South Sudan crisis: A guide for confused observers

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Can President Salva Kiir survive without reconciling with Riek Machar?

Radio Tamazuj is an independent cross-border radio project covering the conflict areas of Sudan and South Sudan. Radio Director Hildebrand Bijleveld tries to answer some of the most asked questions about the conflict that started December 15 as it heads toward what seems to be civil war.

1. Was there a coup attempt as announced by President Salva Kiir?: No, there was not a coup attempt. The version of events narrated by Peter Adwok is most likely closer to the truth. During the final session of the National Liberation Council, one of the ruling party’s highest political organs, on December 15, there was a dispute among different elements of the Presidential Guards (Tigers) over orders to surrender their arms. According to Adwok, guards were disarmed but later the officer in charge opened the stores and rearmed only the Dinka soldiers. The Nuer guards questioned this, a fistfight ensued and more Nuer soldiers came in and broke into the stores. The Nuer soldiers managed to take control of the headquarters and the next day after some SPLA reinforcements, the mutineers were dislodged. There is no evidence of any planning, masterminding or political coordination before or during the clash.

2. Is it is an ethnic conflict?: Although ethnicity is a major factor, the crisis was actually precipitated by a deep political rift and power struggle. Yes, the President Salva Kiir is a Dinka and his rival the former vice-president Riek Machar is a Nuer. Yes, the race card is being played by both sides, and certainly it is a real dimension of the conflict especially at the ground level. But behind Riek Machar is a coalition that includes prominent Dinka politicians as well such as the former Sudanese minister of foreign affairs and the widow of the founding father of the SPLM John Garang. Other prominent non-Nuers are in the camp of the former vice president such as the now dismissed secretary-general of the ruling party, Pag’an Amum, a Shilluk.

3. What is the political rivalry about?: Politics is about power, and behind this latest crisis was a contest to become the new president in the elections of 2015. Between the two rivals there’s also a significant difference in political approach. Salva Kiir is a military man, who led the guerilla army in the field against Khartoum. He became the commander-in-chief after John Garang died. Besides being the first president of the country, he is also the chairman of the party that holds nearly all seats in parliament, and he has become accustomed to ruling without being questioned. But with widespread corruption in the government, mismanagement of the security forces and lack of rule of law and freedom of expression, reform was being demanded by the population. Riek Machar, on the other hand, attempted a more inclusive political approach together with his ally Pag’an Amum. During recent party deliberations they tried to play by the books (e.g. SPLM constitution) to make gains for their allies and unseat the party chairman, but Salva Kiir played the power card and finally dismissed them from the cabinet and the party.

4. Is South Sudan going to have a new civil war?: It is too early to make definitive conclusions, but it is accurate to say at the very least that South Sudan is on the brink of a civil war. The poor management of the conflict, the deepening of an already bitter political rift, and the revival of deep ethnic rivalry make the possibility of a full-scale war far more likely. The fall of Bor at the hands of the defected 8th Division Commander Peter Gadet is a bad sign. It remains to be seen wither Riek Machar, still at large, will take leadership of the armed revolt from behind the scenes. For the mutineers, there seems now no way back into the regular army unless Kiir and Machar reach an agreement on a path toward reintegration. On the other hand, Gadet is more likely now to try to rally a considerable number of Nuer militia behind him, taking control over larger areas of Jonglei and Unity State. Thought it may not be enough to overthrow Kiir, it would severely destabilize the country and cripple the economy.

5. What can be done to avoid war?: At minimum a process of political reconciliation must begin between Salva Kiir, Riek Machar, Pag’an Amum and their supporters. Reinstating the opposition leaders with some of their powers either within the government or party may be an option on the table. The worst option would be seeking a military solution in the style of the Khartoum regime which has tried for ten years to crush rebels in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. War would lead to immense suffering of the population. Perhaps the most likely scenario is something in between, with fast spreading military clashes all over the country, mounting pressure from the international community and finally a painstaking national reconciliation process.

6. Can the UN do something – don’t they have peacekeepers?: The UN Peacekeeping Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) with 7,000 uniformed staff and a budget close to a billion dollar a year was completely absent from the streets in Juba. No blue helmet was seen during the worst days of the conflict. Moreover, the chairman of the UN Security Council Gérard Araud already announced that the peacekeepers will not intervene in the fighting. Bases of the United Nations have been used, however, as places of refuge by tens of thousands of people in Juba and Bor. The bases are also sometimes staging areas for humanitarian logistics.

7. Who is Riek Machar, leader of the opposition against the president?: Riek Machar, like many politicians in South Sudan, was implicated in atrocities committed during the civil war of 1983-2005. He was blamed for the Bor Massacre in 1991 when his Nuer militiamen butchered thousands of Dinka in the Jonglei capital. The same city is again now under siege by troops loyal to him. His reputation was further questioned by humanitarian officials who said that he kept starving children in camps in order to lure the international community into sending food aid that would actually be taken by his soldiers. Other members of the Liberation Movement questioned his signature of the 1997 Khartoum Agreement, considering him an opportunist and traitor. On the other hand, he has a reputation also as an exceptional survivor and pragmatist, and holds a PhD in agronomy. He speaks English, Arabic, Nuer and some Dinka.

8.Why is Salva Kiir not killing his opponents if they staged a coup?: Killing opposition leaders Riek Machar and Pag’an Amum would definitely lead to a civil war. Amum is in the hands of the national security service, while Riek Machar remains still at large. Although there are indications of his likely whereabouts (within the vicinity of Juba), this cannot yet be reported. The chances are slim that he himself will go to the bush to lead an armed revolt against Kiir.

9. Is Sudan going to interfere in a civil war in South Sudan?: Ironically, the best bet for Salva Kiir to remain in power might indeed be to count on the support of President Omar Al Bashir, whom he fought over several decades. If the situation continues to run out of hand, the Nuer militia might take control over oilfields in their homelands, which would cut off the oil flow to Khartoum, endangering the stability of the economy and thereby putting the regime at risk of a popular uprising. Sudan’s main interest then is to protect the flow of oil to the north.

In one scenario, Khartoum would move to help defend the oil wells and facilities by military means, while providing other forms of support to Salva Kiir such as air power. In another scenario, Khartoum would divide and again rule South Sudan by supporting its former Nuer allies like Riek Machar. 


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