By BARBARA AMONG, Special Correspondent
July 19, 2014(EA) — Amid growing signs that South Sudan President Salva Kiir’s regime is crumbling, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has intensified efforts to meet rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar, in what observers say is a bid to find an exit strategy from the country.
Ugandan intelligence officers and diplomats have been contacting Dr Machar’s handlers and peace envoys to set up a meeting between the two.
Dr Machar had refused to meet President Museveni in May this year but the rebel leader’s advisers say he has now had a change of heart, although he pegs any kind of meeting to Uganda first withdrawing its troops from South Sudan.
“Yes, Dr Machar has said that he will meet President Museveni if he withdraws his troops from South Sudan. Other than that, it will not be possible,” said James Gadet Dak, Dr Machar’s spokesperson.
“We have a number of issues we would like to discuss with him. His support for President Kiir is a big problem.”
Mr Dak said that the agenda of the meeting had not been set, but said he felt President Museveni now realises that he erred by taking on Dr Machar militarily, and that the Ugandan leader wants to correct this and play a positive role by mediating between the two principals.
Observers and security experts also argue that the latest efforts by President Museveni to meet Dr Machar are informed by the need for an exit strategy and by the realisation that Uganda misread the situation in South Sudan, and underestimated the former South Sudan vice president turned rebel leader.
The fighting in South Sudan, which has claimed thousands of lives and displaced over 1.2 million people, erupted when President Kiir allegedly ordered that some soldiers of the presidential guard be disarmed, sparking off violence.
Uganda sent in troops to fight alongside the forces loyal to President Kiir and President Museveni warned Dr Machar that Uganda and the region would not hesitate to fight him if he did not agree to a ceasefire.
“President Museveni is looking for an exit strategy. Uganda went in very fast but now realises that things are changing, events are becoming more complicated and he knows it. Also, President Kiir is now a liability,” said a security analyst who preferred anonymity.
The latest demand that Uganda People’s Defence Forces withdraw has come from the Obasanjo-led AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, feeding into Dr Machar’s insistence that UPDF pull out so that the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development-mediated peace process can succeed.
Ethiopia, Sudan, the US and the UN, who have been involved in the peace negotiations, have also demanded for Uganda’s withdrawal.
“I think increasingly Uganda is caught between a rock and a hard place. If it stays in South Sudan, more countries within Igad will be alienated by its stance. If it withdraws now, President Kiir’s government will be history. Increasingly, we are seeing the Equatoria regions becoming hostile to the government. If the Equatorias join the greater Upper Nile, the Kiir government is bound to fall,” said Phillip Kasaija, a political science lecturer at Makerere University.
Last week, President Kiir threw a spanner in the works, declaring that UPDF would not leave South Sudan unless a permanent peace accord was arrived at, which analysts interpreted as a survival plan.