JUBA, South Sudan — Four months since independence, the South Sudan government is still attempting to exert control over its territory, warning militias are going to intensify attacks in the border states. At a press conference in Juba yesterday, government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin called for the United Nations to increase the presence of peacekeepers in affected areas to protect civilians.
For South Sudan, rebel groups have transcended local quarrels to become a force in disputes between South Sudan and its former motherland. Khartoum had a record of using southern rebels to advance their political agenda and destabilize South Sudan during the war and, many say, on its way to independence. This legacy remains on people’s minds as reports of outbreaks of militia violence surface. Politicians and citizens alike in Juba say that Khartoum’s current interest in maintaining influence on daily life in South Sudan is even bigger than before, mainly because of Khartoum’s ambition to hold its grip over South Sudan oil exports.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that Col. Philip Aguer Panyang, spokesman of the South Sudan army, or SPLA, has accused the Khartoum regime of masterminding the most recent rebel operations in the Unity state. Aguer told reporters at yesterday’s press conference that SPLA has intelligence reports indicating 700 rebel fighters are headed to Kaka in Upper Nile state. Aguer suspects that their intention could be to take over Kaka and “annex that area to Sudan.”
On October 28, the rebel, South Sudan Liberation Army, or SSLA, led by Matthew Pul Jang and Kolchara Nyang, launched an attack in Mayom County in the South Sudanese oil-rich state of Unity. In the wave of contradicting information in the aftermath, both the SSLA and the government claimed victories. The government forces said they killed 32 fighters and pushed the rebels out of Mayom County, while losing 10 soldiers at hands of the rebels. At the same time, the SSLA reported a startling 700 SPLA soldiers killed and claimed to have taken control of Mayom. Further, rebels announced their goal to take over control of Bentiu, the capital of Unity state and extend operations out to neighboring Warrap state. Sixteen civilians were killed in the clashes.
Aguer and the Deputy Director of SPLA Intelligence, Michael Mach, said at a press conference they have credible information about rebel forces being trained by Khartoum. They said rebel troops are being transported by SAF through South Kordofan to Unity and Upper Nile states to take over key positions. They reasoned that Khartoum has territorial ambitions in these two states bordering the volatile northern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Khartoum’s support for the rebels, these SPLA officials said, is evident from the testimonies from the rebels who have been reintegrated into the SPLA.
At the time of the clashes late last month, the SSLA issued a statement in which they accused Unity state governor Taban Deng Gai of targeting families of the rebels. According to the rebels, Governor Taban ordered SPLA soldiers to confiscate dowry cattle from the rebels’ in-laws. SSLA claimed, “More than six hundred cattle were forcefully taken from in-laws of SSLA commanders in Nhial Diew, Mankien and Mayom Counties.” Additionally SSLA said that relatives of SSLA commanders “have been subjected to harsh and cruel treatments such as beatings. The SPLA detained them in unknown locations inaccessible to their relatives.”
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit has continuously called for rebels to accept the offered amnesty and reintegrate into SPLA. These calls have so far produced partial success: Peter Gatdet, a former SSLA commander, turned up in Juba in August and some of his soldiers are in the process of reintegrating into the SPLA. Gatluak Gai’s group is in the process of joining the SPLA too, though events surrounding his death remain unclear to this day. Lam Akol, the leader of the SPLM-DC opposition party, recently returned to Juba from self-imposed exile in Nairobi, prompting questions about whether rebel leader George Athor, whom Akol has been accused of backing, might soon follow. However, SSLA spokesperson Peter Buol Kuey recently told the Enough Project that it is George Athor they are looking at as a leader to build a larger rebel alliance against “corrupted SPLM government and President Salva Kiir Mayardit.”
SSLA leadership has repeatedly told the Enough Project that they would only negotiate with the government under “international mediation.” One of the leading officers of SSLA, Bapiny Monutyl, said, “SSLA does not trust Salva Kiir” and they demand that the president explain the circumstances under which Gatluak Gai was killed and Gabriel Teny kept in prison. Speculation over Gai’s murder and Teny’s imprisonment have fuelled distrust, possibly with implications for the government’s amnesty process.
Military operations by the SSLA in the Unity state are, in the words of rebel leaders, attempts to overthrow the government of South Sudan. However, as SPLA leadership in the capital speculates, motivation for these actions could also lie elsewhere. Uncoordinated, these operations have little chance of destabilizing the government of South Sudan. However, they pose formidable threats to civilians and general security in the country.
The South Sudanese minister of interior recently stated that “amnesty is not an open-ended process” and the government must face the threats and address them. The minister has also stressed that the government will soon have to “deal with the threats from the rebel groups.” This may be, but some of the previous attempts by the government to quash rebellions have generated accusations of excessive use of force against civilians in rebel areas. In light of last month’s clashes in Unity state and with the threat of escalation, SSLA appear to have increased stakes dramatically. Juba’s reaction to these threats will be important to watch.
Photo: SPLA soldiers (Enough/Laura Heaton)