Last week, President Yoweri Museveni was in South Sudan to attend the country’s 4th independence anniversary celebrations.
The surprise is that South Sudan is marking independence at all. Ever since resumption of the war there in December 2013 after a fallout between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, they have served up the most savage and brutal conflict in Africa right now.
The stories are too horrific; girls raped, then burnt alive. Breast-feeding mothers having their children thrown into burning huts, the women raped, and killed.
Uganda’s intervention helped save the Kiir government, and it would probably collapse today if the UPDF withdrew. Some of the stories one hears would be funny if they weren’t tragic.
One of the popular ones is of Kiir’s forces being ambushed at a single spot by Machar’s rebels six times.
When the UPDF arrived, they were puzzled how something like that could happen, and what it was about that particular road the Kiir troops prized so much.
Turns out there was no strategic value. We exaggerate a bit, but the UPDF told them, “follow us” and they walked off into the bush around the ambush spot and behind the Machar forces.
By the same token, the Machar forces also expected the Juba troops would keep coming along the ambush spot and keep being killed, and weren’t planning on them dodging and coming behind them from the bush. They were caught unawares.
This story is important for what it tells about the UPDF; when it’s faced with a worthy adversary, it rises to the occasion and shines, as happened against al-Shabaab in Mogadishu, or in the case of troops who had to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony through three countries (South Sudan, DR Congo, and Central African Republic).
The Time magazine two years ago quoted an American officer saying the UPDF units hunting Kony were among the best they had seen anywhere.
But when you leave the UPDF alone to work with mediocre or degenerate allies like the militias in eastern DR Congo or now the Kiir factional troops, and also doing so outside an international context – without the African Union and UN in Somalia, or if it had to chase down Kony without US Special Forces – its performance and standards deteriorate.
It’s probably a feather in the cap for the UPDF that it excels when pursuing big honourable goals, and it has trouble when it is pressed into sectarian and narrow causes like supporting ethnic and partisan militias.
And Museveni obviously knows this, because in Juba he urged the people of South Sudan to unite and reject sectarianism.
For, in reality, Kiir is now a Dinka warlord, and Machar a Nuer rebel commander.
The result is that with the two warriors failing to agree on peace, Uganda doesn’t seem to have a path to an honourable exit, and it failed to help the government score a quick military victory.
The bloodbath that would result is worse than if we hadn’t intervened. But the cost to Uganda, and particularly Museveni, is huge.
Because the UPDF is functioning as a grand Kiir presidential guard, Uganda has become marginal in the public diplomacy around resolving the South Sudan crisis.
That role has fallen to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, although Addis Ababa is suspected of harbouring pro-Machar sympathies, but more so to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Kenyatta is viewed as the most neutral regional leader on South Sudan, allowing him to extract concessions from Juba – e.g. the release of several Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) whom Kiir had arrested – than Museveni or Desalegn would.
Then, in another troubled land, Burundi, recently the East African Community (EAC) chose Museveni to be its mediator in the madness that has been brought on by President Pierre Nkurunzinza’s third term bid there.
To begin with, as someone who himself removed term limits and has been in power for nearly 30 years, it is understandable that Bujumbura would reject Museveni as mediator.
What is remarkable about this, is that Uganda was a key player in helping broker the Arusha agreement that finally ended Burundi’s deadly civil war, and ushered in over 10 years of peace.
It’s that agreement that Nkurunziza has shredded, and led to the current crisis.
That today Bujumbura can shun the president, tells us his diplomatic and mediation credits have been overdrawn and he is in the red.
That might not be a problem of itself, because there are those who believe that it is not important to be liked or to have diplomatic capital. That you are more effective if people fear you.
If Nkurunziza feared Museveni, he wouldn’t reject him as mediator. I sense Museveni might be in for some lonely times in the years ahead.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com)