High-level officials in South Sudan’s ruling SPLA-Juba faction have confirmed a growing alliance with the Egyptian government while downplaying allegations that the partnership aims at undermining Ethiopia, Egypt’s longtime geo-strategic rival.
In a series of interviews with The Messenger, presidential aides, diplomats and South Sudan’s military spokesman all confirmed an “extensive broadening” of the Juba-Cairo relationship as the ruling Juba faction continues to battle rival factions in seven of the country’s ten states.
This comes after an Egyptian military plane landed in Juba on March 2nd to deliver “medical supplies” to the ruling SPLA faction.
SPLA-Juba military spokesman Brig-Gen. Lul Koang Ruai on Thursday confirmed the receipt of supplies from the Egyptian government but denied that these included weapons. “These are talks of anti-peace elements. What we received and we did not hide from the public were medical supplies to our military hospital here in Juba,” said Lul. “It was in the context of the growing bilateral relations between the two countries,” added the general.
Nhial Deng Nhial, a longtime advisor to SPLA leader Gen. Salva Kiir, related that Kiir had lobbied for help from Egyptian President Al-Fatah Al-Sisi during a visit in January. He said Kiir used the visit as an opportunity to thank the Egyptian people for their support in various areas and to solicit more Egyptian support.
Nhial claimed that Sisi was amenable to the appeal, explaining, “The Egyptian president wanted hear from the president the role the Egyptian government and the people can play to help us achieve peace so that there is stability in the region. This was the primary objective of the visit of the president to Egypt and to Ethiopia.”
Egypt joins Uganda and some Western actors in backing the Juba faction, whose legitimacy is challenged by different opposition groups including the Fertit Lions, SPLA-in-Opposition, South Sudan National Movement for Change, Aguelek forces, Cobra Faction and the National Salvation Front. Collectively, these groups control large parts of Jonglei, Upper Nile, Western Bahr al-Ghazal and the Equatoria states. Juba has tried to annihilate them militarily, making use of its superior firepower and numbers.
But the size of regime’s army and the cost of its military and political operations have left it with a huge budget deficit. Army warehouses, hospitals and armories are often poorly stocked and soldiers are left to loot for food – including from World Food Program warehouses – send their wounded across the border into Uganda [link], and cope in other unorthodox ways.
Into this void foreign donors have stepped to help prop up the Juba government with supplies, grants and offers of services. Foreign Minister Deng Alor Kuol told The Messenger that Cairo and Juba are growing closer and highlighted Juba’s commitment to stand with Egypt in international forums.
“There has been an extensive broadening of bilateral relations beyond merely focusing on economic interests. This has centered on mutual support concerning each country’s ‘core interests,’ including strengthening close coordination in foreign policy,” explained the foreign minister in an interview on March 6th.
Deng added, “The leadership of the two countries have also jointly advocated in the regional and international forums for reform of the international financial and economic architecture to accord with the rapidly-changing global real economy. But this cannot be fully realized if there is no peace in South Sudan. The president of Egypt saw it wise to invite President Salva Kiir for a briefing on the progress made with regards to the implementation of the peace agreement.”
For Egypt, an important element of the relationship with Juba is the Nile River, which passes through South Sudan as one of the Nile basin countries. Cairo is looking to cultivate strong ties with downstream states Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan as leverage in its relationship with Ethiopia, whose dam-building activities have been a matter of concern to Egypt.
About 80% of water used by Egypt comes from Ethiopia and Egypt is afraid that the Grand Renaissance Dam – currently under construction – could limit its water supply. Egypt and Ethiopia have reached a nominal deal over the dam but some observers believe that Egypt really doesn’t want the mega-dam to become operational.
Last week Ethiopian media reported that the Ethiopian government foiled an attack on the dam blamed on Eritrean-backed rebels. Some of the attackers reportedly escaped to Sudan, in a border area not far from South Sudan, and later were handed over to Ethiopia by Sudanese authorities.
Seeking to exploit these international tensions, South Sudanese rebels have repeatedly claimed that Cairo has ill designs on Ethiopia and is planning to use the Juba government to carry these out.
But Foreign Minister Deng Alor Kuol denied this saying that Salva Kiir did not sign any deal which would harm the interest of any other country in the region. Likewise, Kiir’s envoy to Ethiopia, Ambassador James Pitia Morgan denied that Juba had signed any deal with Egyptian government against Ethiopia, describing such reports as unfounded. He said that there are no difficulties in the diplomatic relations of the two countries.
Morgan said such news was propaganda aimed at destabilizing relations between Ethiopia and South Sudan. “Reports about a deal between South Sudan and Egypt against some countries in the region are attempts to pit us against our African brothers in the region. There is nothing like that. There was no secret agreement which the president had signed with intention to harm another country,” said the envoy.
Likewise, Nhial Deng denied the existence of a secret memorandum relating to Ethiopia. “I underline that there were no any agreement which the two presidents signed to undermine or interfere with the sovereignty of any country,” he said.
Another of Kiir’s top advisors, Daniel Awet, who is also a long-time member of the SPLM Political Bureau, stressed that recent improvements in the Juba-Cairo relationship are more about economic and diplomatic and alignment than military benefits.
“Our relationships with any country in the region and the outside world are based on mutual benefits. This is the basis of the visit of president Salva to Ethiopia and Egypt, which are all of friends and African brothers. We are part of the international community which is changing and adopting fast. The world is changing in every minute in the way of doing things. The world in which we are today does not favour as the priority the use of gun as a way to advancing the needs,” said Awet.
“Many countries today have come to understand that power should no longer come from the barrel of a gun, but from the roiling wheels of a strong economy. So when you hear President Salva Kiir has visited this and that country, he goes there to promote diplomatic relations for the benefits of the people of this country. He does not go there to meddle in the internal affairs or to go incite other countries.”
Awet added, “What is reported in the media about South Sudan having accepted to host Ethiopian rebels is the work of warmongers. It is not true. It is not in the interest of South Sudan to do that.”