A video from a BBC report shows SPLA troops ambushed on the road to Bor. Three weeks after the initial fighting in Juba, defections have continued across the country: SPLA contingents in Morobo and Yei have allegedly left to join Machar’s forces, and a large SPLA force on their way from Maridi towards Central Equatoria appears to have split over an incident in Mundri that led to several deaths. Defectors reportedly looted towns between Mundri and Rokon on their way eastward to join Machar’s forces. Continue reading
For the full list of conflict maps and political events surrounding the recent crisis in South Sudan, please visit the conflict mapping page dedicated to the issue.
Following the outbreak of fighting in Juba on December 15, violence spread throughout Greater Upper Nile and parts of eastern Bahr el-Ghazal area (Warrap, Lakes). On December 26, the presidents of Kenya and Ethiopia arrived to meet with Kiir and begin the process of setting up peace negotiations in Addis Ababa. Kiir subsequently began releasing political prisoners held in connection with the “coup attempt” on December 15, but several remained incarcerated. Even as Kiir and Machar flew to Ethiopia to attend IGAD-brokered talks, fighting continued in Unity and in Bor, with both sides refusing to adhere to a ceasefire.
Unity: After deadly ethnic clashes between oilfield employees at the Unity and Thar-jath oilfields, fighting broke out within the SPLA 4th Division on December 20 in Bentiu and Rubkona. By December 21, James Koang Chol of the 4th Division declared himself governor of Unity, and it later was confirmed that he and his forces are loyal to Riek Machar. Evacuation of foreign nationals continued throughout the country, with China’s CNPC reportedly evacuating workers from Unity. The oilfields were subsequently shut down, while South Sudan continued to produce oil in Upper Nile state. SPLA forces loyal to President Kiir were reported to have left Bentiu/Rubkona and joined with Mathew Pul Jang’s SSLA force that was awaiting reintegration in Mayom after accepting amnesty from Kiir in April 2013. Maj. Gen. Pul Jang claimed to have a force of 5,000, but ostensibly that number had dwindled over the months that the soldiers were awaiting reintegration. SSLA leaders advised civilians and UN staff to leave Bentiu before they launched an offensive to dislodge rebel forces from the state capital. Contrary to SSLA declarations, it was they who were attacked by pro-Machar forces from Bentiu as the fighting spread to Abiemnhom and Mayom counties. SPLA contingents in the Jau Garrison and the area of Pariang also reportedly defected and clashed with pro-government forces in the Pariang area on several occasions between December 21 and January 1.
Jonglei: Bor was taken by rebel forces under Gadet on December 18. On December 20, rebels allegedly shot down a UN helicopter in northern Jonglei, and on December 21, they shot at US aircraft attempting to evacuate US citizens from Bor, forcing the aircraft to abandon their mission. Riek Machar accused Ugandan planes of bombing Bor, but Uganda strongly denied this accusation and there were no outside reports of the presence of Ugandan aircraft over Jonglei. Fighting in Bor, Gumuruk, and Likuangole was reported to have continued. Government forces recaptured Bor on December 25, amid heavy fighting both within the town and on its northern edge. One of the most startling developments was the report on December 28 that Nuer youth had organized into the “White Army”, an armed force composed of youth, ex-soldiers, and cattle keepers that has emerged during ethnic conflicts and was involved in heavy fighting during the Nasir Coup of 1991. According to some reports, many of the mobilized youth peeled off from their advance on Bor between December 28 and December 31, but many may have joined rebel forces that recaptured Bor on December 31. On January 1, SPLA forces reported that they had withdrawn to the Malual-Chaat area, just south of Bor town.
Central Equatoria: The border checkpoints on the way to Uganda and Kenya reportedly reopened on the 20th, leading to frantic evacuation from Juba and several road accidents. Fighting between SPLA soldiers loyal to the president and forces that had defected were reported at Mogiri, Mongalla, and Terekeka between December 20 and December 25, with unknown numbers of casualties.
Lakes: On December 22, a contingent of SPLA defectors left Rumbek East and traveled toward Unity, killing at least four people during their defection and allegedly attempting to loot cattle on their way out of Lakes state.
Upper Nile: Rebel forces attacked Malakal on December 24 and claimed to have captured the town. Rebels also allegedly fought SPLA contingents in Paloich oilfields on December 24 and in the Khor Adar oilfield area on December 26. Reports suggest that Shilluk militia commander Johnson Uliny (Olony/Olonyi) was fighting alongside SPLA forces loyal to President Kiir. SPLA forces claimed that they had recaptured Malakal on December 27 amid fierce fighting, particularly in Hai Mataar (near the airport).
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.
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.
As the Abyei Referendum High Committee proceeds with a referendum vote in Abyei this week, both Khartoum and Juba are up in arms – Khartoum because not only are the Misseriya not voting; the unilateral referendum is being held when the Misseriya are for the most part not even present in Abyei. Juba has distanced itself from the referendum and its outcome because of the lack of support from external actors like the AU that help to legitimize the government there and keep things running smoothly in the capital city. The referendum is a critical issue for both sides because of Abyei’s oil reserves – several wells exist in the region, with a pipeline to Heglig/Panthou currently in operation – and also because nobody in South Sudan wants the Ngok Dinka, a branch of the dominant ethnic group in the country, stranded in North Sudan or forced to migrate down to Twic, where there are already enough problems (especially cattle raiding). North Sudan would also appreciate maintaining the support of the Misseriya, who provide a buffer against potential incursions by South Sudan.
This referendum in many ways is the paragon of conflict between nomads and the state. While the rest of South Sudan voted to secede in January 2011, Abyei did not participate not because Bashir’s National Congress Party and Kiir’s SPLM could not agree on when to hold a referendum for Abyei. October is an ideal month for the Dinka Ngok leadership to go ahead with their one-sided referendum because the Misseriya have shifted northward and the majority of their herds should not even be close to Abyei at this point, given the heavy rains throughout Sudan during the late wet season that have allowed the nomadic pastoralist Misseriya to spread out across Kordofan and Darfur. Furthermore, following the assassination of Kuol Deng Kuol, paramount chief of the Ngok, on May 3, multiple reports showed that Misseriya were reluctant to remain in the region even prior to the beginning of the heavier rains. During the rainy season and months immediately following (June – November, depending on the amount of rainfall in the year), the Ngok make up the majority of Abyei’s population; during the dry season, the Misseriya population in Abyei is about equal to the Ngok population, and maybe a little bigger. So basically, if the referendum is held in October, it is almost guaranteed that Abyei will join South Sudan; but if the referendum is held in January or February, there is a good chance that the majority of Abyei’s population would vote to join Sudan.
The Misseriya are a branch of a group classified by lifestyle as Baggara Arabs (بقارة = cattle keeper) that stretch across the Sahel, migrating during dry seasons southward into the tropical savannas and forests and during wet seasons northward into the generally drier parts of the Sahel. South Sudanese living in the areas of the Bahr al-Kiir watershed (Ngok Dinka occupy a large section) have historically warred with these groups during dry seasons, when the grazing land near the wadis and rivers begins to get congested. During the Sudanese Civil War, Khartoum regularly armed the Misseriya to fight as part of the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) against the southern rebels. This increased both animosity and conflict intensity between the Ngok and the Misseriya. As the Ngok seek to hold a unilateral referendum, there is this history and many memories of recent bloodshed hiding behind the curtain.
The Misseriya bring up an issue that South Sudan and Sudan – as well as Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya – need urgently to address: namely, the status and legality of migration of pastoralist groups that require cross-border movement in order to maintain their livelihoods. Neither Western nor Eastern conceptions of the modern nation-state provide an adequate model for Sudan and South Sudan to follow, because states are by nature at war with movement that is predicated on unpredictable circumstances (such as environmental conditions). Nomadic movements break down the notion of a population belonging to a state, of a population’s resources as property taxable by a state, and also present huge problems for the state’s regularization of identity (in the form of ID cards with an address), which is closely tied to its notions of territory. (Just think, Americans, how often you provide someone with your address – in most states you need proof of address to obtain an identification card, to purchase a vehicle, to open a bank account, etc.)
In certain areas, states have learned to cope with trans-border nomadic movements, and in some cases even benefitted from cross-border trade. For example, the border areas between Somaliland and Ethiopia are somewhat permeable, allowing pastoralists to trade on both sides. Likewise, cross-border pastoralist movement and trade, even when illegal, has provided benefits for both southern Somalia (especially the Wamo region) and Kenya (see Peter Little’s work on that subject). Unfortunately, the border between Sudan and South Sudan presents an extremely contentious issue because of resources (not only oil, but also minerals in areas like Kafia Kingi) and because of identity politics. Abyei is only one of approximately a dozen areas that are disputed (some larger than others); even if Abyei holds a referendum and is decided upon, the areas on either side of Abyei (Heglig/Panthau to the east, the Bahr al-Kiir area to the west), Kafia Kingi, Jebel Mengeis, Qoz Rom, and sections of the Upper Nile/Blue Nile border, will all require work to solve.
At the bottom, any referendum, whenever it is held, is only a first step for Abyei, not a final determination of who belongs and who doesn’t. If it is seen as a way to keep the Misseriya out, Abyei is promised a protracted dispute and continuous insecurity along its border, which will hamper efforts to extract petroleum. Likewise, if Sudan seeks to force the resident Ngok Dinka from their farms and pastures, it will face a similar problem. In a part of the world in which livelihoods continue to be largely determined by environmental patterns and the availability of basic resources like water and grass, the issue of sovereignty is complicated and calls for a rethinking of what constitutes state territoriality, citizenship, and rights of movement.