Earlier this week, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir reshuffled officers within the SPLA. According to some of the people I spoke with when I was in Juba in August, this has been in the works for several months and was actually expected since last fall. They suspected that the next round of retirements and promotions would be postponed so as not to create discord within the SPLA while negotiations with Sudan over oil transport fees and security arrangements were still at a delicate stage. That said, even though officer reshuffling is a “normal” process, it’s still a potential trigger for armed group violence. Here’s why:
Those familiar with South Sudan’s civil war era and post-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) challenges know that the present-day SPLA is comprised of a mix of longtime SPLA loyalists as well as soldiers who fought the SPLA during the civil war and/or during the 2010-2011 rebellions. The significance of the SPLA’s makeup is that rank harmonization tends to be a contentious issue when non-SPLA forces are being integrated into the SPLA. In instances of post-conflict military integration, you usually end up with a top-heavy force, which means you have too many (expensive) generals, too many people in decision-making positions, and not enough positions to go around. This is a problem not only for efforts to “right-size” the SPLA by reducing its parade from 210K+ to 120K by 2017 per Objective Force 2017, but also for South Sudan to be able to spend its military budget on training and equipment, for example, rather than on officer salaries. Where this process of retirements and promotions gets contentions depends on which SPLA officers were affected by this round of reshuffling and how they’ve fared. (For greater detail on the names of officers affected and what positions they’ve been moved to/from, see this article in New Sudan Vision, courtesy of Sahel Blog’s post).
Specifically, in order to determine what the promotions and retirements mean, one would need to examine the following factors:
- What’s the ethnic background of the officers who were retired / promoted?
- What’s their professional background?
- Are they longtime SPLA loyalists?
- Did they fight against the SPLA during the war and integrate into the SPLA after the Juba Declaration?
- Did they participate in the 2010-2011 rebellions and subsequently (re)integrate into the SPLA?
- Who has gained or lost decision-making authority in their new positions?
These issues are important to watch because they demonstrate the balance of power within the SPLA and give us a sense of what grievances might cause officers to defect from the SPLA and start their own armed group movements in the future. To better understand how these factors could make armed group violence more likely, let’s take a closer look at our favorite repeat defector Peter Gadet. Peter Gadet was a member of several Khartoum-supported anti-SPLA militias during the civil war, but integrated into the SPLA as a Major General following the 2006 Juba Declaration. Gadet was Commander of Air Defense at SPLA General Headquarters in Juba, but during the October 2010 officer reshuffling, Gadet was assigned to be Deputy Commander of the 3rd Division in Northern Bahr al-Ghazal. According to a Sudan HSBA report, “When it became clear that powerful former militia leaders had been overlooked for promotion while lower-ranking, mainly Dinka, officers were given higher ranks, Gadet (a Bul Nuer) and others became concerned… (Gadet) reportedly viewed this position as below his station and resented serving as deputy to a Dinka division commander. While George Athor used what he claimed was his unfair defeat in the polls as a pretext for rebellion, Gadet’s motivation (to defect from the SPLA in the spring of 2011) thus likely stemmed from frustration with his position within the SPLA.”
Fortunately (or unfortunately?) Gadet has not been affected by this round of reshuffling, and his most recent rebellion is has been on hiatus for over a year since his fall 2011 reintegration into the SPLA. But you see my point – that in some cases, reshuffling can be a trigger for violence depending on who it affects and how it affects them.
So in closing, I don’t know the backgrounds of the officers affected by this week’s round of retirements and promotions or how they perceive these changes. But at least we know what to look out for as we learn more about them.
On occasion, I write about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following (Part II) is about the conclusion of a trip I took with a friend several years ago. It is intentionally vague about what countries we visited:
(CONTINUED FROM PART I)
During one of our stays with friends, Emma had fallen in love with their beautiful 4 foot tall metal silhouette of an African woman carrying water with a cattle horn as her dress. She managed to find a less expensive replica in the next city we visited, and insisted on buying it. I thought she was insane, since we were only 2/3 done with our trip and were constantly on the move. In defiance, I purchased a gorgeous hand-carved mahogany chair (No, not one of those silly ones with safari animals on it) in the next city. I was not going to be the only one of us with incredibly inconvenient, fragile, and cumbersome cargo.
By the grace of God, Emma’s horn statue and my carved chair made it – undamaged, through multiple flight legs – to our final destination on the continent, where we proceeded to prepare them to be checked baggage on our long journeys home. All the skirts, pants, t-shirts, etc that we’d been wearing for the past 3 weeks created a protective patchwork between our artwork and the layers of brown paper and tape that we’d purchased at the grocery. When we’d finished, our elaborately wrapped packages were impenetrable.
So we arrive at the airport and put the damn things through the x-ray machine at the entrance… but the security guard says he can’t see through all the packaging and we have to take everything apart. Not being the brightest crayon in the box, I completely fail to see what’s going on, so I stand up there, questioning how an x-ray machine could be unable to penetrate layers of paper, tape, and well, undergarments. The situation devolves into me arguing that the security guard is being illogical, and this diminutive guard insisting that we have to unpack the statue and the chair right there at the entrance to this airport. We reach an impasse, and I retreat to a corner to cool off while Emma tries her hand at resolving this conflict. After the haggling and the drama of the previous 3 weeks, I was done being pushed around.
A few minutes later, the guard comes back, smiling, and tells me everything’s okay. I ask Emma what happened, but she hustles us past the entrance and won’t speak of it until we’ve checked in for our flight, checked our precious cargo, and passed through another round of security.
Me: Why did that dude end up letting us go?
Emma: I gave him ten bucks.
Me: You did WHAT?!? (I’m against paying someone off purely based on our status as foreigners.)
Emma: Yeah, he said he ‘wanted to have a happy new year’ and I wanted to make our flight, so we went in the corner away from the cameras and I gave him ten bucks.
And there was I thinking my logic had worn down this guy’s resolve. Lesson learned, my friends.
On occasion, I write about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following (Part I) is about the conclusion of a trip I took with a friend several years ago. It is intentionally vague about what countries we visited:
Several years back, I rang in the new year in an African capital city, running for cover to protect myself from the fireworks that rained down on us from the top of the Western chain hotel where we’d opted to ring in the new year. My travel companion, Emma, and I had originally planned to spend a less pampered New Years’ Eve with a friend, but those plans were abandoned when he had to go “upcountry” to care for a sick relative.
We were coming to the end of a pretty intense 3 week-long multi-country trip which had included the following highlights:
- Emma getting hit by a wave runner in one country, and then involved in a near-miss motorbike collision while zipping through rush hour traffic in another country
- Both of us failing to come up with the requisite “payment” to obtain a “day pass” to hop over the border into a neighboring country just to see what it was like over there
- Having carnivorous ants crawling up my pants and not being able to do much about it at the time
- Narrowly avoiding a head-on collision between our bus (aka vehicular deathtrap) and an 18-wheeler not 20 minutes into one of our 8 hour journeys
Aside from these minor incidents, many flavors of drama preceded our visits and infected our stays. In one country, sensitive correspondence had just been leaked to the press, creating a tense security environment at our host’s residence for the duration of our stay. In another country, our host was implicated in what may have been a politically motivated international incident that became public as our plane was touching down on that country’s soil.
With my DC-oriented security studies background, I was able to take most of this in stride, all the while concocting contingency plans and exit strategies – in case we needed them. Emma, on the other hand, thought all of this was shady as (insert expletive here). I tried to calm her down, saying “It’s not that weird for a drunk policeman to come beat the crap out of our driver and haul him away while we’re at dinner.”
All of this is to emphasize that by the time we got to the airport to catch our flights back to the U.S., we’d had our fill of drama. But wait – I haven’t yet told you about Emma’s goddamn horn statue and the carved chair I purchased in an act of protest.
(TO BE CONTINUED)