Beneath the euphoria demonstrated by street dancers and singers on the streets of Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, lurks the fear that peace may be disrupted as the polling day for the referendum draws near. This field dispatch, which is the second of two focusing on the destabilizing factors that exist within Unity state, examines the fears that remain of renewed attacks by SPLA breakaway officer Gatluak Gai.
Gai, a southern Sudanese dissident, appeared on the government’s radar in May 2010 when he attacked a SPLA camp in Unity state’s Abiemnom county. Many believe that this aggression was triggered by the re-election of Governor Taban to the state’s most important post and Gai’s belief that the polling was rigged. Although the former officer was offered amnesty by Vice President Salva Kiir in September 2010, he reportedly has not accepted it. Currently residing in Khartoum, he allegedly controls his men via remote communication though no attacks by Gai or his men have been confirmed since June of last year. It is unclear how large his group of armed men might be, or from where they draw their arms. Most agree however, that Gai continues to pose a serious threat to sustainable peace in Unity state.
Koch county amnesty deal: local politics, national repercussions
As reconciliation efforts between Gai and the SPLM remain in limbo, a low key amnesty deal is currently being struck between self-named supporters of Gai and civilians in Koch county, Unity state. Gai is from Koch county and has previously launched attacks in the area. These talks follow an earlier meeting in which Gai’s elements agreed in principle to desist from disruptive activities during the referendum. Details of this more recent arrangement are yet to emerge, given the confidential and sensitive nature of the talks. On the surface, the talks appear to be a welcome advancement of peace, but at closer look, several aspects of this ongoing process remain troubling.
Who the people involved in the talks are is a question that remains mired in obscurity. According to some reports, several of Gai’s men gathered Koch county’s community elders last week to strike a peace deal.Yet, there is no specific lead spokesperson or contact person that has emerged on the group’s behalf. According to one state official, “If someone calls, they talk to you like they are in charge. But two days later, you need to talk to someone else who says he is in charge. They don’t give names. So it is a confusing situation.”
Whether these men are also negotiating at the behest of Gatluak Gai is also uncertain. According to local authorities, the negotiating men have splintered into two factions – one that is keen on peace with Koch county’s community irrespective of Gai’s directives, and another which has surreptitiously suggested that they are against any peace deal unless guided by Gatluak Gai himself.New names have also emerged – one such man, John Guop, one of Gai’s former aides who is infamous in the community for cutting off people’s ears after killing them to keep a headcount, reportedly no longer wants to fight. Another, Colonel Gatgok of the SPLA who has a strong standing in the Koch community, has been requested to mediate in the negotiations. Very little is known about either of these men. Yet, if Gai is not involved in the Koch dialogue personally, it implies that the leadership may be isolated from decision-making processes on the ground. This could signal that the armed rebellion in Unity state may have transformed to include multiple independent actors, a phenomenon which would be much harder to control down the road.
Motivations to hold these peace talks now are also a mystery. Some have suggested that Gai and his men have been driven to these negotiations by a newfound sense of pragmatism – that it is probably in his group’s best interest to allow the referendum to proceed smoothly rather than face potential backlash from the governments of South Sudan and Unity state, and more importantly, the people of Koch county from where Gai has historically drawn his support. Others feel that it is simply a local political gambit to give Gai and his men more prominent positions of power in Unity state politics in the post-referendum era. Given past allegations of Gai’s ties to Khartoum’s military and political leadership, and the bloodshed his movement caused in Unity state earlier this year during the elections, many are rightly suspicious of Gai’s motivations to strike a peace deal now.
One thing that most people seem to agree on is that this amnesty pact is not a finalized agreement. Many aspects still need to be decided, including the level of political participation of the armed elements. The negotiations remain localized in nature, and there is no certainty that the deal will extend to the rest of Unity state. The talks are also fragile because county leaders appear to have more to gain from a peace pact than Gai’s forces. The peace process was initiated by Gai’s men and there is little leverage that local authorities can wield to force the discussion to continue should Gai’s forces choose to draw out. Gai, in particular, has an advantage over the authorities in Mayom because of the fear he instills among locals. “Personally, we can welcome Gai,” said Malual Nyok, Executive Director of Mayom county, “because we don’t want insecurity in our area.”
Unity state is of high strategic importance for the South given its many unique features – major oil installations, a main arterial road leading to Khartoum, its proximity to Abyei (another contested area), and its host to main grazing routes used by the Misseriya. Unity registered the highest number of people for the referendum out of any state in the South, and partition from the North has become an overriding emotional goal. There is also a general consensus for a peaceful referendum. In many ways, Unity is a microcosm of the South’s larger strengths and challenges. Competition for resources, intercommunal fighting, cattle rustling, and other forms of resistance threaten to aggravate tensions among its communities.
Few people in Unity want a full scale war to break out before the referendum. With the Koch negotiations, there is no evidence of a clear timeline for the conclusion of peace talks. On the one hand, these political and security developments have raised the costs of continued conflict for perpetrators. On the other, the nebulous nature of the talks and the secrecy surrounding them serve only to feed into the mood of insecurity on the ground.
The number of men involved remains ambiguous. Initial rumors suggested that the group numbered around 17. But in a phone conversation with Vice President Riek Machar, group members simply confirmed that they were many. In a message over the phone about which Enough learned, they said, “You will need two or three aircraft to take us to Juba if you want us in Juba.”
In a phone call to a local congressman, one group member suggested, “If you want peace, make sure you call our leader in Khartoum [Gai]. We are not here for peace; we are here for military tactics. You cannot buy us. We are not for peace, we came to fight. We don’t need anything from you. We are here because we belong to this area. Things will only be resolved if our man in Khartoum says so.”