Today, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir sacked his Vice President Riek Machar and dissolved the government, leaving undersecretaries of various ministries to run said ministries until further notice. Although there had been a few recent indications of internal fissures within the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the cold war between Salva and Riek had been heating up since the spring, I don’t know that anyone had been anticipating anything this…drastic. I mean, we all expected Salva to eventually fire Riek, but I don’t think anyone expected him to nuke his entire cabinet.
For those unfamiliar with the history between these two men: Riek and Salva were both senior commanders in the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) during Sudan’s Second Civil War (1983-2005). In August 1991, Riek along with Lam Akol and Gordon Kong issued a paper entitled “Why John Garang Must Go Now” criticizing Garang’s leadership and launching a breakaway faction of the SPLA. (This is a vast oversimplification of the events leading to what is called the Nasir Coup and what the implications were for the SPLA and South Sudan, so I recommend reading Douglas H. Johnson’s The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars, Robert O. Collins’ A History of Modern Sudan, and John Young’s The Fate of Sudan: The Origins and Consequences of a Flawed Peace Process.) The split within the SPLA was detrimental because up until that point, the SPLA had been beating the Sudanese military on the battlefield. (Matthew Arnold & Matthew Leriche’s South Sudan: From Revolution to Independence is a great source for understanding the ebb and flow of SPLA strength from 1983 through independence.) However the SPLA’s rear base in Ethiopia and support from the Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam went away when the Derg regime fell in May 1991, leaving the SPLA extremely vulnerable. Thus, on top of the crisis of losing Ethiopia’s support, the Nasir Coup not only further weakened the SPLA, but also fanned the flames of a brutal decade of South-South (Dinka-Nuer, Nuer-Nuer) violence in the Greater Upper Nile region (present day Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states) from which South Sudan is still recovering.
The Nasir Coup did not, in fact, result in an uprising against Garang within the SPLA, so over the next decade Riek went on to lead many alphabet soups worth of rebel movements and even formed a tactical alliance with the ruling National Islamic Front (NIF) / National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum. He reconciled with Garang in 2002, and became Salva’s VP upon Garang’s death in July 2005. Due to Riek’s betrayal of the SPLA in 1991 and the fact that the Nasir Coup precipitated South Sudan’s “civil war within a civil war” in the 1990s, his presence in the government had always been a marriage of convenience, and even of necessity. As a former rebel leader and a influential politician from the Nuer ethnic group (second largest in South Sudan after the Dinka), having Riek in such a high position was one of the ways to demonstrate that the Republic of South Sudan would not suffer from “Dinka hegemony.”
To fast forward to today’s events – fortunately (or unfortunately?) Salva’s entire cabinet has been sacked, so this hopefully will not be interpreted as specifically targeting Riek or collectively, the Nuer, for marginalization. Note that Deng Alor (former Minister of Cabinet Affairs, and previously Foreign Minister; Dinka) had been sacked last month and is said to be under investigation for corruption, while Pagan Amum (SPLM Secretary General, from the Shilluk ethnic group) was also part of today’s mass firing. Therefore, until we see what South Sudan’s new cabinet looks like, it’s going to be difficult to see who’s been marginalized and speculate as to what they might do about it. But just to plant this idea in your mind – the previous period of political competition in South Sudan leading up to and following the 2010 elections corresponded with a proliferation of armed groups led by or supported by individuals excluded from the country’s new political dispensation. So the recomposition of Salva’s cabinet and how the SPLM handles the runup to the 2015 elections will be critical in determining whether or not we see armed movements re-emerging.
For insight on why today’s developments are such a big deal – and to explain the title of this post – I highly recommend International Crisis Group‘s April 2011 report Politics and Transition in the New South Sudan. By many accounts, comparisons between Salva and his predecessor, the late John Garang, distinguish between Garang’s authoritarianism and Salva’s efforts to be more conciliatory towards his opponents inside and outside of the political elite. This approach, one could argue, is what enabled southern Sudan, which was emerging from South-South violence during the 1990s, to come together to vote for independence in the January 2011 referendum and to become the Republic of South Sudan just over two years ago. Conciliation and compromise on the part of Salva Kiir led to him bringing former adversaries into the SPLM/A fold – into his large tent, as the report describes it. Viewed positively, these characteristics led to the signing of the 2006 Juba Declaration, which neutralized the threat armed groups posed to the government of South Sudan in the immediate aftermath of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Viewed negatively, Salva’s need for consensus coupled with the weakness of his government meant that he could, until recently, only pay lip service to tackling massive corruption within his government, lest his allies and former adversaries turn against him.
Throughout his time in power, Salva Kiir has played a delicate balancing act, trying to remain in control of South Sudan while bringing rebels and dissenters into the fold. Sacking the entire cabinet and dissolving the government, doesn’t track with anything he’s done as a leader thus far, which is why today’s events are such a big deal.
Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, the government of South Sudan has sought to neutralize the threat non-statutory armed forces pose to peace and stability. Often, the government’s preferred approach has been not coercion, but rather accommodation, which entails negotiating amnesty for armed groups and integrating them into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). While contributing to short-term stability, this approach competes with a simultaneous imperative to “rightsize” or reduce the parade of the SPLA from 210,000 to 120,000 over the next five years and transform the SPLA into a conventional, professional military. With the country’s economy unable to provide 90,000 non-essential SPLA personnel with alternative livelihoods, the government seeks to prevent unemployed ex-combatants from becoming spoilers during the country’s post-conflict reconstruction process. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the government will continue to balance the imperatives of integrating non-statutory armed forces into the SPLA whilst undertaking a sizeable reduction of the country’s statutory armed forces.
This presentation in the video above provides:
- a historical context of armed groups in the South during Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005);
- an analysis of the government’s postwar approach to armed groups;
- an analysis of the challenges inherent in post-conflict military integration and demobilization in South Sudan; and
- an assessment of the potential trigger points for future armed group mobilization.
I hope you find the presentation useful, but if you can’t sit through it, I hope to put much of this in writing in the coming months.
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.
I have developed a habit for blaming South Sudan for my inability to get anything on my “To Do” list done. That appears to be the case again today.
News broke this morning that the SPLA had allegedly shot down a UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Mi-8 helicopter that had been conducting a reconnaissance mission near Likuangole in Jonglei state. The ensuing crash killed 4 Russian crew on board.
Those who follow security issues in this part of Africa will know that Jonglei is an area of South Sudan that has been afflicted by:
- violence between the Dinka, Lou Nuer, and Murle, most recently detailed in the June 2012 UNMISS report “Incidents of Inter-Communal Violence in Jonglei State”;
- proliferation in small arms and light weapons (SALW) due to the porous border with Ethiopia and the inability of the security forces to protect the population from said violence; and
- a spate of militia violence, most recently perpetrated primarily by David Yau Yau, who has been in a state of off-and-on rebellion since his unsuccessful bid for the Gumuruk-Boma seat in the Jonglei State assembly. (For additional information on Yau Yau’s rebellion, you must read Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment’s brief on him, updated earlier this week).
Initial reports on the helicopter incident were hazy, with people like myself speculating that:
- It would be illogical for South Sudan to deliberately target a UN helicopter, given the role the UN tries to play as a security guarantor against South Sudan’s security threats. Yes, relations between the government and the UN mission have been challenging from time to time (i.e., the government’s response to the June 2012 report on Jonglei), but I would not describe relations between them as hostile. Therefore, this must have been an accident. OR
- It would be more likely that non-SPLA armed groups – perhaps Yau Yau’s men or local communities resisting the SPLA’s forcible, and often uneven disarmament campaigns – were responsible for shooting down the helicopter. The UN was supporting disarmament in this region, and although they differed with South Sudan’s security forces on the means, both sought to neutralize the threats posed by militias and armed civilians.
It has since been confirmed that the SPLA was indeed responsible for the incident, believing the helicopter was of Sudanese origin and sent to resupply Yau Yau’s forces. According to SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer, the SPLA was not aware that an UNMISS aircraft would be in the area. When they requested information from the mission, the UN was allegedly not forthcoming until it was too late.
While the incident is still under investigation, I would be quite surprised if it was revealed that the SPLA intentionally downed an UNMISS helicopter. Say what you want about the Government of South Sudan’s governance and decision-making, but it’s not a rogue nation. My initial conclusion, therefore, is that this was an unfortunate accident that underscores three things about South Sudan’s security forces:
- The SPLA is not known for having good command-and-control – especially when forward deployed. An UNMISS inquiry of the crash may reveal that mid- or low-ranking soldiers fired without receiving an order from their commanding officer. Another possibility is that there may have been too many commanding officers there, and this may have obscured what the appropriate response to seeing the helicopter should have been. I mention the “too many commanding officers” theory because rank harmonization has been one of the challenges that has come with integrating non-statutory groups that were formerly anti-SPLA into the SPLA.
- On occasion, the South Sudan’s security forces do not respond to security incidents with appropriate rules of engagement. One only need look across to the police‘s (and possibly the military’s) heavy-handed response to the recent protests in Wau, the capital of Western Bahr al-Ghazal state. Thus, it is not altogether surprising that the SPLA’s response to the UNMISS helicopter was to shoot first and ascertain the threat later.
- In addition to flawed C2, and inappropriate ROE, lack of training may have been a factor. On one hand, you could argue that the UN has white helicopters with the letters “UN” clearly marking it, and they have been present in Sudan/South Sudan since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. On the other hand (and I don’t favor this argument, but am just throwing it out there), literacy may have been an issue. According to data compiled by Richard Rands, “up to 90 per cent of the ranks are illiterate, as are at least 70 per cent of the officers.” Again, I would presume most SPLA should be able to ID a UN helicopter, so perhaps the UNMISS investigation will conclude that the helicopter was shot down before the SPLA could properly see it to identify it as friendly and not hostile.
Anyway, that’s what I have so far, but I’m curious to see what the result of the UNMISS investigation will be, and how this incident could impact UNMISS operations in South Sudan.
(Originally published in World Politics Review on November 5, 2012)
South Sudan has embarked on a program to transform the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the country’s preindependence guerrilla army, into a professional, conventional force by 2017. However, the success of this transformation strategy, referred to as Objective Force 2017, is contingent on a number of factors, including the absence of major conflict with Sudan, South Sudan’s ability to recover from the impact of this year’s austerity budget and the military’s ability to undertake a significant reduction in force.
The precise size of the SPLA is not known, but is estimated to be as high as 210,000 soldiers. As Objective Force 2017 establishes the need for the SPLA to have a parade of 120,000, as many as 90,000 soldiers will need to be demobilized in the years to come.
(Read the rest of the article on the World Politics Review website.)