The Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) troops have been placed on high alert to defend the country from possible conflict spill-over following renewed fighting in South Sudan.
News about the combat readiness came to light two days after a splinter group of the country’s main rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), an offshoot of South Sudan’s army, announced it had ousted their leader Riek Machar.
Refresh fighting started after a section of the rebels rejected the move to kick out Dr Machar, who is South Sudan’s First vice President, sparking skirmishes with the renegade group.
The splinter faction is led by the First Lt Gen Simon Gatwech, named as a successor to Dr Machar.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Uganda’s Defence and Military spokesperson Brig Flavia Byekwaso said she was not privy to the intra-SPLA-IO dynamics and factional fighting, but they stand ready to respond to any threats at short notice.
Brig Byekwaso said: “I wasn’t aware of those developments, but I want to believe that we are prepared because these are things that have been happening now and then and I want to believe that we already have such frameworks in place”.
The UPDF, which fought alongside the SPLA rebels to secure South Sudan’s liberation, has intervened twice in post-independence – in 2013 and again 2016.
On both occasions, the Ugandan military deployed infantry, battle tanks and air firepower to save President Salva Kiir’s government from collapse, prevent worse bloodshed and evacuate Ugandan citizens and expatriates trapped in the fighting between government troops and pro-Machar soldiers.
The uneasy peace in South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, is held in place by Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) and the Troika (Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States) guarantors. A peace pact signed after the 2016 fighting ensured Dr Machar’s return to Juba, despite an inordinate delay and unresolved security arrangements, to take up the first of four vice presidential posts in South Sudan.
After years of grumbling, some of the rebel commanders that Dr Machar left in the bush clandestinely ganged up against him to declare First Lt Gen Gatwech as the new commander and leader of SPLA-IO, a move the former dismissed.
In yesterday’s interview, Brig Byekwaso said: “When it comes to our side, we are always prepared to protect Uganda. The forces are always on high alert to protect our borders as part of our cardinal role. So, in case there is a spill over because in such conflicts there are always such, UPDF is ready to handle the situation as it has done in the past.”
Brig Byekwaso said she does not know the specifics of who is fight against who and over what, but that does not mean UPDF will not respond to provide safe passage to Ugandans when called upon.
“If the need arises for our people to come back and we are asked to provide safe passage, that’s something we can talk about just like in the previous times, which we have always done,” she said.
Thousands of Ugandans do formal work and businesses in South Sudan, with the northern neighbour among top three leading regional markets for Uganda.
A number of them who spoke to Daily Monitor expressed fear for their lives after it emerged that the rebel forces loyal to Gatwech have planned several attacks on Ugandan traders on Nimule-Juba route.
Ms Agnes Bakoru, who works in Nimule, told this newspaper yesterday that the situation is worrying.
She said during the previous conflicts, they were targeted and this time if the situation worsens, she will quit her work and come back to Uganda.
“We have suffered in this country, so the best for me is to be ready before it is too late. When there is a problem among them, they always target us…,” she said.
Ratib Ijosiga from Yumbe, who owns and runs a shop in Yei Town, says he is shutting business before it is too late.
“We are many here and monitoring the situation. In 2013, my shop was looted and after that, they burnt it. This time I left my family in Arua and when the situation is bad, I will run back home. I have not brought new stock because I want to see what happens,” he added.
Source: Daily Monitor