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In a recent report analyzing South Sudan’s changing political scene, the International Crisis Group described the region’s transition to statehood as a “window of opportunity,” particularly for those formerly excluded from positions of political power, “in which relationships between, and among, state and non-state actors may be redefined.” The assurance of South Sudan’s independence in July appears to have altered the calculations of many of the region’s armed actors in similar fashion. Since the announcement of South Sudan’s referendum results in early February, the region’s headlines have been dominated by the violent activities of existing militias, and the announcements of new ones emerging.
“Pockets of conflict involving at least four separate militia groups dot the maps of Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity States,” said senior UNMIS official David Gressly at a recent press conference in Juba. He described this source of insecurity in the South as “a source of significant concern for the mission.”
The numbers are stark. Since January, more than 800 civilians have died in violence that has plagued the South (not all related to militia activities), according to figures released last week by the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Juba. Notably, the U.N.’s count doesn’t include the high number of soldiers who have also died in clashes, nor the death toll from the ongoing standoff in the contested region of Abyei, where the Satellite Sentinel Project has documented a military build-up of late.
Fighting first broke out between forces of George Athor, a former high-ranking SPLA official, and the SPLA in February. Weeks later, the SPLA launched its offensive against the renegade force and claimed to push Athor out from his base; his current status is unclear. Then came many others: Captain Oliny, who clashed twice with the southern army in Upper Nile in early March, and Bapiny Monituel, a southern commander in the northern army, whose forces clashed with the SPLA in Unity state under the command of Matthew Pul Jang.
According to a weekly U.N. humanitarian bulletin, fighting between militias and security forces in Athor’s operational areas (in Canal, Fangak, and Ayod counties of Jonglei) in the last month alone displaced at least 18,000 people.
More recently there have been reports of militia coordination and new defections. According to Athor, five militia groups that operate across four states in South Sudan have banded together as the new Southern Sudan Democratic Movement, or SSDM. Whether this movement exists and whether Athor actually commands it is unclear; Athor has made similarly large claims in the past with little to show for it, but Monituel for one has publicly announced his participation in the SSDM. Two high-ranking southern officials, Peter Gatdet (a deputy SPLA divisional commander in Northern Bahr el Ghazal) and Abdul Bagi (a presidential advisor) have also announced their defections, with Gatdet most recently putting out a declaration that derided the SPLM-led government and called for the formation of a new interim government.
“The disparate renegade commanders have many differences, but they seem united by a list of local and tribal grievances about the current southern leadership,” said journalist Alan Boswell in a useful piece on these internal rebellions.
The various characters do differ in many senses, including representing varying southern ethnic groups and a wide geographic expanse. The defections and rebellions could also be viewed as a legacy of the intra-southern fighting during the civil war; many of the leaders, Monituel, Gatdet, and Bagi, fought against the SPLA with the support of Khartoum. Both Gatdet and Bagi’s forces joined the SPLA under the Juba Declaration, as did dozens of other southern armed groups, only after the signing of the CPA compelled non-state armed groups to choose between integrating into the northern or southern army. But as the recent outbreak of insurrections has made clear, the integration did not necessarily address the grievances that prompted southern splintering.
Political dissidence may be one source of discontent. Athor ran for Jonglei state governor against the SPLM-nominated candidate and lost. According to the Sudan Tribune, Bagi was excluded from South Sudan President Kiir’s new cabinet because of disagreement on the nomination process for candidates running for positions in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Bagi’s home state. It appears from “The Mayom Declaration” that Peter Gatdet is appealing to dissatisfaction with SPLM rule as a means of legitimizing his rebellion.
Having come together just long enough to check the box of southern secession, it appears that these armed leaders have seized on this transitional period as an opportunity to maneuver and re-negotiate their piece of the pie. How the southern government and army responds will be critical to the outcome of these negotiations and the stability of the new state.
Photo: SPLA soldiers and military police (Enough/ Laura Heaton)