The communiqués of aid workers and armed groups in recent days sound like déjà vu for anyone who followed the war in Sudan between 1983 and 2005. “Our brave warriors, clobbered the opponents (the supporters of President Kiir) and will take Malakal within 24 hours,” was a statement this week in the name of the dissident forces of Riëk Machar. The current Vice President of South Sudan, James Wani Igga, while touring his home region Equatoria for new recruits urged civilians “to fight against Riëk Machar, to defend our democracy.”
The number of deaths since the outbreak of the conflict in mid-December is now estimated at 10,000. An estimated 400,000 people have been displaced. Aid agencies report 32,000 refugees who fled to Uganda and 10,000 to Sudan. Kenya receives 800 South Sudanese daily.
Optimism about a quick end to the conflict which began in mid-December has evaporated. The country which became independent in 2011 is now embroiled in civil war. The chance of a speedy peace between the warring parties of President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riëk Machar seems nil for now.
“There’s no way out. South Sudan has started a new war, “says Daniel Deng. He was a minor in the nineties when forced to fight in the war of independence against the Arabized northern Sudan. When in 1991 the then liberation movement SPLA did disintegrate, his family became the target of reprisals in Bor. History has repeated itself in the last weeks.
Currently, negotiations are taking place in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. About the chances for success, we should not have any illusions, says French professor Gérarld Prunier, an expert on the Horn of Africa, in l’Express. “They are non-existent. This is war. The winner will be he who ousts the other militarily and diplomatically. Only intense international pressure convinced the two delegations to meet, even if it’s only for show”.
The conflict started last year July when President Kiir fired his ambitious vice president Riëk Machar, as well as a large part of his cabinet. Since then a climate of paranoia has reigned in Juba. Fired up by a group of five close advisers Kiir did choose confrontation: he disbanded sections of the ruling SPLM, purged the army of alleged dissident officers and filled the Presidential Guard with his followers from his native region. The conflict came to a head in the weekend of December 15 during a SPLM party meeting on democratic reforms, Riëk and his supporters walked out and Kiir declared there was a coup d’état against him. Before he even could defend himself, Riëks house in the capital Juba was destroyed by tank and mortar fire, his relatives and bodyguards caught up in the mayhem.
Riëk managed to escape through a hole in the fence and once away from Juba under his leadership a major revolt in the army developed. It did spread quickly, when soldiers of his Nuer tribal group did mutiny on a large scale. Dinka’s of the Presidential Guard conducted large-scale massacres of Nuers in Juba.
“I know so many Nuer families who were murdered. Their bodies were dumped in mass graves or in the Nile”, says a resident of the capital. When Peter Gadett, an army commander and supporter of Riëk, took the town of Bor and killed Dinka’s in revenge, a cycle of tribal violence had started. According to Jok Madut Jok of the Sudd Institute half of the soldiers in the divided army are Nuer.
“The conflict had nothing to do with the common man and woman, and everything with disagreement in the ruling party SPLM,” says the former child soldier Daniel Deng.
Deng belongs to the generation of the so-called “lost boys”; tens of thousands of young people who were taken from their villages under duress during the war between 1983 and 2005 and for years were wandering in the bush and fighting for the SPLA. He has now moved to Nairobi. “Our leaders only know war; their brains are shaped by war. They never kept to human rights during the war and they don’t do so now. Impunity always prevails in South Sudan”, he laments. “All the accumulated dirt from the war explodes now in our face. Again our leaders fight for their power at the expense of citizens. ”
Riëk is counting on the support he enjoys among his Nuer. According to the prophecy of Nuer-elders he was destined to be the leader of South Sudan. Therefore he is supported by the thousands of warriors of the so-called White Army, a militia of Nuer youths. They are prepared to march to the capital Juba to attack it and take power from the (Dinka) President Kiir.
Deng says that in the perception of many Dinka’s to crush Riëk all Nuers have to be defeated. “Now do you understand why there is nothing to talk about at the peace talks in Addis Ababa,” he quips.
Kiir is counting on support from Uganda. There are several hundred Ugandan soldiers in Juba, although it is unclear for now how much they are taking part in the fighting. Uganda already has troops stationed in the Central African Republic and Somalia. Eyewitnesses in northern Uganda say every day they see heavy military equipment going to South Sudan.
The French professor Prunier thinks Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni wants to be the Bismarck of Africa. “Uganda is sticking to its support of Salva Kiir. And for a reason: hovering in the entourage of President Yoweri Museveni, who thinks he is Bismarck, are many businessmen who have economically colonized South Sudan”.
Until 2011, South Sudanese derived their identity from the fight against the North. Since independence, the country is struggling to get its own national identity. The failing authority of the ruling SPLM is the main cause of the crisis. Professor Prunier says about Kiir: “Hence the arrival of an actor as mediocre as Salva Kiir, ex-sergeant of the Sudanese army, with a greater interest in whisky and women than in nation building and whom Khartoum manipulates like a puppet”.
The U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman, who had brokered peace between the two Sudans, writes “that a return to the status quo, in either the government or leading political party, only invites repeated failure” A narrow bargain among elites, which has been the standard practice in negotiations in Sudan, cannot work. Lymann advocates a kind of international custody of South Sudan. According to this controversial proposal, with strong assistance from abroad national institutions can then be build, as happened in 1990 during the independence of Namibia and after 2003 with the reconstruction of Liberia after many years of war.
SPLA an unravelling patchwork
The South Sudanese government army has now split into two, with new munities in the last two weeks in Juba and Yei. The SPLA has always been a patchwork. Tribal fault lines between the Dinka, the largest ethnic group, and the Nuer are becoming increasingly visible.
The national army stems from the guerrilla movement which fought in the eighties against the central government in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The SPLA is now being punished for the lack of unity and the lack of building up a skilled framework during the liberation struggle. John Garang, killed in a helicopter crash in 2005, ruled with an iron hand over the rebel group, and refused deals with renegade groups.
Garang’s successor Salva Kiir conducted a more tolerant policy. If the price was good enough, militia’s agreed to be integrated, although many battle groups then deserted again, to join once more later. Kiir cooperated politicians and fighters from all corners of South Sudan in his government, but he was not working on reconciliation between factions that had fought each other during the war.
Politics were always conducted through the gun in South Sudan. After the peace in 2005 commanders each came with their own groups of bodyguards to the capital Juba. This led to many tribal islands in the army.
The aroused friction is not just between the two largest tribal groups. The Dinka consists of 25 subgroups, each with their own leaders and interests. The same applies to the Nuer. Unease about the alleged domination of the Dinka – unease that is not only present among the Nuer, but also among many minority tribes of the southern region of Equatoria – runs like a red thread through the liberation struggle since 1955. After the split of the SPLA between Garang and Riëk in 1991 there raged ‘war within a war “between Dinka and Nuers. There were more deaths as a result of this war than the war against the hated ‘Arabs’ in North Sudan.
All these old wounds are re-opened once more.
An anecdote: Without weapons, you did not have a role to play after independence. A returned exile from America – a pastor – once asked a high SPLA commander and politician how he could play a political role. He was told: “Go to your home area, collect some weapons and armed men, shoot a few days in the air and maybe then we take you seriously in Juba.”