Dissident army general George Athor continues to challenge South Sudan’s ruling party and army, jeopardizing the stability of the region before its critical vote for secession next year. Since his defection, the renegade commander, and defeated candidate, has demanded that an elected state governor (and candidate he lost to) step down, while issuing both threats to attack and offers to negotiate. The situation continues to be tense and unpredictable.
In just the last week, the South Sudan army and a contingent of soldiers loyal to Athor have clashed three times, according to Athor. (The army confirmed only two.) General Athor defected from the army two weeks ago with an unknown number of soldiers in response to what he saw were flawed and rigged elections. According to him, the latest attack came on Wednesday.
"This morning at 7.10 (0410 GMT) the forces of Salva [Kiir, the South’s president] attacked our position … Four people were killed on our side and five were wounded. On their side 83 are dead," Athor told Reuters on Wednesday.
An army, or SPLA, spokesman denied the casualty count, saying only two were killed, but did confirm that a small team of soldiers had clashed with Athor’s forces in Jonglei, a state already plagued with considerable inter-communal fighting in the past year.
Wednesday’s attack followed clashes on Monday and last Thursday—each one prompting different responses from the renegade commander. Following the first SPLA attack, Athor said negotiations were off the table and warned his troops would attack the army; following fighting on Monday, the commander threatened to attack the capital of Jonglei but said he was willing to negotiate if the army stopped its attacks.
Most recently, Athor told Reuters he still wants to negotiate and that he had spoken with a U.N. representative. According to Sudan Tribune, a delegation of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan met with South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar yesterday to talk about negotiating with Athor. One South Sudan minister suggested that the government has already informally reached out to the dissident commander, but that the government had no plans to negotiate with him soon.
Much remains unknown about the dynamics of this situation. Whether Athor and his forces have the capacity to carry out his threats and whether other independent candidates or military leaders will identify with his grievances and see Athor as a legitimate leader remain uncertain. Notably, the majority of information on the situation found in the media is from Athor himself—further raising the possibility of misinformation.
With the referendum looming and most preparations for the vote seeing no progress, the Athor-SPLA showdown is a potential monkey wrench that the international community and Sudanese actors cannot allow to get out of hand.
Photo: SPLA soldiers marching in Abyei. (IRIN)