As south Sudan emerges, spotlight on Uganda

FIRST STEPS: A recent picture released by the United Nations Mission in Sudan of soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army raising the flag of South Sudan during a military parade rehearsal. Photo: AFP

FIRST STEPS: A recent picture released by the United Nations Mission in Sudan of soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army raising the flag of South Sudan during a military parade rehearsal. Photo: AFP   | Photo Credit: TIM MCKULKA

Shakirah Namwanje may be something of a big shot.

Like tens of thousands of fellow Ugandans who have emigrated to this new land across the border, Ms. Namwanje has come to get rich. Outfitted with a sharp mind and a must-do personality, she earned eight times as much in three months as she would have back home. She helps run a successful import business here, and when her boss is out of town, Ms. Namwanje is in charge, barking out orders and making things happen — an emblem of an increasingly influential legion of foreigners.

“To get money,” says Ms. Namwanje. “It's easy to make.”

And she's only 17.

South Sudan's independence celebrations on Saturday (July 9) will not only usher in the world's newest country, they may also be a coronation of its southern neighbour, Uganda, as a cresting regional influence.

In the last two decades, Uganda has helped bring three surrounding governments to power — here, in Rwanda and in Congo. In Somalia, it has dispatched thousands of troops to preserve another. And for southern Sudan, Uganda has been nothing short of a life-support system.

Southern Sudan's former rebel leader, John Garang, attended the same university in Tanzania as President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and his guerrilla movement used Uganda as a base during its war with the north.

Since the end of the war, the two governments have maintained an intimate security relationship, with agreements on training and joint military operations.

Even now, with independence close at hand, South Sudan will be a nation in dependence. Countries from the United States to China are investing in the soon-to-be country, and the nearby East African Community says it is likely South Sudan will join the regional economic bloc. But Uganda, a developing country itself, holds a special place.

A vast portion of South Sudan's produce is imported, and Uganda exports more goods to South Sudan than any country in the world, with exports surging alongside the south's growing demand for them. A Ugandan diplomat in Juba said there were roughly 60,000 Ugandans living and working in southern Sudan, and entire neighbourhoods of the small but booming capital are populated by Ugandans.

Cross-border trade between Uganda and South Sudan recently surpassed $150 million, and the two governments have been reported to be working on a joint-venture to build a state-of-the-art market in Juba.

This is nothing new. Uganda has a history under President Museveni of supporting nearby rebel movements and later exporting large amounts of goods and people to the countries once those groups came to power.

The most famous example may be Rwanda, to Uganda's south. That country's President, Paul Kagame, grew up as a refugee in Uganda and helped bring President Museveni to power in 1986, later working in the upper echelons of the country's military. In 1990, Mr. Kagame and other Rwandans in Uganda started a rebel offensive in Rwanda, taking power in 1994 after stopping that country's genocide.

Rwanda and Uganda enjoyed close relations for years, and still do, though some political observers argue that relations have since cooled.

In the 1990s, Uganda also teamed up with Rwanda to prop up a little-known soldier in eastern Congo, Laurent Kabila, who soon toppled the long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Military ally of the U.S.

In the meantime, Uganda has become a close military ally of the United States. Its forces make up the vast majority of a peacekeeping force to help bolster the shaky government in nearby Somalia, a major foreign policy priority for the United States. President Museveni recently called for a one-year extension of Somalia's transitional government, threatening to pull out Ugandan troops otherwise.

“We contributed to Rwanda; we contributed to Congo; now we are talking about Sudan,” said Tamale Mirundi, a spokesperson for the Ugandan government. “Our mission is clear.”

Still, Mr. Mirundi said, “To be a superpower, that is not high on the agenda,” and that economic interests played second-fiddle to “African solidarity.”

After South Sudan, Rwanda and Congo rank among the top recipients of Ugandan exports. Rwanda recently switched its national language to English from French, and the country has hired many Ugandan teachers to work in its schools.

In Juba, people like Ms. Namwanje are pixels in a larger picture.

Working to save money for law school, Ms. Namwanje says she went against her parents' wishes in crossing the border. They feared Sudan's volatile security situation. Here, she said she had met many countrymen: motorcycle-taxi drivers, construction workers, traders like herself.

“Ugandans are the most here in Juba,” said Ms. Namwanje, whose business in the city's largest market sells eggs for roughly four times the price they cost in Uganda. “We can get a profit, and much profit.”

Agaba Livingstone, who hails from Hoima, Uganda, said he could not agree more.

“There is no money like here,” said Mr. Livingstone, adding that he also disobeyed his parents' wishes to come to Sudan.

“They heard that this country is in war, that they are killing themselves,” said Mr. Livingstone, who says he can make up to $100 each week collecting scrap metal and delivering vegetables to expensive hotels in town. “Now they are happy.”

But he said his parents' prophecies proved true as well. South Sudan security forces have been implicated in widespread human-rights abuses, and Ugandans here say there has been a backlash against foreigners, who are often harassed and marginalised.

“There are many problems people have here,” said Kasim Okwai, 25, a motorcycle-taxi driver in Juba, adding that he was robbed last month. He said he tried to complain to the police, but “they treat foreigners badly.”

But money makes it all worthwhile. For Mr. Okwai, the defining moment came three years earlier, watching as a frustrated young adult in his parents' home in central Uganda as his older brother returned home from a trip to Sudan.

“I saw him coming back,” said Mr. Okwai. “Buying clothes; he built a home; so I said, ‘Why can't I be like that?'”— © New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Aug 12, 2020 11:43:04 AM |

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