Regional governments plan to send in troops as pressure grows for a political settlement
As the African Union discusses sending a stabilisation force to South Sudan, there is a glimmer of hope in Addis Ababa, where a new committee from all sides is due to meet on 7 March to tackle the political differences within the governing Sudan People's Liberation Movement. This is the first time that President Salva Kiir Mayardit has accepted that the roots of the crisis lie within the SPLM, rather than in the claims of a coup attempt by his former Vice-President, Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon. The new initiative, with Ethiopia and South Africa as mediators, came on 5 March, the day after the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) talks stalled, though participants had agreed to resume on 20 March.
That same day, five government soldiers (and by some accounts far more) were killed after shooting broke out at the main barracks in Juba near the University, adding to the pressure on regional mediators and on those advocating an AU stabilisation force, for which Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda have promised troops.
The Juba shooting appeared to be an isolated incident but added to the climate of violence and uncertainty. On the previous day, Defence Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk had promised any Sudan People's Liberation Army troops who had defected to Commander Riek's so-called South Sudan Resistance Movement that they could be screened and reintegrated into the SPLA. Nuer politicians had visited defectors who had taken refuge in the base of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and told them the same thing, we understand.
Some of the dissidents then turned up at the barracks to collect their wages, say government and army sources. When they were told they would have to go to the frontline in Greater Upper Nile, they started shooting the officers paying the wages and set fire to the office. Some have been living in the UNMISS camp, along with thousands of other displaced people, and making regular sorties to collect their pay while waiting for Riek to come and 'liberate' Juba, said one source in the city. This could be one reason for the government's quarrel with the UN. Another will be the weapons found en route to Bentiu on 6 March in a UN convoy designated as relief food.
Riek's attitude to the new political initiative remains unclear. His representative at the earlier talks, former Unity State Governor Taban Deng Gai, is on the new committee but there is speculation among South Sudanese about whether he has Riek's full blessing. The other two camps at the Addis talks are those loyal to Salva Kiir and the dissidents, the Third Platform, led by former Foreign Minister Deng Alor Kuol and SPLM former Secretary General Pa'gan Amum Okiech (still detained in Juba). They oppose Salva's policies but have publicly accepted the government's legitimacy and do not back Riek's armed opposition.
The new committee aims to prepare for a meeting of the SPLM Political Bureau to resolve the disputes over voting and accountability that triggered the crisis in December. On the government aide are Akol Paul Kordit, the head of the SPLM Youth Wing; Daniel Awet Akot, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament; Jemma Nunu Kumba, the Minister of Electricity, Dams, Irrigation and Water Resources and former Western Equatoria Governor; Paul Mayom Akech, former Water Resources Minister. Three released detainees (and ex-ministers) represent the dissidents: Deng Alor, John Luk Jok and Kosti Manibe Ngai. The move is mediated by Ethiopia and South Africa, which have had similar experiences with their own liberation fronts-turned-ruling parties.
Many South Sudanese have criticised IGAD's approach, for failing to see the conflict primarily as a crisis within the SPLM and for stressing the ethnic dimension. 'This is a very important meeting,' because it shows that President Salva is 'is now looking at reconciliation within the party,' the former Minister for Presidential Affairs, Luka Biong Deng Kuol, told Africa Confidential from Addis Ababa. It would also mean that Juba would also have to release the remaining political detainees from the opposition camp, he said.
Four men – Pa'gan, Oyay Deng Ajak, Majok D'Agot Atem and Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth – are still held and their trial for treason is due to open on 10 March. 'The release of the four detainees is a prerequisite for the Political Bureau meetings', said Luka, who is now a Fellow of the Oslo Peace Research Institute. 'Since the President has shown such commitment to reconciliation, Pa'gan should be there'.
The killing, raping and pillaging continue in Greater Upper Nile – Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states – fuelling IGAD and the AU's proposal for military intervention. This may have helped to galvanise Salva's circle in Juba. They know that such a force could consolidate Commander Riek's military positions. Riek's forces now preside over the virtually empty Upper Nile capital, Malakal (AC Vol 55 No 4, The battle for Malakal). Those of around 225,000 inhabitants who have not been killed have fled into the bush or even to Sudan. Riek's visit to the city last week was 'to restore calm and confidence so that civilians who fled from Malakal because of unlawful activities by the government forces and their foreign allies could return', according to James Gatdet Dak, Riek's Spokesman since his time as Vice-President in Juba.
Both government and the opposition fighters have broken the 23 January cessation of hostilities agreement, both use child soldiers and both have committed atrocities. However, the rebels, especially the rampaging White Army over which Riek appears to have little control, have been especially relentless and targeting civilians throughout Greater Upper Nile. The government has been holding back militarily, for now.
Reeling from the crisis
The soaring toll of death and displacement together with worsening economic conditions caused by the loss of about a third of the country's 245,000 barrels a day in oil production are prompting civic activists and churches to push for a political settlement. There is a huge longing for peace throughout a country still reeling from the crisis. Juba has been getting back to normal. 'People are working harder, with a new seriousness', said one local businessman. Many in the capital complain that Western governments – especially the Troika of Britain, Norway and the United States – have not spoken out loudly enough against Riek's armed opposition.
The causes of the military chaos run deep. Salva's 'big tent' policy welcomed all the militias in the country, mainly backed by Khartoum, into the fold. As many SPLA veterans retired, the result was a national army where ex-militia were most numerous. Soldiers from Riek's Nuer ethnic group formed about 60-70% of the new national army. Yet many South Sudanese believe this policy saved the new country by protecting it from the greatest danger, destabilisation by Khartoum's Islamist regime.
Both wings of the army went on the rampage. For example, the destruction of Bor happened in two stages, AC has learned. Firstly, Peter Gatdet Yaka's fighters attacked specific targets, including all buildings linked to former Jonglei State Governor Kuol Manyang, foreign-occupied buildings (including the mainly Ugandan market stalls) and the property of pro-government people, Dinka or Nuer. Then the SPLA recaptured the town and levelled most of the rest, looting as they went. By the time Episcopal Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby arrived there in early February, there was little left 'except bodies', lamented one witness.
The tradition of respecting church property was broken. Adults and children have been massacred inside churches, women raped and kidnapped. People have telephoned family to be answered by a stranger: 'I just killed your relative'.
Elderly retired Catholic Bishop Vincent Mojwok Nyiker protected all ethnic groups in his house during the first two rebel attacks on Malakal. As the third attack began on 21 February, most people fled the town and he was persuaded that he would be killed if he remained as the White Army was now targeting Shilluk and respecting no one. He had to wade through neck-deep water, helped by priests and young people, to reach an island, with bullets hitting the water around him. They walked and slept for nights in the bush before crossing the river at Melut and arriving in Renk.
Many feel that Riek has no place in the 'interim government' now openly talked about. Both Riek and Salva say they would refuse to serve together in government. Yet the Southern culture of forgiveness is deep: 'No one is permanently guilty', said one South Sudanese analyst. Even Riek's return is not impossible.
Yet Riek would be unacceptable without Salva. Deng Alor and other dissidents want both men to stand down. They argue for an interim government led by an independent figure who would prepare fresh elections but not stand in them. As war weariness grows, such an arrangement could look increasingly attractive to South Sudanese.
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