Category Archives: Conflict analysis

South Sudan Conflict: December 18-19, 2013

For the series of conflict maps from December 2013, please visit our conflict mapping page.

Following two days of violence, calm began returning to Juba. Several sources place the death toll from December 15-17 at 500, and over 900 SPLA soldiers were reported to be recovering in the Juba Military Hospital. Meanwhile, following the defections in Pibor and ethnic violence in Bor, the rebellion began in earnest in Bor and Akobo and at military bases outside of Juba. Possibly after hearing of family members victimized by violence in Juba, SPLA soldiers in Kuajok (Warrap) and Bunj/Boing (Upper Nile) attacked civilians and colleagues.

Division 8 commander Peter Gadet, who led the SSLA rebellion in Unity State for several months in 2011 before returning to the government fold, defected early in the morning on December 18 and led mutinying forces in Bor as they attempted to take control of the town. According to news reports, Gadet and defecting SPLA soldiers took control of heavy artillery and tanks in Pan-pandiar and used these to drive SPLA forces loyal to the government out of the city, which SPLA acknowledged had fallen to the rebels by the evening of the 18th. An estimated 5,000 civilians began to flee from Bor, and several young children reportedly drowned while crossing the Nile to the Gol-Yar area of Awerial County, Lakes State. Also on the morning of the 18th, three soldiers were reported to have died in clashes between SPLA and defectors in the military barracks in Akobo. Violent defections were reported in Liria, Central Equatoria, and at the Mogiri base, near Juba on the Juba-Torit Road.

Meanwhile foreign governments began pulling their citizens out of South Sudan; the furious pace of evacuation down the Juba-Nimule road to the border of Uganda led to several accidents over subsequent days. Furthermore, the crash of a commercial jet on the Juba runway stranded evacuees. The day following clashes in the military barracks of Akobo, two UN peacekeepers and 30 civilians sheltering at the UN compound in Akobo were killed, prompting the UN to urgently secure its positions elsewhere in South Sudan and begin the process of bringing more peacekeepers into the country to protect civilians.

On December 19, clashes allegedly broke out between Nuer and Dinka workers at the GPOC base at Unity oilfield and the Thar-jath oilfield base, where Nuer employees are reported to have coordinated attacks. SPLA forces came to quell the outburst of violence, but gunfire was reported to have continued in villages around Bentiu. In Lakes State, a Nuer officer and his bodyguards were reportedly killed by a pro-government soldier.

South Sudan Conflict: December 15-17, 2013

For larger versions of the conflict map(s) below, please visit our conflict mapping page.

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.

Westgate Centre's location in relation to Nairobi Central and Eastleigh, the center of the Somali population in Nairobi.

Five things you should know about al-Shabaab and the Westgate, Nairobi attacks

So far at least 62 people are confirmed dead in Westgate, Nairobi, after al-Shabaab carried out the attack that they have been threatening in retaliation for Kenyan occupation of Kismayo. You can read about the attack on the BBC news or elsewhere. What I am interested in is the situation surrounding the attack and the implications for future regional dynamics. Hopefully we will be able to gain more understanding of the attacks as time goes on. I will be watching the news closely in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, here are five preliminary points I’d like to make in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe.

  1. Al-Shabaab’s terrorism in Kenya is tied into the successes of foreign troops in Somalia. Like many terrorist attacks, there was some forewarning that something like this would occur. In fact, despite being totally disgusted and horrified by what al-Shabaab has done, and totally against everything that the group stands for, I cannot say that it was completely unprovoked. Killing harmless citizens is definitely an illegitimate form of warfare, but al-Shabaab claims that this attack is in retaliation for Kenyan troops’ continued occupation of Kismaayo and surrounding areas, Jubbada Hoose (Lower Juba), Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s attack comes about two and a half months after Kenyan troops were involved in firefights in Kismayo that left 65 dead. Now that is hardly an excuse for the violence of the past three days, but that is likely one of the excuses that will be used by al-Shabaab in recruiting Somalis from the area to its cause. Prior to its occupation by Kenyan troops, Lower Juba was a stronghold for al-Shabaab – who, driven from much of their previous territory, have decided since 2010 to begin exporting their violence beyond Somalia’s borders.
  2. Al-Shabaab’s agenda appears to be steered significantly by groups outside of Somalia, and the group works without the support of most Somali people. Al-Shabaab did not appear until 2006, and did not turn their attention beyond Somalia’s borders until 2010, after the War on Terror was well under way and focused on the Horn of Africa. The group probably used events such as U.S. airstrikes that, while targeting “terrorists,” killed civilians in Dhoobley and other areas, to recruit disaffected locals. The War on Terror in Somalia was driven by fears that Somalia’s lack of government and “chaos” made it a likely place for international terrorists to seek refuge; however, it doesn’t appear that international terrorists were present in large numbers in Somalia prior to the Ethiopian invasion of 2006. Actually, during 2006 the Union of Islamic Courts had apparently succeeded to some extent in bringing down the number of cases of piracy in Somalia (Bjorn Moller, 2013), and possibly had a deterring effect on terrorism in the country as well. The 2010 attacks in Uganda marked the first export of terrorism from Somalia. The 2006 invasion and subsequent international attacks seem to have caused radical Somali elements to look beyond their borders and to welcome international terrorist groups to support their cause. These groups took advantage of the situation to push their own agenda, and al-Shabaab has gone along with that. It remains to be seen where this will lead either al-Shabaab or al-Qaeda, and it also remains to be seen whether foreign intervention in Somalia under the “war on terror” paradigm can have any positive effects (for anyone, really).
  3. Although some of the attackers are likely from Somalia, there is also a sizable and prominent Somali population native to Kenya – this attack is not about ethnic Somalis vs. Kenya. Wars have been fought over the issue of the division of Somalia between four separate countries in East Africa. One of the points of the five-pointed star on Somalia’s flag represents the Somali homelands of Northeastern Kenya – formerly called North Eastern Province (and before that, Northern Frontier District – NFD) – now the counties of Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa. Not only is a significant fraction of Kenya’s population made up of ethnic Somalis; they also play a prominent role in politics. Among others, I would point out Maxamed Yuusuf Xaaji (Mohamed Yusuf Haji), an ethnic Somali from Garissa, Kenya, who currently serves as Kenya’s Minister of State for Defence. Many Somalis support Kenyan politicians from other ethnic groups – when I heard Raila Odinga speak in Sandton (South Africa) last year, I traveled to the venue with a number of Somalis who strongly supported him. On another note – this is a topic for another post, but I do find it interesting and possibly problematic for Kenya’s future cohesion that the Somali-dominated areas have historically been largely neglected by the Kenyan state. In a recent book chapter, Kidane Mengisteab (2013) draws on the 2006 APRM Country Report for Kenya (see pp. 47-48), which suggests that in Northeastern Kenya, 73.1% of the population was considered impoverished, compared to 35.3% in central Kenya; primary school enrolments were charted at only 17.8% (compared to 52% in the next lowest region); and apparently only 9 doctors were present in the entire North-Eastern region, compared to over 100 doctors in basically every other region (statistics as of 2000). With discontent already welling over the past years in the coastal region near Mombasa, it remains to be seen whether and how this marginalization may affect regional relations in Kenya in the future.
  4. (Related to #3) – Although this attack marks a violent turn in regional dynamics, this is not the first violent Somali group that has been wont to haunt Nairobi’s shopping scene. Nairobi hosts some prominent Somali warlords who made bank off of the chaos of the 1990s and decided to retire. I was in Yaya Shopping Centre, Nairobi with some friends from Afmadow area last year, and they pointed out a former Somali warlord and his posse while whispering stories about the atrocities he had committed in the 1990s. In the interest of my friends, I will not drop names. I am not saying that these former warlords are in any way related to al-Shabaab’s attacks, but this provides a glimpse into the complexity of the historical and current connections between Kenya and Somalia with regard to violent groups.
  5. This attack is a caution flag for other countries currently involved in Somalia. Again, al-Shabaab by no means represents the feelings of the majority Somalia’s citizenry. But they use foreign incursions to legitimize their behavior to their potential followers and members. The group was formed when the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) fractured during the Ethiopian invasion of 2006, and elements connected with al-Shabaab began making connections with terrorists in Ethiopia in order to strike at that country in reaction to their invasion. They are liable to use any foreign intervention in Somalia as an excuse to strike beyond Somalia’s borders, and are particularly focused on Ethiopia and the United States as enemies of their ambitions to control southern Somalia. As long as foreign forces are present, threats will likely continue. Unfortunately, al-Shabaab has ruined it for many Somalis living in the regions they purport to defend. Attacks over the past years have forced groups like Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors without Borders) to withdraw their humanitarian programs from Somalia (August 2013). This will cause more suffering for the people of Somalia.

Hopefully this has shed some light on a few factors related to the Westgate Mall attacks. International actors pursuing a violent agenda have hijacked the cause of Somalia and use it to legitimize their acts of terror while in reality hurting the very people that they claim to support.


Kidane Mengisteab, 2013. “Poverty, Inequality, State Identity and Chronic Inter-State Conflicts in the Horn of Africa,” in R. Bereketeab, ed. The Horn of Africa: Intra-State and Inter-State Conflicts and Security. Pluto Press: pp. 26-39.

Bjorn Moller, 2013. “Militia and Piracy in the Horn of Africa: External Responses,” in R. Bereketeab, ed. The Horn of Africa: Intra-State and Inter-State Conflicts and Security. Pluto Press: pp. 178-196.



Map showing Alanley Market

Clashes in Kismayo


(click map for larger image or to download)

Official discussions about Jubaland’s status as an autonomous state in Somalia began as soon as Hassan Sh. Mohamud took office in September 2012. In December, the government in Mogadishu met with Ahmed Mohamed Islam (Ahmed Madobe, following the common Somali use of nicknames for leaders), leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigade (formerly allied to Hizbul Islam), to discuss the prospects for the autonomy of Jubaland. The Ras Kamboni Brigade appears to be in de facto control of Kismayo, a city whose security is currently officially under the control of Kenyan AU/AMISOM troops.

In May, Madobe and several other militia leaders declared themselves president of an autonomous Jubaland, self-appointments which Mogadishu has deemed unconstitutional. On June 7, Defence Minister Abdihakim Mahmoudis Haji visited Kismayo for meetings; when one self-declared president – Iftin Hassan Basto – was on his way to meet Haji, the Ras Kamboni Brigade stopped Basto in the area of Alanley Market (Suuqa Calanley). Clashes erupted between the Ras Kamboni Brigade and the Ormale militia loyal to Basto. The UN and HRW reported that at least 31 civilians died in fighting between June 7 and 8, as militias reportedly rained mortars on areas of the city – particularly on Dalaada, part of Alanley district along the road to the airport.

Someone in Kismayo sent me a text message (SMS) on June 28 that heavy fighting had begun at 15:00 hrs that day, following clashes in which seven were killed on June 27. The fighting appears to have taken place after Col. Abbas Ibrahim Gurey (Abbas Dheere) was detained by AMISOM Sector II troops in Kismayo. The militia loyal to Col. Barre Hirale, a close ally of Abbas Dheere, attacked the Ras Kamboni Brigade and AMISOM troops. The Ras Kamboni Brigade reportedly took full control of the city, but the Somali government has accused Kenyan AMISOM troops of violating their mandate by taking sides in the conflict.

More on Kismayo and Jubaland to follow.