Salva Kiir’s militia – the president’s “Private Army” in historical perspective (a short note)

Hopefully more details will emerge soon regarding President Kiir’s militia – the group Sudan Tribune called a “private army” (Sudan Tribune) that Kiir allegedly admitted to having organized. However, Salva Kiir would by no means be the first to organize such a private army, and while his admittance of the fact is striking, the fact itself is not so surprising. Taking a historical perspective it makes sense why President Kiir would not see this as a reasonable approach to state (and personal) security. This does not by any means justify President Kiir, but to indicate that the problem of personally loyal militias is not President Kiir’s problem that will be fixed by dismissing him as president, but a systemic problem that needs to be addressed seriously. The SPLM/A in fact started out as a loose coalition of private armies, most notably those of Kerubino Kuanyin Bol and William Nyuan Bany. In 1983 when the SPLM was formed, several Anya-nya 2 leaders also brought their private armies to the Ethiopian border while rebel leaders met in Itang; these militias, however, failed to be integrated into the emerging rebel forces at that time. It was not until both Samuel Gai Tut and William Abdallah Chuol were killed (in 1983 and 1986, respectively) that a fairly large portion of Anya-nya 2 joined SPLA. This provided much of the group that later defected under Riek Machar’s leadership in the 1991 Nasir Coup.

I would suggest that “private armies” have been an integral part of the system in South Sudan. Upon visiting Akop (Warrap) in June 2011, I was struck by the number of security personnel in that small town until locals relayed that cattle herds belonging to state and national officials were being kept in the area. Peter Gadet attacked the town two weeks later with his own militia.

The continuing acceptability of these personal militias in the eyes of politicians is what needs to be addressed. Kiir is not the only one in Juba who has a militia at his own command. Clearly, ethnic and personal loyalties underlie the involvement of many South Sudanese youth in the armed forces, as they have in the past. The recruitment of several thousand Equatorians over the past weeks has been conducted in the interest of balancing the armed forces. Without true nation-building in South Sudan, it might just create another faction like Alfred Lado Gore and Barri Wanji’s PRM/Equatoria Defence Forces of the mid-1990s. (Take a look at this basic diagram of SPLA factions and splinter groups in the 1980s and 1990s – note that it is still under development and is based on textual sources such as Nyaba [1997], Akol [2003], Hutchinson [1996], and Johnson [2003, 2011] .)

The situation is similar to that in Somalia, where groups like the Ras Kamboni Brigades are sometimes relied on to provide security in specific areas. This is the nature of the ever-shifting allegiances of military factions in East Africa. Salva Kiir’s militia, or “private army” is primarily problematic for international supporters of President Kiir, who disapprove, at least once the issue is made public. In Kiir’s case, international condemnation of the targeted killings of Nuer in Juba during the December violence now have a more specific target and more ammunition to use against Kiir: having raised this militia group, he was clearly expecting something to occur, particularly following his dismissal of Riek Machar in July 2013. The question of agency remains: were there killings ethnically motivated and commanded from within the group, or were they initiated by President Kiir himself? The second question is how to shift this historical structure of the military towards a truly integrated army, loyal to the country and not to any one politician? First of all, true democracy is needed; second, a common vision for the country; third, more professionalization of the military.

I am continuing to develop the historical diagram of rebel factions in South Sudan, so please let me know if you have any feedback.

What are your thoughts?