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More questions than answers as South Sudan crisis unfolds

22 December, 2013 : 17:19


Political loyalties in South Sudan are never set in stone, nor are they simply “tribal”. Allegiances may be complex, conflicting, and ultimately dependent on whatever seems to offer the best chance for survival at any given moment.

Rachel Gordon - SLRC South Sudan Researcher

The descent of South Sudan from relative stability to virtual chaos has happened with breathtaking speed over the past week. While tensions within the ruling political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), had certainly been brewing for months, it remains remarkably unclear exactly what happened on December 15 to set this crisis in motion.

Did SPLM Deputy Chairman and former Vice President Riek Machar try to stage a coup? Did Machar conspire with former first lady Rebecca Garang and a group of resentful former cabinet ministers and governors to unleash rebellion within the SPLA (the national army) and overthrow President Salva Kiir? Did an escalated dispute involving presidential guards present Kiir with an opportunity to lay mutiny charges at the feet of his opponents, thereby taking down his opposition and avenging recent challenges to his leadership? Are these political leaders literally and figuratively rallying their “tribal” troops and inciting violence along ethnic lines in service of their own designs on power?

Those questions and more have been extensively debated elsewhere, but the answers remain murky. Less clear still is how this will all play out, and whether the situation will get worse before it gets better. Despite the return of an uneasy calm to Juba, and government declarations of normalcy and control, the situation has already "mutated into something that threatens the whole country". Violence has spread to multiple states, including the oil-rich northern states such as Unity, and ever-restive Jonglei in the east.

As we write in a forthcoming—and suddenly even more timely—conflict analysis of ongoing tensions in Jonglei for the SLRC South Sudan project, “[n]ational political dynamics have also shaped conflict at the local level. The struggle between Dinka and Nuer elite for political and economic dominance is regularly highlighted as a major potential flashpoint of larger national conflict, and Jonglei is widely expected to be a major source of violence if such a conflict were to erupt.”

That conflict has now certainly erupted, and Jonglei is indeed a battleground. General Peter Gadet, a rebel leader turned (and un-turned, and re-turned…) SPLA commander, has reportedly defected again with a contingent of SPLA soldiers, and has taken Bor town, the capital of Jonglei. Approximately 14,000 civilians have sought shelter at the UNMISS base in Bor, and tens of thousands more have been displaced from the town. An attack yesterday (December 19) on the UNMISS base in Akobo county, which neighbors SLRC study sites in northern Jonglei, resulted in the deaths of two Indian UN peacekeepers and at least 11 civilians. Sporadic fighting has been reported all over the state, including Akobo, Gumuruk, Likuangole, Pibor town, Pochalla and Waat.

Perhaps the most unsettling question of all is not where the crisis came from, but whether anyone is actually in charge. The government and media continue to attribute skirmishes across the country to “rebels” and “forces loyal to Machar,” but there is little evidence that it is an organized or cohesive movement. It is unclear whether Gadet and Machar have even spoken to one another, much less that they have put aside their historical animosities and gone into cahoots. Most of the fighting appears to be between factions of SPLA troops—though the attack on UNMISS in Akobo has been blamed on “Nuer youths” (approx. 2,000 of them)—and all of it is currently taking place in remote reaches of the country where communication can only occur by satellite phone (and the remarkably efficient rumor mill).

The arm of the state in South Sudan has never been long, and its authority over even nominally loyal troops in the field is now uncertain. Under such circumstances, the “rebel movement” framing is even more questionable. Unity and coordination among disparate groups under leaders with a variety of grudges against the government and one another is possible, but seems improbable. A simpler and more plausible explanation is that the fighting factions on the ground are answering to a variety of national or local actors, or no one at all.

In the meantime, framing these developments as an organized rebellion with Machar at its head, with an arrest warrant out for him and 13 other leaders of the SPLM opposition in prison already, may actually be pushing the former VP to fulfill the role of rebel leader in order to shore up his negotiating position. The international community is pinning its hopes on dialogue, with a delegation of ministers from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda now in Juba, but it is unclear that even sincere negotiations between Kiir and Machar—not yet a given, by any means—could actually result in a cessation of hostilities between actors on the ground.

Further worrying is the relative silence thus far from other groups not known for staying out of the fray. That includes Murle rebel leader David Yau Yau, who is allegedly responsible for numerous attacks and hundreds of deaths in Jonglei over the past several years. As Luka Biong Deng, a prominent South Sudanese academic and an SLRC advisor, pointed out, it also includes the Sudanese government in Khartoum, whose own economy and stability are dependent upon the continuing flow of oil from the fields in Unity and elsewhere in South Sudan, and who may therefore be unlikely to sit idle while violent developments in those areas threaten such a vital source of income for both countries.

As the forthcoming SLRC conflict analysis highlights, political loyalties in South Sudan are never set in stone, nor are they simply “tribal,” despite the ease with which that explanation fits into popular narratives about conflict in Africa. Allegiances may be complex, conflicting, and ultimately dependent on whatever seems to offer the best chance for survival at any given moment. The survival of individuals and families has never been assured in areas like Jonglei, where the lack of security, services, and infrastructure created a situation of immense vulnerability long before the current crisis. But it has perhaps never been as precarious as it is today.

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6 comments

Willie Eselebor
Sudan became independent on a fragile peace deal! This is just the result of economy of conflicts and what oil as a resource is doing in most troubled regions of Africa.
Anonymous friend
The underlying issues of the immediate conflict are a struggle for the party. The tension really came to a head when the President fired his cabinet and VP, two parties who had earned one another's respect but who had not forgotten their shared past. The President appeared to want no part of the Garang "boys" and he attempted to eviserate the party by bringing charges against all whom he perceived as political opponents. Riak, Deng Alor, Kosti Manibi, and Pa'gan Amum were all arrested, removed from office and essentially stifled. South Sudan is a country with a long history of ethnic violence, most often fueled by its enemies in Khartoum. The constant flipping back and forth of Gadet is an example but there are many others, such as the recent Small Arms Survey evidencing that David Yau Yau's weapons arrive to him from Khartoum. While the underlying issue for the broader conflict is political division and competition once the ethnic hatred is released it can not be easily corralled. Additionally, there are three aspects to the current conflict; political completion, ethnic, and commitment to the idea of a secure secular independent South Sudan. In other words the long lasting vision of the SPLM. This means that some generals may be fighting for Machar (or with Nuer in the idea of being in Machar's side) or Salva, ethnic groups are releasing long held hatred and seeking revenge, and a group of SPLA leaders want to see the party remain secure and the vision pursued. They are watching carefully to insure that the President's orders are in their minds good for the country and just not the Dinka or Salva himself. In other words, no one is in control of the country at this time. Machar evidently did not attempt a coup but once the charges were leveled he was clearly painted into a corner and he reached out to his network for help. Gadet seems to have associated and insinuated himself into the conflict on Machar's side but as you point out Machar has not claimed Gadet. It's also interesting that the initial remarks from the 4th division general who took over Unity State did not claim association to Machar but more towards the nation. Regardless of all the analysis and underlying issues the situation has collapsed, violence unleashed, chaos multiplied, and many are dying. Khartoum is loving all of this because the south has done to itself what Khartoum was unable to do. It seems reasonable that GOS will move to secure the oil fields, and shutting off all inputs to their enemies in South Kordofan. There has to be a political solution. This means that Salva and Riak must make political concessions. But maybe neither one cares as much about peace as they do about their own legacy and hold on power. This brings me to what I consider the single most important factor to improve the situation. The 11 men held in Juba, the former cabinet members, need to be released. They are the nationally respected SPLM leaders who Salva became paranoid of. These men are Muro, Shulluk, Dinka, Nuer, and other tribes. Their release needs to be called for by voices louder and stronger than Riak. Riak is using them as a bartering chip to strengthen his power. The 11 do not want to be released at Riak's request as it makes it appear they are in cahoots with Riak and they are not. Please raised your voice to call for their release. If they are killed or die there will be no reversing what will happen.
Osman Abdalfatah
This is an indepth politcal and conflict analysis for the on going growing tesnions in the South Sudan. Causes of the conflict may be: power sharing, tribalism, economics, corruption. It is likely to take international dimensions becuase of oil and other resources. Sudan, Uganda, and other states are likely to side with either of the fighting groups as the world has identified two main opponents: Machar and Silvercare. Now in this situation what will be the role of UNMISS? Shall its mandate be amended to response to the on going crisis? Or they should just stay away waiting for the intervension from other regional organziations such as the AU?
Friend of South Sudan
What is happening in South Sudan is disheartening! There was so much shading of blood for the new country to come into being. Many lives were lost due to the direct war activities at the front line . Others were swept into graves by poor health due to lack of services, poor nutrition and the general hardship brought about by the sacrifices the people of South Sudan made. In sympathy with the people the international community through Operation Life line Sudan (OLS) operating through Kenya's Lokichogio spent huge sums of resources to keep the people alive! All along however seeds of discomfort were being sown as the recruitment was mainly among the Dinkas from Bor (where Dr. Garang the first Vice president of Sudan came from) and from Warrap the area that His Excellency comes from. The Dinka from the largest number in the population which may explain their ubiquitosness in the government offices. This insidiousness in all offices has generally raised alarm bells as other South Sudanese communities feel overwhelmed and suffocated by the often less than diplomatic Dinkas. In the allocation of offices apart from the qualifications of individuals, in such a country, other ethnic groups should have been taken into account in office allocation! It seems this was overlooked which has generated resentment among the other ethnic groups in South Sudan. Some of their leaders are under custody in Juba which adds fuel to fire During the late 1990s there were tensions between the SPLA chairman Dr. John Garang (RIP) and the present Head of state. It seems a long memory has been kept by the head of state who has now taken an opportunity to get the widow of the Dr Garang into the conflict! It would serve him (Salvar Kir) well to implicate her so that he can find an opportunity to disgrace her! She should be left alone unless there is concrete proof that she is active in the overthrow plans. Dr Riak Machar has fallen for the oldest trick in the book! He was accused of trying a coup which he may not have actually done! It is normal that he disagreed with his former boss and when he walked out of the meeting the President felt slighted! So the head of state needed to drive his arch enemy out of sight! Accuse him of a coup plot and many beleaguer heads of state will sympathize with the president, meanwhile the accusation will stampede Machar into reasonable actions! It seems this may be what has happened this time! What is more troubling, is the silence of the other tribal groupings! In the name of peace they should have been more vocal fro peace. The silence is a bad sign that is not conducive to peace! To collect individuals who at the time worked well with your rival to your chagrin, is not good politics! They had to work with somebody at the time and that somebody happened not to be you your excellency! It is true that the opposition right now are underdogs in the conflict! The winds of war are ever changing, and for the sake of the people of South Sudan the two leaders should not be driven by anger, desire for revenge and humiliating the other bt should keep sober heads and find a middle ground where there is a win win situation for all. The community social gate keepers (religious, tribal women and youth groups) should be active participants in encouraging dialogue. People old enough may remember the role women of South Sudan played in the struggle and in bringing about its end! South Sudan Women, pick up your motherly role and calm the tempers of your sons! Oil is a good resource for the nation but as the country goes to war, by the time people stop fighting , there might be no oil to talk about! The country is vulnerable to the raiding of her resources!
Mohammed Abdi
I much agree with the highlights of the conflict analysis,however,more questions need answers.Contributing from the perspective of having served with the then UNMIS as team leader for the Pochalla base camp and also occasionally operating from the Bor team site during the 2011 self determination plebiscite.The extended hostilities in other states other than Central Equitoria capital Juba was capitalized by some pockets of rebellious leaders like David Yau Yau and still believe that he spearheaded the attacks of the UN camp in Akobo as it is very easy to mobilize the purported over 2000 youths who must have been from murle tribe.Lou Nuer are scattered within Jonglei state and it would have been difficult for Nuer youths to mobilize attacks in the restive Jonglei state if the state of the infra structure is anything to go by as indeed communications and access is very limited with the many unaccounted mines in the region which has always posed a serious threat of accessibilty within Jonglei. I still believe Riek Machar may have known the potential of hostilities within the presidential guards but the sporadic and spontaneous shooting of the guards was not his creation and was not intended to overthrow president Kiir but underlying dynamics of fighting for power and political supremacy of the July dismissed leadership. The fighting in the other oil reach producing states was an extension of the tribal divisions within the presidential guards as a strategy to hold a determining magic negotiation bullet to allow for inclusion in the Country leadership. The intended dialogue should however set structures and framework of allowing win - win situation for the conflicting parties as a way to give equal opportunities in the development agenda of South Sudan to equally better the livelihoods of its citizens in their long lasting dreams in the horizon after overwhelmingly voting for cessation.The culture of the win - all should be avoided not only in South Sudan but throughout the African continent if durable peace is to be attained and sustained.
Abdelwahab Mohammed
South Sudan likes other African countries even before these now very violent events there was a tribal and inter-tribal conflicts scratching on the body of this very newly born state,that contributed to the security fragility ,on other hand the manifesto of the independence was based on personal interests of politicians rather than the best interest of the state as one component so competition is not a hidden even some analysts justified the death of SPLM founder (G.JG) as a planned and systematical killing ,so this exactly whats happening now ,while the external factors (scramble of the international companies and intelligence as well) representing 80% in these now on going events.

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This blog will feature reflections from our team of researchers on the practicalities of actually conducting research in conflict-affected situations. We will also be posting guest blogs written by key researchers and practioners working on livelihoods, basic services and social protection in conflict-affected situations.