President Museveni’s visit to Sudan, which ends today, is a most welcome development. This is not just because it was his first visit to Khartoum in over a decade, but more importantly because it opens up the possibility of normalising relations between the two countries.
For about 15 years until around 2005, Uganda backed the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) while Sudan backed Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in a war which led to mass destruction in northern Uganda.
After a series of denials, Museveni publicly defended his backing of the SPLA war against Gen Omar Bashir’s Sudan. He argued that the people of southern Sudan, as it was then called, had a right to self-determination, especially because they felt discriminated against by the government in Khartoum.
The Bashir government, out of favour with the West, was accused of backing the “terrorist” tendencies of Kony’s rebels. Kony and some of his commanders would later be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over alleged war crimes. Gen Bashir, because of events unrelated to the Kony war, was himself indicted by the ICC over similar allegations in Sudan and a warrant of arrest has since been issued against him.
Southern Sudan has since broken off Sudan to become the world’s youngest nation – South Sudan. But the country has been bedeviled by internal strife since December 2013. Uganda got entangled in the war in South Sudan by intervening within hours of fighting breaking out between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and Dr Riek Machar, his former deputy.
Uganda’s intervention on the side of one of the protagonists – president Kiir – helped to forestall a widespread genocide between Kiir’s Dinka and Machar’s Nuer tribes, observers have noted. But it also denied Uganda what would otherwise have been its natural role of playing arbiter in the conflict.
President Kiir’s government is thought to be sustained by the Ugandan forces deployed there, while Dr Machar is thought to look to Khartoum for support.
In South Sudan, therefore, the possibility of a longstanding proxy war between Uganda and Sudan is a living reality. This war could spill over to Sudan and Uganda, as it has done in the past.
This is why Museveni’s visit to Sudan is a great opportunity to build on earlier attempts to normalise the relationship between the two countries and to ensure that the peace deal that the rivaling leaders of South Sudan signed stands.
We hope that the two presidents’ discussions centred on the key issues that the people of this region want to hear about, particularly peace and trade.