War against democracy is at heart of conflict in South Sudan

When fighting between the government of South Sudan and rebel forces escalated, the Parliament of Uganda ratified the dispatch of troops to support the democratically elected administration of our neighbor under our mutual defence agreement.

This decision was not taken lightly. The parliamentary motion authorizing intervention came following a request for assistance from the elected President of South Sudan. This was swiftly followed by a United Nations Security Council Resolution increasing the numbers of UN mandated forces in the country, and a resolution by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development between the governments of South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti backing Uganda’s efforts.

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Now, following intervention and regional pressure for talks, there is a ceasefire. Before this was achieved, Ugandan Defence Forces helped to secure Juba International airport, ensuring the UN and international aid agencies could maximize their humanitarian efforts and supported the government of South Sudan’s forces in their efforts to end the insurgency. At the same time Uganda’s duty to assist the safe passage of its own citizens away from the conflict - over 300,000 Ugandans live in South Sudan, the highest number of foreign nationals in the country – was an urgent mission.

Even with Uganda’s rapid engagement over eighty thousand are believed to be now living in UN camps within South Sudan and over ten thousand according to aid agencies believed killed in barely four weeks of fighting. Uganda has received a further fifty thousand refugees who have crossed the border during the middle of December with other East African countries also accepting tens of thousands fleeing the conflict.

The instability in the region the events in South Sudan have created is considerable, but it could have been far greater without Uganda intervention. Yet some are now seeking to criticize Uganda’s swift action; others suggest our reaction, and the response by the UN, was not fast enough. Those that do so forget Africa’s recent past, and why it is essential African nations work increasingly closely - yet carefully - together through mutual defence and assistance agreements and intergovernmental charters to ensure violence is halted.

Africa has travelled a long way over the last twenty years, not least in our determination to ensure the descent into genocide that our southern neighbour Rwanda suffered in 1994 is never repeated in any other nation on our continent. Then the international community, the Organization of African Unity – forerunner to today’s African Union – and other African countries stood by and refused to act as one million were murdered.

During the same twenty years Africa’s democracies have flourished, and the many freely elected administrations that now exist need to be defended against those seeking to remove them through force of arms. Indeed the Charter of the African Union – to which all African nations are signatories – includes the principle of the rejection of unconstitutional changes in government.

It is this crisis between a democratic government and those seeking to remove it from office through the unconstitutional means of an attempted coup that lies at the centre of this conflict.

South Sudan is a nation merely two years old and its independence was won through a grueling war against Khartoum that helped unite the leaders of the South against their overlords in the North, and fused together those from Christian, Animist and Muslim religions and none, and cut across all ethnic lines. When the referendum on independence was finally held, financed and overseen by the international community, citizens in South Sudan and those in the Diaspora cast nearly ninety-nine percent of the votes in favor of sovereignty. This landslide vote for unity - forged through liberation and then secured through democracy - and the bond it created, should not be overestimated. 

The threat from rebel groups to the government elected after the referendum was therefore a challenge not only to their democratic mandate, but the vote for unity the people of South Sudan delivered so decisively in their independence referendum.  It is clear appeals were made by those that wished to see the government fall to tribal loyalties to rally supporters: this was a direct challenge to the unity of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation forged through democratic consent and that is why it is critical elected, legitimate government was maintained. It was also the beginning of a journey down a dangerous path to a place where one group begins to believe they cannot survive with the continued existence of another.

Now both sides in South Sudan are talking, and the potential for descent into a repeat of what occurred in Rwanda twenty years ago has diminished. Fortunately, the challenges of coming back together are not those South Sudan needs to solve alone. With Uganda and members of the East African Community of nations – Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania – in addition to Ethiopia, we will continue to support the discussions we hope will lead to a permanent return to peace. In the longer term South Sudan’s desire to join the EAC and its Common Market and take part in a series of cross-border infrastructure and investment projects will also help bind the country economically and politically to its friends and neighbours and ensure the potential for a reoccurrence of the recent violence continues to diminish.

Yet before this can be achieved, there must be peace, and that can only be based on the rule of law implemented through the mandate of democracy. And that is why Uganda has intervened in this conflict in South Sudan at the request of the elected Government: because we believe democracy is worth defending against those who seek to subvert it.

Namayanja is information minister for the government of Uganda