South Sudan: Is the revolution eating its own children? 

Current Affairs

South Sudan: Is the revolution eating its own children? 

Two-and-a-half years after independence, South Sudan, Africa’s youngest country, has slipped from the lofty ideas of unity, peace, and nationhood into the chaos of war. It has been a sad spectacle since the fighting broke out on 15 December 2013. Curtis Abraham traces the roots of what has become the end of South Sudan’s honeymoon.

In South Sudan, two parallel conflicts have now converged and are threatening to tear the world’s youngest nation to pieces. The first crisis is within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party led by President Salva Kiir Mayardit. There has been a debate about the direction that both the party and the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) have been going in since independence in July 2011.

Some party members feel that the SPLM has lost direction since the independence referendum in January 2011 and has had no real vision or programme for developing the nation or creating national unity.

But the writing was on the wall, or more precisely, in a press statement. A little over a week before the current crisis broke out, via a 15 December shootout between rival factions of the Presidential Guard near the army barracks in the capital, Juba, former Vice-President Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon sounded an ominous warning in a press statement about the growing political tensions in the SPLM. The press statement scrutinised Salva Kiir’s presidency as well as the possible succession in the 2015 presidential elections. As Machar announced at the press conference:

“We, the members of the SPLM Political Bureau, National Liberation Council, and SPLM leaders have called this press conference to enlighten our people on the internal crisis that has engulfed the SPLM leadership and paralysed its functions in the government and in our society. The crisis started immediately after the tragic death of the SPLM historical and eternal leader Dr John Garang de Mabior and manifested itself in the following…”

Machar went on to list a number of grievances including the negative influences of “anti-Garang” elements inside the SPLM and outside the party who have now surrounded President Kiir.

“These elements, using their relationship with General Salva Kiir, targeted and ostracised certain SPLM leaders and cadres they nicknamed ‘Garang orphans/boys’, creating schisms and precipitating open quarrels within the SPLM ranks.”

There had been, Machar continued, a shift of decision-making power from the SPLM national organs in, for example, dishing out political appointments to regional and ethnic lobbies who go knocking on President Kiir’s door lobbying for his attention while influencing him to turn his back on SPLM/SPLA veterans of the liberation struggle.

Machar lamented that the envisaged transformation of the SPLA from a liberation movement to a broad-based political party had not materialised, and this too he blamed on Salva Kiir.

“The SPLM chairman now uses his executive powers as President of the Republic, relying on his presidential advisor, to manage the SPLM and the country,” Machar further claimed. Before his press conference, there had been vigorous and open debate about these issues (in March 2013), but the debate was shut down in July when President Kiir dismissed his entire cabinet, including some of his strongest critics within the SPLM, and brought in people from outside the party to replace them. This was followed by a further suppression of the public debate through the harassing of journalists and newspapers by the security forces.

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Riek Machar Teny Dhurgo, former VP of South Sudan

Then there was the issue of corruption. Allegedly 4.5 billion South Sudanese pounds was borrowed by the GOSS from an unknown source but its use remains a mystery, since the country has been under austerity measures since April 2012. That year, Kiir said that officials had stolen some $4bn in government funds, almost one-third of all the oil revenues earned from 2005 to 2011.

According to Jok Madut Jok of the Sudd Institute and chair of its board of directors: “There is consistent evidence that corruption was rampant between 2005 and 2012, and huge sums of public money were stolen by officials at various levels, but mainly at the highest level in the ministries. Some ministers would order their subordinates to simply empty bank accounts and give the money to them. They took advantage of lax accounting procedures, the lack of legislative oversight, and auditing capacity.”

Jok continues: “But more than direct malicious theft of public resources is the question of kickbacks that have drained public projects of serious supervision and allowed foreign contractors to provide shoddy services, especially in the area of construction. These actions have involved most senior officials, many of whom are now involved in the recent efforts to depose the president because he relieved them of their duties in the big July 2013 reshuffle. Some of them are now in jail awaiting court procedures”.

In his press statement in early December, Riek Machar thundered: “We want to bring to the attention of the masses of our people that General Salva Kiir has surrendered the SPLM power to opportunists and foreign agents. These actions undermine the hard-won independence and sovereignty of the Republic of South Sudan.”

It was quite a reversal of fortune for Salva Kiir, said analysts, because at the beginning of his presidency he established a reputation as a conciliator, bringing in dissident groups and giving them a place in the army and the government. He also consulted widely and expanded the representation of different regions in the Legislative Assembly.

The main criticism of him then was that he was slow to make a decision and slow to act. But since independence, his governing style has changed drastically. As Dr Douglas H. Johnson, an Oxford-based Sudan and South Sudan expert who was also a member of the Abeyi Boundary Commission, explains: “Since independence, there have been more conflicts within the SPLM, mainly focused on the succession to Kiir. As he has lost support within the party, he has become more unilateral in his actions and more dependent on a close group of advisors.

“His dismissal of elected state governors without explanation or cause certainly does go against the constitution (which still gives him wide powers). His recruitment of a special unit within the army from his home state of Warrap and neighbouring Northern Bahr el-Ghazal has worried some senior officers in the army.”

The second bone of contention, and it is a big bone, lies within the national army, the SPLA, which is still reeling from a split in its ranks in the early 1990s.  

In 1991, Machar lost faith in the vision of the then SPLM/A leader, the late John Garang, and formed a splinter group, the SPLM/SPLA-Nasir. Garang wanted a secular and democratic Sudan where Southerners would have full representation. Machar simply wanted a fully independent South Sudan, and this created problems within the SPLM and led to the split. The defectors included Lam Akol, Taban Deng Gai (the current governor of Unity State), and Gordon Koang Chuol. 

Adding insult to injury, Machar made a treaty with the government of Sudan in Khartoum in 1997 and became the head of the government-backed South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF). However, in 2000, he departed from the SSDF and formed a new militia, the Sudan People’s Defense Forces/Democratic Front (SPDF).

Machar and the others later returned to the SPLM/A around 2002 and were reincorporated into the ruling party. Machar became a senior SPLA commander.

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Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan

The current conflict
The current conflict is part of the fall-out from what many closest to Garang probably perceived as the greatest betrayal. Letting bygones be bygones is not yet part of the lexicon of the SPLM/A. Perhaps one of the most unforgiveable episodes at this time was Machar’s alleged involvement in a massacre in Bor in 1991. As part of the SPLA-Nasir, he was said to have been involved in that massacre, in which 2,000 people (mostly civilians) were killed.

But it is more than just the Bor massacre that disturbs the psyche of Garang loyalists in the SPLM/A. The 1991 split unleashed a cycle of violence against civilians. Many areas that had been freed from the North-South civil war by 1990 through SPLA occupation now became renewed battlegrounds, often pitting civilian groups against each other.  

This violence was not just between the SPLA factions, or between the Dinka and Nuer communities (the two largest in the country), but the violence resulted in serious fighting among the Nuer people, especially in Unity and Jonglei states, and between Jonglei and Upper Nile states.

In addition, Machar’s formal alliance with Khartoum opened up the oil fields in the South (then not yet independent) for exploitation by Khartoum, with more civilian displacement, and giving Khartoum’s war effort a new lease of life, with new revenues and sources for arms. The 1991 defections also prolonged the civil war by several years. Yet another factor was Machar and Lam Akol’s quest for Southern independence. This greatly undermined the SPLA’s stated goal of reforming the Sudanese state for all the Sudanese people (North and South). It also weakened the link between the SPLA in the South and the SPLA in the North – especially in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states where Khartoum is currently carrying out offensives against the SPLM-North.

Since 2006, and more recently since 2011, most of these government-backed militias, which were largely recruited from different groups of Nuer (such as the Bul Nuer Anyanya-2 militia at Mayom under Paulino Matip, and the Lou Nuer Anyanya-2 militia at Doleib Hill under Yohannes Yual), have been brought back into the SPLA but have been incompletely integrated. Their leaders have been given promotions but their units have not been incorporated into other units.  

At the same time, some of the more stalwart figures in the SPLA have been retired, changing the character of the army. Those who never broke away are said to sometimes feel that too much preference has been given to those who did, and that old rebels have been rewarded for their rebellion.

As Dr Douglas Johnson explains: “As far as I can tell, most of the SPLA units that have mutinied against the government come from these reincorporated anti-SPLA militias. And most of the fighting that has occurred has been confined to those three states – Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile – that were the sites of fighting between the SPLA and the breakaway groups in the 1990s.” (Johnson is the author of the 2003 book, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars).

One small mercy in the current crisis is that the conflict, so far, has been confined to the ruling party and the army, and fighting is taking place in only three of the country’s 10 states. And although there have been reports of ethnic killings and mass graves, the civilian population has not been involved in the fighting (the exception being Machar’s “White Army”). Civilians are not being mobilised, or mobilising themselves, to fight for either side.

During the outbreak of fighting in Juba on 15 December, many of the people targeted by the uniformed units were protected by their neighbours – Dinka protecting Nuer, Dinka and Nuer combining to patrol their neighbourhoods, or people from other groups protecting both Nuer and Dinka. Since then what additional relief is being provided to the refugees in the camps established by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), has been coming from people in Juba, who have been collecting money to purchase water, food, and clothing for people they know in the camps. Says Douglas Johnson: “The army might be tearing itself and the country apart, but the people of South Sudan are not. This is not Rwanda or Somalia.”

However, there have been reports of targeted attacks against civilians on an ethnic basis in both government and opposition-controlled areas since 15 December. “Appalling crimes have been committed against civilians for no other reason than their ethnicity,” says Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides need to leave civilians out of their conflict, let aid groups reach people who need help and accept a credible, independent investigation into these crimes.”

Between 27 December and 12 January, a Human Rights Watch research team in South Sudan interviewed more than 200 victims and witnesses to abuses in Juba and Bor. The researchers documented widespread killings of Nuer men by government forces in Juba, especially between 15 and 19 December, including a massacre of between 200 and 300 men in the Gudele neighbourhood on 16 December.  

The researchers also documented the targeting and killing of civilians of Dinka ethnicity by opposition forces in other parts of the country. Many analysts have called for a nationwide truth and reconciliation process. But throughout its existence, the SPLM/A has never had any such agenda.

“Peace processes in South Sudan have a long track record of prioritising reconciliation at all costs and failing to secure remedies for people affected by conflict,” says David K. Deng, director of the Research Department of the South Sudan Law Society (SSLS). “The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which brought an end to the 22-year North-South civil war, included only a vague reference to national reconciliation and neglected to mention the issue of accountability for past human rights violations.”

For a lasting peace to be achieved, human right abuses have to be addressed by both the GOSS (Salva Kiir’s troops were the ones who started killing civilians in Juba) and the defecting units. Disarmament campaigns and integration of militia leaders into the SPLA will not be enough as previous campaigns have left the disarmed communities feeling vulnerable, so they have rearmed themselves.

In many ways the SPLA needs to be reduced in size. As such, perennial re-incorporating of breakaway soldiers has proven counter-productive. Whether or not the SPLA will want to reward the current defectors with re-incorporation is debatable.

“The main weakness of previous demobilisation programmes,” says Dr Douglas Johnson, “is that there is no employment for demobilised soldiers to go to. The only secure livelihood they know is either the army or another armed ethnic group. So for the sake of both stability and development, much more thought, effort, and resources must be put into creating alternative livelihoods not only for soldiers but for the rural people.”

When the conflict started on 15 December, Machar’s troops initially had the upper hand in capturing the towns of Bentiu and Bor. But his forces were on the back foot by mid January, after losing Bentiu in the oil- rich Unity State to government forces. To press home the advantage, the GOSS spent the first two weeks of January mobilising thousands of troops with the aim of retaking Bor – the last major town controlled by Machar’s forces. The GOSS also announced the creation of two committees: one to investigate the killing of innocent civilians, and the other to examine the causes of the divisions within the Presidential Guard.

President Kiir has ruled out any sort of power-sharing deal with Machar, the man he sees as the leader of an attempted coup against his government.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has called for the release of 11 detainees (including Pagan Amum, former secretary general of the SPLM; Oyai Deng Ajak, former chief of staff of the SPLA and later minister of international development; and Kosti Manibe, a former finance minister from Equatoria), so the peace process can move forward. It was reported that the US special envoy, Donald Booth, and other mediators had met Machar at an undisclosed location in South Sudan as part of an effort to broker a ceasefire.

In another development, South Sudan’s oil minister, Stephen Dhieu Dau, visited Khartoum to discuss the impact of the conflict on the country’s oil industry. A long-drawn-out war could severely damage the oil industry and affect the economy with the loss of billions of US dollars.

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