South Sudan: A country where rebellion pays

First Vice President of South Sudan and former rebel leader Riek Machar (left) and President Salva Kiir during the formation of a 30-member Cabinet of the Transitional Government in Juba on April 29, 2016. PHOTO/AFP

What you need to know:

  • Last weekend, fighting broke out in South Sudan after Dr Riek Machar’s rivals declared they had deposed him as the head of the SPLM-IO rebel group and its military wing.
  • Daily Monitor explores into the key dynamics shaping up the latest clashes in the country.

Residents in Juba, South Sudan’s capital rush towards shelters and tree canopies to escape the desert heat. During the summer when the sun stretches its golden arms, one takes a hot beverage to cope with the heat, a practice communities in the South copied from their neighbours in the North.

Whereas there is an uneasy calm, a bitter hatred that has been felt for a very long time lies above the dusty skies of the city as I experienced five years ago when I last travelled here. 

Juba today is the seat of the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity (RTGNU) as President Salva Kiir and first vice-president Riek Machar preside over the country scarred by conflict. Mr Kiir is Dinka; the largest ethnicity while Dr Machar is the face of the Nuer; the second largest tribe. 

Last weekend, fighting broke out in the oil-rich Upper Nile State after Machar’s rivals declared they had deposed him as the head of the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement –In Opposition (SPLM-IO) group and its military wing. Fighters led by a rival general in the SPLA-In Opposition, Simon Gatwech Dual, clashed with Dr Machar’s soldiers.

This is usual as rebellions continue to sprout across the vast nation led by former South Sudan generals: Paul Malong, who is the former Chief of Staff, Thomas Cirilo Swaka, the former deputy Chief of Staff, and Johnson Olony in the restive Upper-Nile State among others. 

Speaking to Daily Monitor on phone, South Sudan government’s Information minister Michael Makuei Lueth, a close confidante of President Kiir, said the current rift ‘is not something to do with government. It’s a problem of SPLM-IO.’ 
Mr Makuei, however, said President Kiir appealed to the parties to ceasefire and end hostilities. 

“If they [SPLM-IO] need any mediation, we shall help. I think this has nothing to do with the revitalised agreement,” he said at the weekend.

When I asked whether this rift within the SPLM-IO is an attempt to seek the audience of the President, he curtly responded: “Don’t take me into those stories. Whoever is the other side and breaks away, we have nothing to do with it.”

Another highly placed source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed that the group fighting Mr Machar is divided into two and they want to oust him. 

“One is led by Gatwech Dual and Johnson Olony and they both want to topple Dr Machar,” revealed the source.
The source further said Dr Machar’s critics believe the government prefers a lame-duck vice-president and they think Dr Machar is under some sort of house arrest in Juba. 

“However, the government is distancing itself from the fight, terming it an SPLM-IO internal fight and the government has no interest in SPLM-IO split, because it will distract the implementation of the agreement.” 

Another accusation is that Mr Machar, ‘a Jekyll and Hyde’ negotiated himself, his wife and other relatives into the agreement and has neglected some generals within SPLM-IO. “So it is perfectly a fight for control as well as attention,” the source revealed.

Whereas Mr Kiir is in a stronger position, the source argued that it is in his interest to remain with Dr Machar and not risk placing the agreement in jeopardy.

Contentious issues
The current fissures within the SPLM have been attributed to the flaws within the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) signed in 2018. 

This agreement, which paved the way for Dr Machar to return to Juba as first vice-president has seven major pillars, but the most contentious focus on wealth sharing and power-sharing. 

Largely negotiated in Khartoum, insiders claim the agreement was largely the handiwork of Salah Gosh, the powerful intelligence Tsar during the reign of President Omar-Al-Bashir. 

As suspicions ran high during the signing of the agreement, some SPLA-IO commanders such as Gen Dual and their loyal troops remained in the trenches across the states of Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity States and did not match to Juba.

“Some factions within South Sudan think it was an imposed agreement, the agreement does something very interesting, it puts names of people in the agreement. For example the first vice president will be Riek Machar, in other words even if he was overthrown within the SPLM -IO, it would be very difficult to remove him from the government because you have to change the government, which is unlikely,” argues Prof Philip Kasaija, who is a security and international law expert. 

The first rift within the SPLM-IO emerged when Ms Angelina Teny, Dr Machar’s wife was appointed the Minister of Defence and Veteran Affairs. “Some people in SPLM-IO were not in favour of that, they thought this was nepotism but Ms Teny in her own right could be anything in South Sudan,” says Kasaija, who teaches at Makerere University’s Political Science Department.

“So there is very little to gain by the government if the agreement collapses. The only safe way for President Kiir is to implement the agreement. If the agreement collapses without a proper strategy, Mr Kiir could be ousted and the country may return to conflict and anarchy,” argued the source. 

But to some observers, many of these rebellions have been sustained by the game of brinkmanship and appeasement.
Since he came to power in 2011, Mr Kiir has tried to placate warlords by offering them concessions.
But for every rebellion that he has tried to end through awarding coveted positions and gifts, a fresh one has emerged.

Prof Kasaija opined that ‘the problem started when Salva Kiir introduced the big tent policy.’
“The big tent policy was that whoever rebelled came back and was accommodated. South Sudan suffers from politics of accommodation. In order for you to ring concessions out of a government whether through a peace agreement or through appointment, you rebel first and once you rebel, then you can be recognised and this is precisely what I see within the breakup of the SPLA-IO,” argues Prof Kasaija.

Perhaps this calculated risk to seek concessions has always been the warlords’ oldest trick in the book. 
Mr Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, who was among the founders of SPLM and the SPLM deputy leader, used this playbook after he was expelled in 1995 at the peak of a power struggle with the late John Garang de Mabioor. In January 1998, Mr Kuanyin’s forces briefly seized Wau, the capital of Western Bahr al Ghazal. From this strong position, he applied to rejoin the SPLA and he was accepted.

Yet one would think that the ruse so hackneyed shouldn’t continue to trick the leaders in Juba but on the contrary, it continues to sustain the paycheck for warlords.

During a chat in October 2016, a few months before he was sacked by President Kiir, former Chief of Staff Paul Malong Awan had earlier complained about a renegade officer, Peter Gadet, and how he asked for a hefty sum of dollars so that he could end rebellion and return to Juba.

In 2019, Gadet died of a heart attack in Khartoum. 
Mr Malong was by then at the peak of his military career and perhaps the most powerful figure in Juba.
A veteran of the treacherous battleground, Mr Malong in October 2016 narrated with a grin a story of how he pursued Dr Machar who fled his home at the foot of Jebel Kujur Mountain on the outskirts of the capital shortly after July 8, 2016. 

On the same day, Dr Machar survived a shootout at the J1 Presidential Palace on the outskirts of the capital after his entire bodyguards were killed. In the aftermath, President Kiir accused Dr Machar of entering the presidential palace with a concealed pistol to use to kill him. 

Another conspiracy theory floated by President Kiir’s surrogates suggested that the shootout was a plot masterminded by Mr Malong so that both Mr Kiir and Dr Machar would be killed and the former Governor of Northern Bahr el Ghazal would exploit the power vacuum to ascend the greasy pole. 

Today Mr Malong has changed places with Machar. He is exiled in Nairobi and has called for the overthrow of President Kiir and Dr Machar. 

In 2011, the people in the south sounded the drumbeat of self-determination and voted overwhelmingly to become independent.

On the eve of independence, the howling gales blew across the large expanse to pay respect to thousands of war veterans who fell at the battlefront and were buried in graveyards without any honour. 

From the war-weary town of Bor, which is the spiritual cradle of the SPLA; to the oil town of Malakal and Wau the capital of western Bahr el Ghazal, the last fortress of the Khartoum hegemony in the South; this day brought tears to those who had survived the enemy’s plane bombings.

But as President Kiir’s administration ushered in what was supposed to be a new era, it was reminded not to repeat mistakes of other ‘liberators’ in Africa, who upon taking power, turned to selfish schemes. 

Speaking to a fervent crowd at Nyakuron Cultural Centre in the outskirts of Juba on the eve of the historic referendum vote in 2011, I was part of the audience when Juba University don Samuel Lokoji, who was responding to the keynote address of former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, said: “The new leaders in the South should not become the new oppressors.”
Two years later, what Mr Lokoji predicted came to pass. 

In 2013, Dr Machar fled Juba in haste after President Kiir dressed in military fatigue, addressed the nation on television alleging that his former SPLM comrade had orchestrated an attempted coup.

In the aftermath, Gen James Hoth Hai, the army chief of staff was sacked and replaced with Mr Malong. To Hai’s allies, his cardinal sin was being Neur, the ethnicity of Dr Machar. Gen Hoth Hai was among the officers who used to carry the derogatory tag ‘Garang boys’ because of his close ties to the late SPLM leader John Garang. He has since returned from exile and was appointed Labour minister in 2018. 

SPLM conflict
The row within the SPLM executive committee had also sucked in Pagan Amum, then the Secretary General, and a protégé of Garang alongside his allies such as former Foreign Affairs minister, Deng Alor Kuol, and former chief of staff, Oyay Deng Ajak. The group of eleven as these high-ranking officers came to be known was briefly detained by President Kiir and later dismissed. 

Mr Kiir later disbanded all the top organs of the SPLM and on December 15, 2013, at the meeting of the National Liberation Council in the Nyakuron neighbourhood of Juba, Dr Machar, Mr Pagan Amum and Ms Rebecca Nyandeng, voted to boycott the meeting.

This ethnic tinderbox spilled over to the elite Tiger battalion Presidential guard, pitting Nuer army officers against the Dinka.

In the first wave of fighting, a Neur commander Peter Gadet, on December 17 led 2,000 revolting soldiers and attacked the city of Bor on December 18. The rebels quickly seized much of the settlement, as locals feared a repeat of the 1991 Bor Massacre.

In 1991, Dr Machar, Lam Akol and Gordon Koang Chuol led an attempted putsch against Garang. Dr Machar started SPLA-Nasir, which received covert support from Khartoum. 
Later, SPLA-Nasir led a slaughter of about 2,000 Dinka men in Bor. 

The 2013 conflict was a continuation of these ethnic pogroms. Uganda’s scholar Prof Mahmood Mamdani, a member of the African Union Commission of Enquiry on South Sudan, wrote about the 2013 conflict. 
“As part of the preparation, there was a general sprucing-up of the capital—a street sweeping operation to remove litter—by Tiger Battalion a week before the killings. Thid Lau cleaning, as it was known, was a pretext for Mr Kiir’s loyalists to identify and demarcate areas in Juba that would be targeted when the massacres began,” he noted.
Prof Mamdani said Nuer communities in Juba were motivated by a deep sense of grievance—revenge for the December massacres—and the promise of plunder.

“In December 2013, as word spread via cellphone that a slaughter of Nuer civilians was going on in the capital, the Nuer youth, 50,000 in all and fresh from a run of campaigns against the Murle ethnicity in 2012, converged, first on Bentiu, which they ransacked, and then on Juba. Its contingents left a trail of carnage and destruction in the towns and villages they swept through on their way to Juba. When the government retook these towns, there was further carnage and destruction, perpetuating a cycle of revenge. Rape, never before witnessed on this scale in South Sudan, became a regular occurrence in battle zones,’’ Prof Mamdani further revealed. 

In February 2014, I travelled to Bor barely after the flashpoint town was now under the control of Mr Kiir’s forces and the Uganda army. Under the command of then Col Muhanga Kayanja, the UPDF a few days ago, had routed out Dr Machar’s forces that had laid an ambush at Gemeza forest as Kiir’s army retreated.

Before the capture, Bor had changed hands a number of times between Dr Machar’s fighters and President Kiir’s army as both armies employed scorched-earth tactics. 

When we arrived, we were greeted with a stench of death as scores of corpses dried up in the scorching temperatures. Some of the victims were killed on their hospital beds. Others lay in shallow mass graves that littered the outskirts of the town.

As a new Juba emerges from the ruins of war, new structures glimmer seductively and litter its skyline. But the unkempt city is home to both comfort and misery.  To the generals, their exploits at the treacherous battlefront have come with great reward, but to the majority of citizens, they remained shackled to abject poverty.  

“What we need to bear in mind is that it’s the citizens who suffer, it’s not the main protagonists, it’s not the soldiers, it’s not the generals who are going to suffer, it’s the population,” argues Prof Kasaija. 

Refugee crisis
Currently, there is an estimated population of 4.5 million South Sudanese who are both refugees and internally displaced. UN has projected that by the end of this year, there could possibly be four million people who are food stressed. 

Another sticking issue that the officers at Bilpham the seat of the army will have to grapple with is how to integrate all the fighting forces and cut the size of the national army to 83,000.
For instance, where will the generals who have not gone through the cantonment process and demobilisation process fit into the new structure?

How will the army, which is largely Dinka and Nuer ethnicities, have a national outlook and integrate other communities?
Nobody knows what lies ahead as Mr Kiir tries to hold together this loose coalition ahead of the 2023 presidential election as spelt out in the revitalised peace agreement. 

However, some preconditions in the agreement have to be met including the end of conflict and hostilities to allow internally displaced persons and refugees to return home as well as ensuring that food security is sustained across the starving populations in South Sudan. 

But with sporadic fighting across the states in South Sudan, it’s contested whether free and fair elections can be conducted.  

“From where I sit, I really don’t see that happening that between today and 2023, we can have credible elections,” argues Prof Kasaija.

If government is to make pragmatic steps towards implementing the revitalised peace truce, the Troika alliance, Igad and the two guarantors, Uganda and Sudan must compel President Kiir and Dr Machar to negotiate an inclusive peace deal that could lift suffering citizens of the world’s youngest nation out of their misery. 

Last week, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces indicated that they  had been placed on high alert to defend the country from possible conflict spill-over following renewed fighting in South Sudan.

The UPDF, which fought alongside the SPLA rebels to secure South Sudan’s liberation, has intervened twice in post-independence – in 2013 and again 2016

The numbers 

83,000 Army size. 
Another sticking issue that the officers at Bilpham the seat of the army will have to grapple with is how to integrate all the fighting forces and cut the size of the national army to 83,000.

4.5m Refugees. 
Currently, there is an estimated population of 4.5 million South Sudanese who are both refugees and internally displaced.