Click the map for a description of the conflict at that location. (Analysis below.)
The crisis in South Sudan continues as Riek Machar’s negotiators continue to insist that the political detainees in Juba are released prior to any type of agreement. Salva Kiir and his delegation refuse to release the detainees until they are tried. Some commentators have expressed discouragement with Machar’s approach, which has implicated the detainees in the “coup” attempt of December 15, which U.S. diplomats (along with plenty of other people) have said was not a coup attempt at all.
SPLA forces are reportedly on the way to Bor after capturing Bentiu, but may be drawn elsewhere if the reports that rebel forces have recaptured Malakal are substantiated. Yesterday sources in Malakal reported that between 200 and 300 people drowned when a boat that was overloaded with civilians fleeing Malakal capsized in the Nile. Fighting south of Malakal and eastward toward Adar oilfield suggest that rebels have certainly been present in Upper Nile, which produces most of South Sudan’s oil.
What does this rebellion suggest about South Sudan? Well, lots of things, but let’s focus on a few:
1. The national army has never truly coalesced into a national army, and is deeply tied to politics. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army started as a defection from the Sudan Armed Forces at the Bor and Kongor garrisons in May 1983. At that point, a variety of people joined the army in rebellion against President Ja’afar al-Nimeiri’s imposition of Shari’ah law on all of Sudan, but the army was only weakly representative of the huge diversity of ethnic groups in South Sudan. In fact, various ethnic militias fought against the SPLA throughout the 1980s: The Murle, Shilluk, Toposa, and Didinga were all involved in conflict against the SPLA during its first decade. From the beginning as well, the SPLA was tied almost directly to the SPLM, which became the ruling party of South Sudan upon its independence. Thus what should have become a national army was historically aligned with and controlled by a political party. Even if the ties had grown weaker, the names remained the same, and in the situation of South Sudan’s independence it would be very difficult for a different party to come to power and assert control over a force that remained a rebel force drawn mainly from the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, which brings me to my second point.
2. Although they are not the cause of the conflict, ethnic tensions continue to play a huge role in everyday life in South Sudan. According to Niall Ferguson’s thesis in The War of the World (2006), decolonization and ethnic tensions were primary drivers of the World Wars; while reading his book, I was struck by the applicability of this framework to South Sudan’s case. South Sudan was a colony of Britain, and then a colony of Khartoum, in effect: ruled from afar by people who South Sudanese considered very different than themselves and under whom there was a history of oppression. When the British carved South Sudan up into areas of denominational influence where the churches could rule in lieu of an effective government, the divisions largely followed ethnic lines. When northern politicians interfered in southern politics after 1956, it was often to pit one ethnic group against another to obtain their means. Ethnic groups have intermarried for centuries; in reality there is no physical distinction between them – but the consciousness of ethnicity and the ability to use it to blame others is a key element in the mobilization of certain segments of the army and of the population (for example, the White Army). While ethnic tensions may have decreased as the SPLA began to draw Nuer and Dinka together in the late 1980s, the events of 1991 brought ethnicity to the fore again, which brings me to the third point.
3. This has happened before, and the main result was a huge loss of civilian life. In 1991, the accusations were exactly the same against John Garang de Mabior as they are now against Salva Kiir: mainly lack of democratic process and heavy-handedness in dealing with disciplinary issues within the SPLM/A. Riek Machar was the SPLA commander in Upper Nile, and declared that he had ousted John Garang from leadership of the SPLM/A. The SPLA at once divided into factions that were largely based on ethnicity. This is not to say that ethnic groups were strictly divided. For example, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, a Dinka from Twic County, Bahr el Ghazal (in what is now Warrap), joined Machar in 1993, after escaping from prison where he had been held on charges of plotting a coup against Garang. Riek Machar’s group, the SPLM/A-Nasir, later disintegrated into a number of factions. Riek Machar continued as commander of the South Sudan Independence Movement/Army (SSIM/A). The main result of the Nasir coup was the division and slaughter of South Sudanese: the mobilization of Nuer youth known as the White Army against the Dinka of Bor resulted in a massacre and retaliations that alienated the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan. The news that a white army was marching toward Bor in late December and early January therefore struck an eerie similarity with events over twenty years ago.
Some maps of South Sudan’s recent history are in the works. Stay tuned.