Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday vowed he and other African nations would bolster South Sudan’s young democracy against former Vice President Riek Machar’s armed insurrection if he refuses to come to the negotiating table. Perhaps Museveni was simply trying to get ahead of criticism from South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who is suggesting the region ought to have come to his aid as soon as forces loyal to Machar, who was sacked in July, essentially attempted a coup earlier this month. But the expression of concern over the possibility of an explosive ethnic conflict — coupled with the promise of aggressive intervention — is not just a PR ploy; it also speaks to the strategic importance of a stable South Sudan for Uganda’s own security. There are reasons to believe that Museveni is not only credible, but determined to act quickly so as to contain any spillover.
Lest we forget, Museveni, a close ally to Kiir, was a fervent backer of South Sudanese independence, as the new state offered the prospect of a buffer from more traditionally volatile neighbors like Sudan and the Central African Republic. That the new country might devolve into ethnic warfare — between Kiir’s Dinka and Machar’s loyalists, who are backed by Nuer rebels notorious for covering their bodies in white ash — is a disturbing prospect, to say the least, and though the capital of Juba is, for the time being, safe (thanks in part to the presence nearby of Ugandan troops), Machar has essentially embraced the role of full-time guerilla pol. His own forces would likely be easy fodder for a substantial contingent of African Union troops, but the “White Army” Nuer militia, currently engaged in conflict near city of Bor, adds a wild card to the dynamic, and thus makes getting ahead of this situation all the more imperative for Museveni and his military leadership.