menu

Mobile Search

You are here

You are here

Uganda went to South Sudan and all it brought back were refugees
Daniel Kalinaki
Posted: 7 months 3 weeks

The United Nations this week declared an outbreak of famine in South Sudan. The statistics from that country, whose internecine conflict is now in its fourth year, are grim: 100,000 people on the verge of starvation; five million – four out of every 10 – in need of urgent assistance.By the end of last year more than 3.2 million people had been forced out of their homes; 1.4 million of them forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Most of those have come to Uganda since the fighting broke out in December 2013 and the UNHCR dutifully calls it the largest refugee crisis in Africa currently.Compared to the selfish and insular Europeans and Americans erecting fences to keep out migrants, Uganda is a proper refuge, opening her doors to those who come to her hungry and persecuted. This is truly remarkable, considering the relative poverty and acute food scarcity in parts of Uganda itself. Long may we continue to share the little we have with those in need!Uganda has been buttered up, classified as the most friendly to refugees in the world, and will soon host one of those “high-level” summits on migration and refugees. However, the tragedy spilling out of South Sudan reveals not the strength of our generosity but the weakness of our foreign policy.It is an admittedly complex story, but here is a back-of-the-envelop summary: John Garang, the late leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, preferred a united Sudan, at least in the short-term. However, his death and the many vested interests in a weaker Khartoum and its religious chauvinists, coupled with those anxious for their turns to eat, made secession and the emergence of an independent South Sudan inevitable.If we didn’t share Garang’s nationalist naivety we should at least have known, from our own post-war experience, that bravery on the battlefield rarely translates into the bureaucratic competence required to run countries.We should also have learnt, from our correct but unsuccessful attempt to mobilise ‘resistance councils’ in eastern DR Congo, that you need representative political processes, which include non-military actors, for lasting peace.We were also on hand to see the rampant corruption that emerged as soon as the military leaders of South Sudan got their hands on the young country’s money. In ordinary circumstances this could have been chalked off as a sovereign matter for the people of South Sudan to deal with. But these were not ordinary circumstances: we had invested political and military capital in the South Sudan project and the country had overnight become a key market for our exports; ensuring sustainable peace and economic prosperity in the young country was as much in Kampala’s interest as it was in Juba’s.Indeed, when the guns were first drawn it was to Ugandan troops that everyone turned to evacuate Juba and stymie the bloodletting. Yet it is at this point that we appear to have committed two foreign policy mistakes: the first was a failure to de-militarise what was a political power-sharing dispute. This is a hard ask in many countries and a difficult one in a country with easily the highest number of army generals per capita in the world – but it is not an impossible task.The second mistake was to pick winners in a contest that could only have losers. Uganda’s decision to throw its lot in with President Salva Kiir’s side might have been a pragmatic decision to avoid state collapse but it lost us the trust and confidence of Riek Machar and his allies and with it the influence to lead efforts to broker a sustainable resolution of the crisis.South Sudan was a small problem that we could have supported the people of South Sudan to solve. Now it is a complex international crisis, with gross human rights allegations, a humanitarian tragedy and a military mess that no one seems to know how to fix.Thus the real influence in South Sudan went to the Security Council permanent member states; the big contracts went to Chinese contractors while the smaller contracts to Kenyan bankers and Eritrean and Ethiopian hoteliers.What about Uganda? Well, let’s say, that like the rest of the world we need a peaceful and prosperous South Sudan. We should continue to take in the South Sudanese who come to us for refuge and support efforts to broker peace. But our foreign policy must be smarter, more effective otherwise future generations will look back on our efforts and summarise them on one of those cheap touristy T-shirts: Uganda went to South Sudan and all it brought back were refugees.Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. dkalinaki@ke.nationmedia.com &Twitter: @Kalinaki