South Sudan Conflict: December 15-17, 2013

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After previously rescheduling the meeting with last-minute notice, the SPLM scheduled the National Liberation Council (NLC) meeting for December 13-15 in Juba. According to several reports, the NLC planned to address official documents such as the constitution and the SPLM Manifesto, but refused to acknowledge the need to address an alleged leadership crisis within the party. Tension had grown within the party following the dismissal of V.P. Riek Machar in July. News reports suggest that Machar, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior (the widow of John Garang de Mabior), and their supporters walked out of the meeting, accusing President Salva Kiir of un-democratic process and heavy handedness in dealing with Pagan Amum, who had been under house arrest and a media ban since July.

On Sunday night, December 15, fighting broke out within the Tiger Units, Kiir’s presidential guards. There have been at least four different versions of the reasons behind the fight: 1) President Kiir claimed that the fighting was an attempted coup by forces loyal to Riek Machar; 2) P. A. Nyaba claimed that Kiir ordered Dinka soldiers in the Tiger Units to disarm Nuer soldiers, possibly fearing a coup; 3) Other sources assert that Kiir ordered guards to arrest Machar, Nyandeng, and other politicians, and the soldiers refused; 4) Some say that the Tiger commander did disarm Nuer guards, who subsequently may have broken into an arms storage room and armed themselves.

In any case, a firefight began with the presidential guards in Juba and throughout the night of the 15th spread into bouts of apparent ethnic violence in various parts of Juba, along with defections of SPLA contingents. Despite official assertions that there was no ethnic component to the crisis, Human Rights Watch reported that targeted killings of Nuer civilians took place in Juba during the fighting. About 25,000 civilians fled to the two main UN Bases (the airport base in Tomping/Thongpiny and the “UN House” south of Jebel Kujur). On the night of December 16, a number of Dinka Bor civilians were reported to have been killed in Bor, suggesting an impending defection and conflict there. Nuer SPLA soldiers were also apparently pushed out of the Pibor garrison during a fight. Political tension also touched Warrap, where Governor Nyandeng Malek had several opposition politicians arrested on allegations of involvement in the alleged coup attempt. These politicians insisted that their opposition and criticism were based on Malek’s dissolution and reconstitution of her cabinet without the approval of Warrap’s parliament earlier this year.

A brief background on the main people involved in the political crisis: Salva Kiir succeeded John Garang to SPLM leadership following Garang’s death in a suspicious plane crash soon after the CPA ended the Second Sudanese Civil War in 2005. Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, had been a member of the SPLM/A from its early days, served as Garang’s deputy, and eventually played a role in bringing SPLA factions and their supporting communities back together in the mid-90s after the Nasir coup and subsequent heavy ethnic strife. Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer from Unity State, was a member of the SPLA during the 1980s, before leading the Nasir faction in an attempted coup against John Garang and the SPLM/A leadership in 1991. Machar allegedly accepted support from Khartoum to lead his own rebellion in return for promises of a southern referendum to determine whether the south would become independent. At the time, Garang claimed to be fighting to free all of Sudan rather than for the secession of South Sudan from the rest of the country. Although there were Nuer, Dinka, Murle, and Shilluk commanders and soldiers on both sides of the conflict in the 1990s, violence took on a striking ethnic dimension, characterized by communal warfare and the “White Army” of Nuer youth killing civilians in Bor and looting Dinka areas.

With this background, it comes as no surprise that there are accusations of a coup, especially since Riek Machar managed to flee Juba before security forces came looking for him during the fighting on December 16 (it has been alleged that he fled by boat to Leer on the night of the 15th). Neither is it a surprise that violence has taken on somewhat of an ethnic component. To clarify: This is not an ethnic conflict, but given the history of crisis during the 1990s, most political violence in South Sudan tends to take on ethnic overtones.

Among leaders defecting from the SPLA were Peter Gadet Yaak, former commander of the SSLA, a rebel group that led violent campaigns in Unity State in 2011 before Gadet accepted an amnesty offer that August. His deputy Mathew Pul Jang continued to command a faction of the SSLA after Gadet went to Juba, but the group accepted a ceasefire and reintegration in April 2013 and soldiers were still awaiting reintegration in Mayom as of December. While Gadet has defected and currently leads rebel forces in Jonglei, Pul Jang and his forces are fighting alongside SPLA contingents loyal to President Kiir in Unity. At the same time, according to some reports, rebel leader David Yau Yau apparently wants no part of the current rebellion, and although he has previously refused ceasefires and mediation efforts, he may see Machar’s defection as an opportunity to bring his Murle group into alignment with the government under more favorable circumstances. Whether he actually is considering negotiations with Kiir remains to be seen, and any negotiations on that side will likely take a second seat to the IGAD-brokered mediation attempt in Addis Ababa between Kiir and Machar.

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