The release of Sudanese Prisoners of War (POW) by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) rebels early this month was a highly secretive mission executed by Uganda’s security and intelligence operatives.
According to security sources in Kampala and Khartoum, the Director General of External Organisation, Mr Joseph Ocwet, quietly executed the mission. SPLM-N is a Sudanese rebel group that has been fighting Khartoum government since 2011, demanding political reforms.
The POWs were last week flown to Uganda and later to Khartoum where they have reunited with their families after six years in captivity. Both President Museveni and his Sudanese counterpart Gen Omar al Bashir didn’t involve ministries of foreign affairs that normally coordinate such missions.
“Not even the Sudanese embassy in Uganda knew about the talks. Even the Ugandan embassy in Khartoum didn’t know,” the source says.
Mr Ocwet on Thursday confirmed he played a lead role in the release of the POWs captured during different battles in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states partly controlled by these rebels. “That’s correct. I participated in the talks on the directive of the President,” he said.
The other members of security agencies who worked with Mr Ocwet are Lt Col Geoffrey Karugaba, the deputy commandant of military police, Maj Allan Matsiko of Special Forces Command, Kenneth Lubega and other officials from ESO. Mr Ocwet said Dr Tijani Seisei and Dr Amin Hassan Omer led the Sudan government delegations while the SPLM-N top commanders Mr Malik Agar and Mr Yasir Arman represented the rebels.
How it started
The negotiations started last year in December after a Sudanese businessman and a close confidant of President Bashir, Mr Tarig Sayed El- Ali, approached Mr Ocwet and asked him to talk to President Museveni over the issue. This was after several failed attempts by International Committee of the Red Cross, Qatar government and former South African President Thabo Mbeki to convince the rebel leaders to handover the captured soldiers.
The last failed attempt was in July when ICRC landed at the borders of Sudan and Ethiopia, to airlift the captives but SPLM-N commanders refused to release them. Several meetings had been organised in Qatar and Ethiopia between the SPLM-N leaders and Khartoum officials to no avail.
According to sources, President Museveni agreed to mediate the talks when Mr Ocwet briefed him about Mr Ali’s proposal. Mr Ali, according to Mr Ocwet, has been leading search missions to rescue POWs.
After the briefing, President Museveni talked to Bashir who gave a nod to the talks and agreed that Museveni mediates.
While addressing POWs at State House in Entebbe before they were flown to Khartoum on March 5, President Museveni said: “Some months ago, I told Gen Bashir that maybe I could help him quietly with the issue of Sudan. I speak the truth. I am not a diplomat looking for a Nobel Peace prize, and we need to be frank with these issues. This is a good occasion where these young men are going to be reunited with their families again,” he said.
President Museveni chaired several meetings at Entebbe State House and Nakasero State Lodge between December and March before the last groups of captives were released unconditionally on February 27.
The captives, who included colonels, majors, captains and the officers at the lower ranks, were moved from different cells in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states to South Sudan territory.
In the early stages of negotiations, the government of South Sudan had not been involved but it became necessary because to airlift these former prisoners of war to Uganda, the planes had to use Yida and Mabani airfields in South Sudan.
Mr Ocwet told President Museveni that they needed permission from President Salvar Kiir to use South Sudan territory. In a copy of the speech to President Museveni at State House during the same meeting on March 5 with POWs, Mr Ocwet said: “President Salva Kiir of South Sudan gave me a condition that he would allow us to use South Sudan locations, airfields, airspace and other government services or facilities, only if you (President Museveni) call him to confirm your awareness and approval of the operation.”
“Sir, when I communicated the condition to you on the phone, you called President Kiir within five minutes to give clearance and permission for the operation, after which we continued smoothly and we finished with absolute secrecy and privacy,” he added.
The role played by Mr Museveni to release the captured Sudanese soldiers is another step forward in normalising Uganda-Sudan relations after decades of frosty diplomatic ties between the countries. President Museveni has visited Khartoum twice in the last two year, the visits seen to be new overtures to bring balance between the regional alliances and animosities. South Sudan and Uganda, which are close allies, have had fragile diplomatic ties with Khartoum.
Playing key mediation role to mend relations between Mr Museveni and Mr Bashir is Ms Najwa Gadaheldam, a little known Sudanese woman who is said to be very close to the two presidents.
According to security sources, President Museveni first met Gadaheldam in Vienna, Austria at the UN conference on water in early 2000s when the relations between Uganda and Sudan were fragile. A few years after their meeting, the former SPLA/M leader John Garang died in a plane crash.
Sources say President Museveni first sent a reconciliatory message to Bashir through her and Bashir also replied Mr Museveni through the same woman. Ms Gadaheldam, a mechanical engineer and an author of a white paper on human rights in Darfur, Sudan is now working closely with State House, the sources say. She has been instrumental in mending relations between Uganda and Sudan.
Ms Gadaheldam may have played an insignificant role to have the Sudanese captives released but their release was as a result of her long and persistent efforts to restore good relations between Kampala and Khartoum, this newspaper has learnt.
Issues at hand
Fight. SPLM-N is a Sudanese rebel group that has been fighting Khartoum government since 2011, demanding political reforms.
Capture. During different battles in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states partly controlled by these rebels, SPLM-N captured government soldiers who have since been under captivity.
Efforts. The road to freedom for the prisoners began last year in December after a Sudanese businessman and a confidant of President Bashir, Mr Tarig Sayed El- Ali, approached Mr Ocwet and asked him to talk to President Museveni over the issue.
Talks. According to sources, President Museveni agreed to mediate the talks and talked to Mr Bashir who gave a nod to the talks.
Released. President Museveni chaired several meetings at State House Entebbe and Nakasero State Lodge between December and March before the last groups of captives were released unconditionally on February 27.