiopia is also worried about rebels on South Sudan’s soil that could be used to destabilise it.
Dr Machar, who had earlier found himself at a military disadvantage and isolated diplomatically, is now boosted by this week’s alleged military success.
Dr Machar’s forces claimed on Thursday to have retaken full control of Malakal, the oil-rich capital of Upper Nile State, and were advancing towards Warrap State. The government, however, claims it is still in control of the state.
And while Khartoum fears a disruption of oil production, Kampala’s biggest fear is Dr Machar’s ties with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, the guerilla group the latter commands, which operated in Uganda for two decades.
Ugandan intelligence warns of a resurgence of the LRA if Dr Machar takes power in South Sudan or establishes a zone of military control.
Uganda’s continued stay in South Sudan is also linked to its earlier military pact with Juba, which gives it an open invitation to stay in South Sudan to fight the LRA.
To defuse the growing concern from the US, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, Uganda is lobbying the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the AU, but most importantly its partners in the Coalition of the Willing (Kenya and Rwanda) to agree to give legal and diplomatic cover to its troops fighting alongside those of President Kiir.
Dr Machar’s group has already indicated it wants Uganda out, and its involvement in the ACIRC could jeopardise ongoing negotiations.
The second round of negotiations, seen as the best option to end the fighting faltered for the third time last week.