Presidents Museveni (R), Kenyatta (to his right) and Kagame. (Photo/PK/Flickr).

The East And Horn Of Africa Soap Opera: Buckle Up For The Continent’s Most Headache-Inducing Political Dramas

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kenya and met President Uhuru Kenyatta this week; regional security – and the South Sudan crisis in particular – was the main item on the table.

Kerry also held a joint meeting with foreign ministers from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional bloc. They included Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, South Sudan’s Deng Alor, Somalia’s Abdisalam Omer, Uganda’s Sam Kutesa and Sudan’s Ibrahim Ghanduor.

The foreign ministers agreed to move forward with the deployment of a regional protection force authorised by the UN Security Council to bring peace in South Sudan.

“This is not an intervention force, this is a protection force. Warring parties have terrorised and abused non-combatants,” said Kerry.

The regional force is to operate under the 13,000-strong existing UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), adding about 4,000 troops to the mission.

But Juba initially strenuously objected to the force’s mandate, which it sees as an infringement on its sovereignty.

Meanwhile, main rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar is in Khartoum for medical treatment, Sudan’s information minister Ahmed Bilal Osman confirmed on Tuesday.

That makes Sudan the second country in the region he is seeking refuge in. Machar was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) for some days before leaving for a hospital in Khartoum.

Hundreds died in July when Machar’s forces clashed with those of President Salva Kiir in Juba. Following the fighting, Machar withdrew to the bush, and he was replaced as vice president by party rival Taban Deng Gai.

South Sudan’s crisis is more than an internal political struggle between Kiir and Machar. The conflict is also shaped by the complex relationship dynamics between South Sudan and its neighbours, and the neighbours with each other, making for a complex and one of the most head-twisting political soap operas on the continent. If you are a foreign minister in this region, you probably don’t get much sleep and can’t afford to switch your cellphone off.


Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni materially supported the SPLM/A in their liberation struggle, and is seen as a staunch ally of Kiir.

When the civil war broke out in December 2013, Uganda propped up the Kiir side; it was said that Machar’s faction could have conceivably taken power in the fighting if it hadn’t been for the reinforcement of the Ugandan forces.

South Sudan is an important economic market for Uganda, so the conflict’s resolution is in Uganda’s interest. But by overtly taking sides, Museveni is not trusted to broker the political impasse.


While Uganda was helping the SPLM/A in their fight against Khartoum, Khartoum was also boosting rebel groups within Uganda – in the philosophy of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Khartoum supported Ugandan rebel groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), among others. But in recent years, with these groups mostly defeated, Uganda has been keen to thaw relations with Sudan. Museveni and Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir have been more chummy in the past few years, especially with the indictment of Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Museveni being the regional patron of the anti-ICC brigade.

Now, Khartoum offering medical sanctuary to Machar may be seen as risking a renewed rift between Sudan and Uganda. With each side backing their favourite actor, the conflict could spiral and further divide the region.


Landlocked Uganda has been working to commercialise its oil deposits, it had been almost been taken for granted that the route it would take to market would be through northern Kenya, which also has recently discovered (more modest) deposits.

It would all be part of the grand LAPSSET project, which would move oil exports from Uganda, northern Kenya and South Sudan, onward by pipeline and rail to port in Lamu on the Kenyan coast.

But Uganda surprised everybody by signing a pipeline deal with Tanzania in March, citing cost and security implications. The Tanzania route would be $450 million cheaper than the Kenya one, and not have to traverse close to conflict-ridden southern Somalia.

Kenya is smarting from having the pipeline deal “snatched” from its hands, which forces it to either double down on LAPSSET (and so find a way of ensuring South Sudan transits its oil through Kenya) or abandon the project all together.


Ethiopia, trying to take a neutral position in the conflict, hosted the peace talks between the Kiir and Machar factions in 2014-2015. But Kiir’s side saw Ethiopia’s hosting of Machar, even in the context of peace talks, as “unsupportive”, the talks themselves dragged on for months, fuelled by bottomless whiskey, and ceasefires repeatedly ignored no sooner than they were signed. By August 2015, the regional and international community had had enough, and essentially grabbed the two rivals by the collar and forced them to sign. But Juba remains suspicious of Addis, which makes it increasingly difficult for Ethiopia to play a leading role in the implementation of the peace treaty, and particularly in the regional military force.


The two countries are bitter enemies, and as these kinds of rivalries go, the ruling parties in each country started out as friends. Eritrea’s ruling Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) allied with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) the dominant faction in EPRDF, in the war against the military junta in Ethiopia in the late 1980s into the 1990s.

The fall of the Mengistu Haile Mariam junta in 1991, and the TPLF’s rise to power, opened the way for Eritrean independenceJuly 12 16 Salva Kiir and Riek Machar Fighting again-3

However, a deadly border war broke out between the former allies in May 1998 with the fighting lasting into 2000.

The two countries poured millions of dollars into the fight, and suffered tens of thousands of casualties.


Being a country born of liberation struggle, Eritrea supported their comrades in SPLM/A in their fight for secession from its northern neighbour, just as Eritrea had fought for its independence from Ethiopia.

The relationship soured between 2005 and 2011, when Asmara was widely accused of providing material support to anti-SPLA groups in then southern Sudan.

When the war broke out in December 2013, the Machar faction was disappointed when Eritrea declined to provide their support. Sensing an opportunity – and feeling the pain of an oil blockade, currency spiral and biting inflation – Juba approached Eritrea to mend fences, and negotiated humanitarian assistance through Eritrea’s Massawa port and the restart of regular flights between the two countries.

This understandably set off alarm bells in Addis (Eritrea’s big rival), and may further sour the relationship between Ethiopia and South Sudan. The International Crisis Group sees the crisis as a possible “alternate stage” for the projection of unresolved matters between Asmara and Addis.


During the presidency of Jakaya Kikwete, relations were icy between Tanzania and Rwanda. Kikwete riled Kigali by calling for political talks between Kigali and the anti-Rwanda FDLR rebels in eastern DR Congo, remnants of the forces that committed the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million people, the majority Tutsi, were killed.

As the main contingent in the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade, which led the assault against the Rwanda allied M-23 DRC rebels, Tanzania and South Africa, took a strident line against what was seen as Rwanda’s “destabilising” role in DRC. Kigali denied the charges, and portrayed Kikwete as a genocide apologist.

The election of John Magufuli as Tanzania’s president last October has led to a dramatic 360 degrees change in relations between Kigali and Dar es Salaam, with a close and warm relationship him and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

However, with Burundi plunged into violence last year after President Pierre Nkurunziza grabbed what rivals said was illegal third term, Bujumbura took to blaming Kigali for backing its foes, and Kigali accused Burundi of having allied with the FDLR and even giving sanctuary to some of their leaders. The Kigali-Bujumbura axis right now forms the most difficult relationship between any two East African Community countries.

Rwanda must be hoping it doesn’t get worse, as anything worse would complicate its image for purposes its peacekeeping in Darfur—and UNMISS. Again Rwanda – and Tanzania – might have bitten their fingers a little with the news of Machar’s move to DR Congo.


But there’s more. Museveni, 72, won a controversial sixth term in office in a violence-blighted election in February. Long seen as “regional policeman/ enforcer”, Museveni is increasingly hamstrung by that brand of boots-heavy intervention, as demonstrated by his failure to mediate in Burundi’s recent political crisis – Museveni was chosen as a mediator when the conflict broke out mid last year, but quickly became “very distracted” by the intrigues of re-election and persecuting his main opposition rival Kizza Besigye.

He was replaced by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, and now only has a ceremonial role in the Burundi mediation. That, along with his obvious partisanship in South Sudan, means that for the first time in years, Museveni is playing a diminished role in East African geopolitics, and it is unclear who is emerging either as the new regional political elder or prefect. The leadership vacuum, therefore, is a risk, but also an opportunity for a new claimant to the position.

However, it may mean that the South Sudan war and the crisis in Burundi would be prolonged until 2017 after the election in Kenya and Rwanda, when Uhuru Kenyatta (if he is re-elected) and Kagame, who will certainly win, make their play for regional chieftainship.





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