AFRICANGLOBE – One reason Uganda was able to despatch an intervention force to South Sudan so quickly is the fact that the former is the only country in the region to have set up a rapid response centre.
South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army, has split into two factions fighting for control of the world’s youngest nation.
Uganda’s experience of intervening in conflict situations around the region over the years is said to have led to the building of the centre, with South Sudan becoming the first recipient of troops off the centre’s conveyor belt.
Uganda People’s Defence Forces chief political commissar Col Felix Kulayigye said the centre aims to get soldiers ready for intervention in regional conflicts as soon as possible, as was the case when Kampala deployed in South Sudan on December 19, 2013, only four days after the start of the conflict.
“In a few days, we were on the ground to secure Juba airport and everybody else benefited from that deployment. That capability is what Africa has been lacking,” he said, giving 14 days as the maximum time within which an intervention force from the centre can be ready to deploy.
For a force that is now officially involved in three conflicts around the Great Lakes region, the ability to sustain this engagement in different war theatres separated by thousands of kilometres and still maintain a good reserve, is the result of systematic capacity building that the UPDF has undertaken over the years.
The UPDF has been active in Somalia since 2007 as part of the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom), as well as the anti-Lord’s Resistance Army operation in the Central African Republic since 2011.
The army leadership has kept the number of UPDF troops deployed in South Sudan secret, but it is understood that a total of 15,000 soldiers are serving in its military operations around the region.
Even then, the Ugandan army retains a reserve to contain security threats domestically, army sources said.
A decade ago, President Yoweri Museveni set out to equip the military to act as a domestic and external security buffer, saying that Uganda had the capacity to raise a fighting force of 1.5 million to defend the country, judging by the numbers of active service men and women in the army, reserve force and the population of fighting age — between 18 and 49 years.
In addition, the Ugandan leader expressed frustration with the international community that took forever to mobilise troops to intervene in Africa’s conflict hotspots or deploy peacekeeping missions there.
UPDF generals said Uganda took matters into its own hands because the African Union and the regional bloc Inter-Governmental Authority on Development were “dithering” on South Sudan.
Igad’s Security Council only approved a 5,500-strong military intervention force on January 22 — more than a month after the conflict had started.
The UPDF boss, Gen Edward Katumba Wamala, said Uganda was best placed to deploy in a timely manner in South Sudan because of proximity and its capacity to get boots on the ground with the requisite logistics and hardware from the rapid response centre — a deployment he insists prevented the fighting from turning into a 1994 Rwanda-type genocide.
Officially, UPDF states that since deploying in South Sudan, it has lost nine soldiers and had 12 injured in a January 13 battle at Gemeza, 75km north of Juba. But other accounts, especially from families whose sons were killed in battle, dispute this figure, saying the number of dead and casualties is much higher.
“It’s not about going in there and getting out. Our objective of going there was to create an enabling environment for talks. Our objective is that peace talks are fast tracked and we will be there until that happens,” Gen Katumba said, while inspecting Ugandan troops in the now ghost town of Bor in Jonglei State.
Bor has been fiercely contested and has borne the brunt of the war, changing hands several times between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Dr Riek Machar.
“Bor is quiet and liberated though in ruins. The whole town has been vandalised, with bodies strewn all over and the stench of dead bodies hanging over the place. It is not yet in a habitable state,” Gen Katumba told the media after a visit to the war-ravaged town on January 20.
By: Julius Barigaba