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A broken army lies at the heart of conflict in South Sudan

South Sudan’s problems are political but the military must be fixed to ensure enduring stability

Prone to disintegration:The violence sweeping through the world’s newest nation has claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 4,50,000 civilians. File photo of a soldier in Bor, 180 km northwest from capital Juba.— Photo: Reuters
Prone to disintegration:The violence sweeping through the world’s newest nation has claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 4,50,000 civilians. File photo of a soldier in Bor, 180 km northwest from capital Juba.— Photo: Reuters
Seen from the air, the capital of South Sudan appears a cluster of reflective, tin-sheeted roofs amid a vast expanse of scrubland riven by the White Nile. When he returned to Juba from Kampala last month, the policeman found his city fearful, his brother dead, his home abandoned and his three wives and 13 children in a United Nations camp.
He gathered his family, took a flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and left them with a relative. Now, on the flight back home, he looks out at Juba, outwardly calm but restive. “My younger brother was a policeman too,” he says. “He was wearing his uniform but the army killed him. I filed a complaint in my police station. But there is no investigation.” He is not surprised; he joined the police after years in the army. The violence sweeping through eastern South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 4,50,000 civilians. A political dispute between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former Deputy Riek Machar has escalated into an ethnically charged conflict between President Kiir’s Dinka community and Mr. Machar’s Nuer group, and has split the national force — the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) — into warring factions that have turned on their former comrades and brought the world’s newest nation to the brink of civil war.
The violence began on December 15 last year as a gunfight between the Dinka and Nuer fighters in the presidential guard. For two days after the fight, the Dinka majority swept through Juba, killing untold numbers of Nuers, including the policeman’s brother.
Peace talks aimed at political resolution are under way, but the weight of recent history and particularities of this current outbreak suggest that the fate of the South Sudan will, for the near term, remain linked to the fate of the 300,000 armed men who make up its fractured forces. What happens when the fighting is over? Can South Sudan’s broken army transform into a national force?
The flight from Addis lowers its landing gear; the policeman unzips a small pouch hanging from his neck, takes out a camera and presses it to the window. “There,” he says, pointing through the thickened glass at a row of identical roofs, “that is my home.”
* * *
In 1992, Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang and 150 of his fellow Nuer fighters defected from the 5th Brigade of the SPLA deployed outside Juba, and trekked north in search of another Nuer unit to link up with.
Sudan’s seemingly interminable civil war between the north and the south was ongoing. The SPLA, then a guerrilla force led by John Garang, a Dinka, had besieged Juba as a step towards controlling all of Sudan. A few months prior to the siege, Garang’s Nuer deputy, Riek Machar, defected from the SPLA to set up his own splinter faction, triggering a wave of ethnic bloodletting within the party.
“What happened then, and is repeating itself now, was the first killing of soldiers in active service along ethnic lines,” Brig. Koang said, explaining his Dinka comrades turned on the Nuers.
“We walked through pouring rain for three months,” he said, “We sold some of our guns and bought cows and grain. We slaughtered the cows three days after we started, the grains took another week and then we survived on leaves, and fruits, and birds.”
Brig. Koang subsequently left for Kenya to pursue his studies. Meanwhile, internecine battles amongst the guerillas claimed more lives than war with the north.
Their differences were not ethnic, but played out along ethnic lines: Mr. Machar wanted full secession from the north, while Garang wanted to control a unified Sudan by toppling the government in Khartoum.
Khartoum signed a deal with Mr. Machar, leading to the ideological paradox of South Sudan’s liberation struggle: Mr. Machar the ‘secessionist,’ was backed by the government, to fight Garang the ‘unionist’.
When Brig. Koang returned to Sudan in 2002, Mr. Machar and Garang’s forces had reunited after a decade of war and aimed their guns at Khartoum. In 2005, the united SPLA signed an agreement with Khartoum to end the civil war and hold a referendum on South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Garang died in 2005, and was replaced by Salva Kiir, another Dinka, who became the President of the newly minted Republic of South Sudan in 2011, with Mr. Machar as his deputy.
Three years after the referendum, the compact between Mr. Machar and Mr. Kiir is in tatters, the army has broken roughly along lines that were drawn in 1991 but blurred by the 2002 peace agreement. Brig. Koang was in Addis Ababa when the fighting erupted. He defected, in absentia , to Mr. Machar’s faction and is now the rebel army’s spokesperson in exile.
“Even after integration, those who deserted in 1991 were still being marked,” said Brig. Koang, “There was a deliberate, persistent marginalisation. On December 15, there were grievances that were boiling, there was a spark that just ignited.”
* * *
“The defectors are from forces loyal to Mr. Machar. The SPLA has Nuers, Dinka and other tribes like Shilluks, our Army Chief of Staff is a Nuer,” said Colonel Phillip Aguer, military spokesperson for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, “Machar’s forces are completely Nuer, and that is his mistake. He cannot mobilise one community against everyone.”
Col. Aguer estimates that about 10,000 regular soldiers and an unknown number of Nuer militias have joined Machar’s forces. In recent days, the SPLA has regained control of all major urban centres in the greater Upper Nile region, but the rebels have retreated into the countryside and remain a persistent threat.
On the cusp of independence in 2011, about 300,000 citizens, or three per cent of South Sudan’s 10 million population, were enrolled in the security forces with access to 318,000 guns, according to a brief by the Small Arms Journal . Non-state militias accounted for another 10,150 fighters armed with automatic rifles, landmines, and rocket propelled grenades.
This week, President Kiir said “presidential pardons and general amnesties shall be part of peace efforts” but his government needs to find a way to rebuild the army even as it demobilises the many militias fighting on either side. There are financial constraints on the number of salaries that the cash-strapped treasury can provide, and integration is an expensive process.
“Political solutions dictate the success or failure of integrations,” said Matthew LeRiche, co-author of South Sudan: From Revolution to Independence , “in the Sudan-South Sudan case, I found however that the history of attempts to integrate forces after peace deals has been a catalyst to renewed violence.”
In the past, failed integration of South Sudan’s armed groups, Dr. LeRiche said, was a key reason for a return to war. Upon integration, he explained, “small groups want to remain in control of their area and use the threat of mutiny and actual mutiny to extract very costly concessions from the central and state governments.”
The cyclical nature of South Sudan’s conflict offers cause for both hope and cynicism: that the SPLA has fractured and healed before suggests a way back for Riek Machar’s defectors. Yet, the recent violence also illustrates the tragic human costs of an army prone to disintegration.
“One way is for the army to be disbanded and reconstituted so it reflects our ethnic diversity. We have 64 tribes,” said Brig. Koang, the rebel spokesperson. Col. Aguer, the SPLA spokesperson was less forthcoming. “Reintegration is a matter for our political leaders,” he said, “We are implementers. We do what our leaders tell us.”
The flight from Addis has landed in Juba. The policeman pulls his bag from the overhead compartment. As a captain in the police, he said, he has guards protecting him; some Dinka, some Nuer. “You have to be careful and measure things. The army killed my brother, but I can’t just go out and join Riek Machar.”

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