Sudan, Uganda: The End of a Rivalry

10 MINS READSep 25, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
Sudan, Uganda: The End of a Rivalry
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (C-R) walks alongside Sudanese President Omar al Bashir during a welcome ceremony in Khartoum on Sept. 15.

Uganda and Sudan are renewing their efforts to restore relations after years of strain. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni traveled to Khartoum for an official visit from Sept. 15-16 and met with his Sudanese counterpart, Omar al Bashir. The visit was Museveni's first to Sudan since 2006, when he visited Juba. (The city was then in Sudan but is now the capital of South Sudan.) Museveni's trip is the latest step not just toward improving mutual ties but also toward Sudan improving its relationship with the West.

This recent push is more likely to bear fruit than those in the past. Conditions have changed in both countries. The status of South Sudan as an independent state is now largely settled, meaning that Uganda is no longer indirectly fighting Sudan through South Sudanese rebel proxies. Instead, South Sudan has become a net positive by serving as a buffer between Sudan and Uganda. The change coincides with a period of relative domestic stability in Kampala and Khartoum after years of instability. The alignment of circumstances could lead to normal ties between Kampala and Khartoum.

Historical relations between Uganda and Sudan have been fraught, with both countries backing armed proxies fighting over the status of South Sudan. From the late 1980s until the mid-2000s, both Museveni and al Bashir were attempting to consolidate their rule, and the indirect fighting reflected the domestic situation in each country. Museveni has now largely achieved his objective against rebels in northern Uganda, while al Bashir's government has recognized South Sudan as a country.

South Sudan's independence is a settled issue, and the new country has become a buffer between Sudan and Uganda. Museveni and al Bashir no longer have to struggle for legitimacy within their own countries. In these circumstances, the interests of Kampala and Khartoum are aligning, particularly over the issue of maintaining peace in South Sudan. This means that the trend toward more positive relations is likely to continue and will not fall as have previous attempts to mend ties.

The Origins of Disunity

Sudan and Uganda emerged from the colonial period beset by deep internal divisions. Sudan, for example, was distinctly split between northern Sudanese, of mostly Arab descent, and southern Sudanese, of mostly African descent. Uganda, on the other hand, might be the most ethnically diverse country in the world, and many of its ethnic groups, such as the Banyarwanda, spill across its borders into neighboring countries.

As a result of these post-colonial divisions, the first three to four decades of independence in both countries were typified by violence, civil war and coups. Between 1958 and 1989, the two countries had up to 10 violent takeovers of government. Both Museveni and al Bashir came to power by force, and their first orders of business were to consolidate control.

Uganda: From Idi Amin to Yoweri Museveni

For most of the 1970s, President Idi Amin Dada led Uganda after seizing power in a military coup by overthrowing Milton Obote. Amin purged the military of Obote's supporters, principally from the northern Acholi and Lango ethnic groups, and stamped out political dissent. Many of these dissenters, including Obote, ended up in Tanzania. Eventually, after accusing Tanzania of providing support for the opposition, Amin led an ill-fated military campaign into northwestern Tanzania. In response, the Tanzanian government helped exiled Ugandans in Tanzania organize an overthrow of Amin.

Although Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere was able to cobble together a loose coalition among the exiled Ugandans, the fragile new government predictably fractured after Obote returned to power. Current President Yoweri Museveni used his ethnic and tribal support base in southwestern Uganda to wage a guerrilla war against Obote and his Acholi- and Lango-dominated government. Divisions between the Acholi and Lango groups emerged over time, and the Acholi overthrew Obote (a Lango) in 1985. Museveni and his National Resistance Movement quickly seized the capital in January 1986 and took power, forcing the remnants of the previous government to flee to their northern homeland.

At this point, Museveni appeared to be just one in the long list of Ugandan rulers with a narrow support base. However, for the first decade of his rule, Museveni concentrated on broadening support beyond the southwest. He espoused a populist and nationalist ideology that promised to eliminate poverty for ordinary Ugandans and restore law and order after years of conflict and disastrous rule under his predecessors.

However, Museveni struggled to gain the support of the Acholi and Lango, who saw the overthrow of Obote as a direct attack on their own interests and a potential return to the days of Amin. This animosity led to the creation of groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army aimed at resisting Museveni. Other dissenters took up arms and eventually formed groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces and the West Nile Bank Front.

Museveni and his military recognized that the only way that he — or anyone — could rule Uganda was through strong centralized rule and force. Thus, the areas where the opposition is strongest — Uganda's north and northwest — have been of great concern to Museveni.

Sudan: Split Between the North and the South

Under Anglo-Egyptian rule, Sudan was divided into two separate systems of rule with essentially two administrations. In the Arab Muslim north Sudan, London developed strong ties with Khartoum and helped establish institutions that would be able to rule the region once the colonial period ended. London had a different view of the black African south, however, and opted to rule through tribal leaders rather than a strong central authority. London also promoted the spread of Christian missionaries into southern Sudan but banned them from the north in order to avoid agitating Khartoum. The British also limited north Sudanese influence on the south by putting in immigration controls requiring special passports or clearances for north Sudanese to enter southern Sudan. This created a persistent divide between the much more affluent north and the relatively impoverished south, but it also gave southern Sudan a sense of autonomy — one that it would not easily forget. However, after World War II, the United Kingdom reversed its policy of dividing north and south Sudan politically, instead putting Khartoum in charge of the entire country.

Once Sudan became an independent country in 1956, a civil war quickly erupted between the government in Khartoum and southern Sudanese rebels. Except for an interlude between 1972 and 1983, the conflict did not end until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The agreement led to the 2011 referendum that ultimately led to the establishment of an independent South Sudan.

It was in the midst of Sudan's civil war that current President Omar al Bashir came to power. Fighting between the north and the south resumed in 1983 when Khartoum sought to counter southern Sudan's growing political power. The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its military arm, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), became more powerful and more organized in the south. Khartoum countered by pushing for the spread of Islam and Sharia into the south. This contributed to discontent in Khartoum, and eventually the military overthrew the government before ceding rule back to a civilian government. That government was soon overthrown in a military coup led by al Bashir. Under al Bashir, Khartoum banned opposition political parties and arrested political opponents in an attempt to consolidate power.

By then, not only had the South Sudanese rebels become a more organized political and military resistance force, but also oil had been discovered along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. This gave both sides even more reason to fight over the territory, and once commercial production began in the mid-1990s the oil fields became a key source of revenue.

Uganda and Sudan Intertwined

The SPLA and SPLM's growing success in the south meant that they could more credibly challenge al Bashir. Moreover, the deterioration of relations between the United States and Sudan — which broke down altogether in the mid-1980s — meant that support for South Sudan would become U.S. policy.

Ideologically speaking, then-SPLA leader John Garang came from the same pan-African movement that grew out of 1960s Tanzania led by Julius Nyerere, also the origin of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. At the time, Museveni was still trying to consolidate his power base in northern Uganda among ethnic groups that spilled over the border into Sudan. By supporting the SPLA and the SPLM, Museveni would be able to guarantee that the southern Sudanese movement would not back Ugandan rebel groups and instead fight them on Uganda's behalf on Sudanese soil.

Meanwhile, al Bashir saw Ugandan rebel groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army as a potential way to limit Uganda's ability to support the SPLM and SPLA. Moreover, by supporting them, he wanted to ensure that he could count on their assistance against the rebels in South Sudan. Al Bashir saw the Lord's Resistance Army as a useful proxy to destabilize Uganda and try to end Kampala's support of the SPLA and SPLM.

The strategy worked throughout the 1990s and early 2000s for both Khartoum and Kampala. However, by the mid-2000s, Uganda had successfully pushed most of the opposition rebel groups beyond its borders and into Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now, none of the Ugandan rebel groups pose the kind of existential threat to the government they once did, and Museveni has achieved his objective of consolidating power in the country.

Having established his authority, Museveni now wants to raise Uganda's status in the African community through pragmatic involvement in conflicts — either via military intervention, as in Somalia, or through political mediation, as in the Sudanese civil war and the South Sudanese civil war.  After neutralizing armed resistance to its rule, the Museveni government moved beyond its support for the SPLA and SPLM and inserted itself into the mediation process, helping to broker the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Khartoum and Juba. For its part, Khartoum had numerous reasons to reach an agreement with Juba. As Sudan's relations with the West and the Arab community continued to sour after 9/11, Khartoum came under strong economic pressure. Gone were the days of the Cold War, when it could rely on significant support from the Soviet Union, and it became clear to Khartoum that reaching a peace deal with South Sudan — which had strong support from the United States and the West as a whole — was a necessity.

Al Bashir has also faced domestic challenges, and like Museveni, he has largely consolidated his political power, though he faced more difficulty in pushing rebel groups out of the country. Al Bashir's control was put to the test when he clashed with Hassan al-Turabi, the influential ideological leader of al Bashir's party and then speaker of the assembly. This disagreement contributed to the emergence of the Justice and Equality Movement and similar groups in the Darfur region. Now that Sudan is more homogenous in terms of ethnicities and religion, and smaller because of South Sudan's secession, it is easier for al Bashir to control the political apparatus.

Uganda and Sudan Move Forward

With South Sudan an independent country and Uganda's rebel movements largely defeated, Khartoum and Kampala do not have the same drive that they once did to alienate one another. They no longer share a border, and on the South Sudan issue, they largely prefer the same outcome: containing the spillover of violence or refugees from the South Sudan conflict. Khartoum prefers a weak Juba, one that could not exert control over vital oil and natural gas fields or infrastructure straddling the Sudan-South Sudan border. Kampala would like Juba to be slightly stronger than this, but neither government is in a position to finance a proxy war.

Uganda can help al Bashir as he moves toward improving relations with the West. Improving ties with the African Union is a step forward in this process, and Kampala could be instrumental. Khartoum's push for greater acceptance in Africa and the West is a matter of necessity, particularly as Sudan's traditional support bases in Iran and elsewhere adjust their positions. Kampala also has the trust of Khartoum's opposition — even in northern Sudan — and has offered to mediate if needed after Sudan's Oct. 20 National Dialogue Conference.

Warmer ties do have precedent. The relationship between Khartoum and Kampala has not always been antagonistic. Before the 1980s, Khartoum's grievances were largely contained to southern Sudan, and Kampala was always dealing with internal problems. Once Kampala's interests in South Sudan became clearer, Khartoum and Kampala engaged in an inevitable rivalry over South Sudan, but circumstances have changed. Now the two appear to be working on normalizing relations and possibly even cooperating. The bad blood between Sudan and Uganda could stand in the way of the full resumption of relations under al Bashir and Museveni, but Museveni's official state visit is an important step toward a peaceful understanding. 

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