South Sudan’s Next Civil War Is Starting
Just when a peace deal seemed within reach, President Salva Kiir is threatening to plunge the country back into bloody conflict.
JUBA, South Sudan — More than half a dozen cease-fires had been brokered and broken before opposition forces finally returned to the capital in late December as part of a deal to end South Sudan’s bloody two-year civil war. None of the previous negotiations had gotten this far. But late last year, with more than 2 million displaced, unknown thousands dead, and countless maimed and raped, advance teams representing rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar were back in Juba to hash out a plan with the current government to share ministries in a proposed unity cabinet.
Things were finally looking up. But just when it seemed possible to imagine an end to all the suffering, President Salva Kiir announced in a Christmas Eve broadcast that he was moving forward with a plan that could plunge the battered nation back into civil war even before the current peace agreement is implemented. Calling the country’s existing 10 states “defunct” in his broadcast, Kiir said he’d replaced them with 28 new ones. He had already appointed 28 new governors to run them, he said — all conveniently loyal to him. They were sworn in five days later.
The subdivision of South Sudan’s states was a blatant power play by Kiir, whose newly designed borders ensure powerful majorities for his Dinka tribe in strategic locations. It also imperils the peace deal his government reached with Machar’s rebels back in August, which called for a transitional government of national unity based on the existing 10 states.
Members of the opposition responded to the president’s Christmas Eve address with fury. “The door for peace in South Sudan is closed once and for all [with] the appointment of 28 states’ governors. [It] is a declaration of war against the people of South Sudan,” Riw Simon, an opposition soldier, wrote on Facebook soon after Kiir’s announcement.
It’s no surprise that the opposition, known as the SPLA-IO, views the 28-state plan as an insult. It’s not just that Kiir’s plan rewards loyalists. It also puts the coherence of the rebel movement under strain. Contrary to how it is often portrayed internationally, the SPLA-IO is a disparate force with an array of localized agendas, some competing against one another. Subdividing the country’s state-level boundaries will exacerbate these tensions by raising the stakes of local power disputes, rebel leaders and analysts say.
“Kiir’s order to create 28 states will aggravate already existing fractures within South Suda, and threatens to intensify a whole series of local competitions over land and institutions throughout the county,” said Joshua Craze, a researcher focusing on South Sudan at the Small Arms Survey.
Nowhere is the danger of renewed violence greater than in the heartland of the Shilluk, South Sudan’s third-largest ethnic group, in the country’s oil-rich Upper Nile state. Descended from one of the region’s few hierarchical kingdoms, which pre-dates South Sudan by five centuries, the Shilluk are loyal to each other and their land before any other political entity. The fertile floodplains of the Nile River, after all, have done more for them than any government ever has.
So the civil war has been a delicate balancing act for the Shilluk. For more than a year, the group’s main fighting force, known as the Agwelek army, was allied with the government. But in April of last year, when Kiir first floated his 28-state idea — which Shilluk leaders regard as an excuse to carve up their homeland — the top Agwelek general, John Uliny, switched sides and took his forces to fight with Machar. “Uliny has no political aspirations; he only cares about the land,” said a U.N. official who asked not to be named.
In a ramshackle office guarded by young men in baggy shorts and sunglasses in the Upper Nile settlement of Wau Shilluk, Brig. Gen. Moghahat Abeel, one of Uliny’s subordinate commanders, offered a simple explanation for why his men have now turned the weapons supplied by Kiir against his government. “Our land is our resource,” he said.
Later, Tap Koang Toy, the media officer for the Agwelek army’s Tiger Brigade, a special unit founded immediately after Kiir’s plan to subdivide the states, told Foreign Policy in an email that “28 states will bring another war if not reversed.”
Although they lack formal military training, like many rebel militias in South Sudan, the Agwelek are well equipped to defend the land they claim. Supplied with arms by the government early on in the war, the Shilluk force also managed to hold up three U.N. barges on the Nile River in November, taking an unknown number of peacekeepers captive and grabbing 55,000 liters, or 15,000 gallons, of fuel. The peacekeepers have since been released, but the fuel that will power its troop movements stayed with the Agwelek.
If its demands of autonomy are not met, the Shilluk army could continue to destabilize the country’s northeast — and the all-important oil fields located there — even after the peace agreement between Kiir and Machar is implemented. In a tacit acknowledgement of this fact, the government’s strongest forces, along with a fleet of attack helicopters, are positioned around the Paloich oil fields in Upper Nile state, the source of most of its revenue.
“If they [the government] don’t give the land back, [the Shilluk] will still fight, even if there is peace in Juba,” said Issiah Aba Nyawelo, the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Wau Shilluk.
Nyawelo says most of the 600 or so people in his congregation have “no more expectations” of peace. When the Agwelek army switched sides in April, Wau Shilluk was cut off from humanitarian aid for more than five months as fighting raged. At one point, people were forced to live off the palm fronds that grow on the banks of the Nile. Now that the settlement is firmly in the hands of the SPLA-IO — and the fighting has died down — aid organizations are returning and most people can expect one or two meals a day. One of the four schools that were shuttered during the war has just reopened, and some stores have a bit of stock on their shelves, though few people here have enough money to buy anything.
The Agwelek are not the only group that could upend South Sudan’s bid for peace. In early January, heavily armed youth from the Mundari ethnic group set up a blockade on a strategic route that links Juba to Bahr el-Ghazal to protest the proposed division of the Central Equatoria state, and communities in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state are petitioning against Kiir’s decree, saying they don’t want to be annexed into the newly created “Lol state.”
“Plenty of people are armed and untrained and ready to fight the government,” said the U.N. official, referring to other ethnic and regional militias that might take up arms if the 28-state plan is not rescinded.
They are also ready to fight each other. In Unity state, one of the states most devastated by the civil war, various Nuer tribes that are currently allied in the fight against Kiir’s government could easily clash with one another as they jockey to take advantage of the new borders he has drawn. No doubt the president sees that as one of the advantages of his plan, having offered better land to the Nuer who stayed loyal to him during the war. “Unity state won’t see inter-ethnic conflict, but rather we will see conflict amongst different Nuer communities, some of whom are allied with the government,” said Casie Copeland, an analyst focusing on South Sudan at the International Crisis Group.
Kiir’s bid to divide and conquer his enemies caps off a year in which his government steadily regained territory it lost to the rebels at the outset of the war. Government forces routed opposition fighters from many of their strongholds, with both sides committing a long list of well-documented atrocities along the way.
Now, according to Copeland, they believe they have the leverage to impose advantageous terms of peace on a vanquished rebel force. “The view from the government in Juba is that they won a war and the international community forced a peace agreement on them,” she said, adding that the plan is also “a way for the government to reassert its authority and take control of the political situation that had become rather challenging following the signing of the peace agreement.”
But the 28-state plan has so far undermined the prospects for peace. After Machar’s advance teams successfully hammered out an agreement on a unity cabinet — 16 ministries were to go to Kiir’s faction while 10 were to go to Machar’s — the rebel leader did a U-turn and recalled his advance team from Juba. He has since stated that he won’t return to the capital until the 28-state plan is rescinded. Even if the two sides work out their differences, the Shilluk and other groups that haven’t been placated with cash or political opportunities could raise hell for years to come. According to the U.N. official, “there is going to be shooting in this country for a long time.”
Image Credit: HARRISON NGETHI/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Jan. 26, 2016: In early January, heavily armed youth from the Mundari ethnic group set up a blockade on a strategic route that links Juba to Bahr el-Ghazal. An earlier version of this article misidentified the youth as being from the Munda ethnic group.
Amanda Sperber is a journalist based in Nairobi and Mogadishu. Twitter: @hysperbole