Kampala—4, December 2020: On 28 November, Ethiopian federal forces claimed to have captured Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. This may be a decisive moment in a conflict that could shape the country and broader Horn of Africa region for years to come.
No doubt recognising this, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was also busy that day. He flew to Juba to hold bilateral talks with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir. The timing of the meeting raised suspicions that Egypt is exploiting its rival’s internal crisis to assert itself more strongly in the region, particularly regarding its dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile waters.
There have been plenty of changing geopolitical dynamics in the region recently. These have been prompted by a variety of bilateral rivalries, internal conflicts, changes of government and growing external influence.
For South Sudan, these shifts provide both risks and opportunities. They involve several different relationships and uncertain developments, but they ultimately present Juba with two critical decisions to make.
Uganda or Sudan?
Historically, South Sudan has tended to have a hostile relationship with Sudan and positive relations with Uganda. Before South Sudan gained independence in 2011, rebels in the south got help from Uganda in their fight against Sudanese government forces. Following independence, relations between Juba and Khartoum quickly broke down and, when a civil war broke out in 2013, Uganda again provided crucial support to President Kiir’s forces.
More recently, however, some key dynamics have shifted. In 2019, Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir was overthrown after three decades in power. Since then, Khartoum has moved closer to the triumvirate of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, and away from Turkey, Iran and Qatar. It is in the process of normalising relations with the West and Israel. Moreover, relations with Juba have also become much friendlier. This September, South Sudan even hosted and mediated Sudanese peace talks.
These changes have coincided with the fighting in South Sudan subsiding too. After seven years of conflict and repeated attempts at peace deals, former rebel leader Riek Machar returned to Juba this February to be sworn in as vice-president once again.
Juba’s improved relations with Sudan and the end of its civil war significantly reduces Uganda’s importance. South Sudan’s trade is likely to flow more freely northwards now, rather than through its southern neighbour, and Kampala’s influence looks set to wane.
It remains to be seen how much President Yoweri Museveni attempts to reassert his influence. Several South Sudanese elites have invested heavily in Uganda, offering him some leverage. Meanwhile, Ugandan forces attacked South Sudanese soldiers in a border town in late-October, killing two people and capturing one. This assault could be interpreted as punishment for the military cooperation agreement Juba had signed with Khartoum days earlier.
South Sudan’s government thus faces a challenge in balancing its relations with Sudan and Uganda. On the one hand, Museveni remains a powerful and historically strong partner who could provide a rear base for armed rebels if relations deteriorate as he tries to assert regional hegemony. On the other hand, closer relations with Sudan could help both countries address their security challenges and help South Sudan’s economy, which relies on oil transiting through its northern neighbour.
To read the full story, click South Sudan
TND News has obtained approval from African Arguments to republish some of its story.