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Saturday, July 22, 2017

New UN force commander in S Sudan signals policy change

Women and children wait to be treated at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) support clinic in Thaker, Southern Unity, South Sudan March 20, 2017.Photo Reuters
Women and children wait to be treated at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) support clinic in Thaker, Southern Unity, South Sudan March 20, 2017.Photo Reuters

The recent appointment of Brigadier-General Frank Mushyo Kamanzi by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on April 7 as the new Force commander in the UN Mission in South Sudan could mean a change of emphasis in the roles played by outsiders in the South Sudan conflict.

The last Force commander, Lt-Gen Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki of Kenya, had become a complete disaster.

Appointed in May last year, he looked completely passive about the fighting of July 8, 2016, which blew apart the fragile peace agreement signed a year earlier. He did not raise a finger to try to stop the fighting when former South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar was nearly killed in State House, Juba, and was later forced to flee the capital with his military entourage after he was vastly outnumbered by the government troops in the ratio of 10:1.

A few days later, General Ondieki kept looking on passively when drunken SPLA soldiers invaded the Terrain Hotel compound and started beating guests (mostly UN personnel), stealing everything in sight and raping women.

The then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon waited until November, expecting some explanation or excuses from Kenya, but when none came, he fired Ondieki.

President Uhuru Kenyatta in his response said Kenya had been insulted, and, as a result, ordered the Kenyan peacekeeping contingent to withdraw from Unmiss. And since Kenyans (or any other UN personnel for that matter) did not do anything related to “keeping the peace”, their departure was not felt or missed.

But the new commander is cut from a different cloth. He was a key frontline commander during the Rwandan Civil War ( 1990-1994 ) and one of the few RPF officers who dared stand up to President Paul Kagame.

He personally fought in the frontline (something Kagame was never enthusiastic about) and quietly stood his ground when the ‘great leader’ tried to order him around.

He also disliked the police intervention of his troops in order to “discipline” the Hutu population in the hills. He tried to keep a good balance between security and repression.

It is likely he will definitely be more active than Ondieki, and perhaps more politically involved.

Of course, a lot depends on how supine the UN will be in its “peacekeeping” position. Legless men can’t run and Kamanzi cannot perform miracles.

But he comes at an opportune moment because over the last few weeks, the complete meltdown of the security situation in South Sudan has made President Yoweri Museveni think again. Museveni has a long experience of melting governments. He successfully fought one in Uganda between 1981-86, and he failed while fighting another one in the Congo between 1998 and 2002.

If he has retained some of his own bush fighting and revolutionary experience, he must know that the Dinka tribal experience dressed in SPLA uniforms is running low on political fuel at this point.

On April 7, a desperate President Salva Kiir announced that the planned “national dialogue”, which was supposed to start in March, would after all not start because there was no money to organise it. He then opted for a desperate call “for all armed elements to stop the violence and join hands in bringing peace”.

With no more mention of Machar and the SPLM-IO, Kiir’s was a voice calling in the wilderness to all those terrible people ambushing traffic on the roads and killing whoever was coming by.

Most of them were non-Nuer and non SPLM-IO. And they were messing and ruthlessly killing anybody. Civil War is not a tuxedo dinner. In a way, it was a political dialogue of one so Kiir got no contradiction. He got no support either.

The previous day April 6, a meeting had taken place in Uganda between Rebecca Nyandeng (widow of John Garang), Majok d’Agoot, General Oyai Deng Ajak and Kosti Manibe with President Museveni.

The Ugandan President seemed to be somewhat shaken and in a soul-searching mood.

It seemed as if he was beginning to feel that he might have taken the wrong road in supporting President Kiir up to and beyond any level of blind tribal repression. The thousands of refugees pouring into his country, Ethiopia and even into the former archenemy Sudan were proof enough that things were deeply wrong.

The August 17, 2015 peace agreement — a mantra still sung mechanically by all the institutional actors — is dead. President Museveni is beginning to think of an alternative strategy.

At least, he’ll have a real UN commander to talk with.

The writer is a French historian specialising in the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region

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