South Sudan: Mediocre fighters from the guerrilla crush their new state

South Sudan has only a one paved highway, the one linking Nimule on the border with Uganda to the capital Juba, two hundred kilometres further north. Along the road wrecks are scattered everywhere, of overturned busses, mangled cars and trucks. The two years old country with the size of France had until recently no paved road at all. “We are not used to asphalt, it feels slippery”, says Richard my driver. “That’s why we drive recklessly. On the paths in the bush we felt much safer.”

A van loaded with Dinka’s rushes over the road to Nimule. A power struggle in December within the ruling party SPLM between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riëk Machar degenerated in a civil war. Factions of the disintegrated government army have been fighting each other for two months. Feelings of revenge between the two largest tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, have free rein. President Kiir is a Dinka, his opponent Machar a Nuer. Probably more than ten thousand people are dead because of this political fight. More than 700,000 people have been driven from their homes.

Like the occupants of the van, many Dinka’s have fled from Bor, a town two hundred kilometres north of Juba. The fighting in recent weeks razed the town to the ground. “Life was good when independence came in 2011,” says James Kuol who with 17,000 other Dinka’s has sought refuge in Nimule. “I had a wife and a couple of goats and sheep. Old wounds of the conflict with the Nuer were healed.” Kuol is referring to 1991, when another tragedy occurred in Bor. Then as now, the resistance movement SPLM had fallen apart. With the tacit consent of Riëk Machar Nuers attacked Bor. And like now, the city was reduced to ashes and hundreds of Dinka’s were slain.

James Kuol tells how at the end of last year Nuers attacked his house near Bor, how they burnt the granary and killed his brother and two children. “The vice-governor invited my brother and other elders to a meeting to discuss ways to avoid a tribal fight. But my brother walked into a trap: the Nuers killed all those present. ”

Suddenly children start throwing stones. “Go away, you strangers,” they shout to James Kuol and his family. South Sudan has no national identity. Inhabitants anxiously protect their own tribal home land. It is a country full of distrust, with politicians inciting mass murder. “I feel stateless,” sighs James, “during the war of independence against the Arabs in the north at least we had an enemy in common.”

I leave Nimule, in the direction of Juba. In the distance below the Nile curls over the dry savannah. The road rises to the hill where about 150 years ago the governor, the British general Charles Gordon, did set up his tented camp. Gordon opposed the Arab slave trade. The massive hunt for slaves in southern Sudan led to chaos: wars broke out between and within tribes. After the slave trade came Arab colonialism. The South Sudanese since 1955 fought against this oppression in two extremely destructive and bloody wars.

A little further on we cross a tributary of the Nile. This is a historic place for South Sudan. In 1994 the fighters of the SPLM fought here bravely for months against the advancing Sudanese government army. President Yoweri Museveni of neighbouring Uganda saved the SPLM from destruction by sending massive arms shipments to the movement.

In this respect, history repeats itself. Again Uganda has interfered. Ugandan soldiers hide in the bushes along the road. Immediately after the outbreak of violence on December 15 Museveni sent thousands of troops and heavy equipment to his ally Salva Kiir. Ugandan helicopter gunships mowed down hundreds of supporters of the rebel Riëk Machar around Bor and in the major cities Bentiu and Malakal.

Near the village of Magwi driver Richard tries to overtake in a sharp curve and our car almost collides with an oncoming vehicle. In this area SPLM factions fought each other in 1992. Three aid workers and a journalist who happened to be there were slain. One of them was shot summarily. The United Nations stopped food aid temporarily, but that protest only lasted for a while.

Impunity runs like a red thread through the recent history of South Sudan. Between 1983 and 2005, an estimated two million lives were lost. Most of the dead did not come as a result of the independence war against the north, but because of the infighting within the SPLM. Earlier last year, before the current conflict broke out, the South Sudanese government army fought with a militia from the Murle tribe, nomadic pastoralists in the state of Jonglei. The soldiers killed their wives and children, and destroyed their hospitals and schools. A government soldier told me: “Our soul is still in war mode. We do not appreciate life anymore. We immediately start hitting hard.”

In the back of the car sits Arjan Hehenkamp, director of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Netherlands. “The UN and aid agencies are the scapegoats once again,” he notes. “Both sides in the conflict are trying to monopolize the international assistance.” Offices and shelters of MSF in Bentiu and Malakal were looted in recent weeks. The World Food Programme (WFP) had the same experience. “I know of no country where so often MSF was ransacked as in South Sudan,” sighs Hehenkamp. “With the raids every battle group tries to deprive the other of oxygen.”

Ten minutes later there is a signboard to the left to Kerepi. How much hope, how much enthusiasm I experienced here in 2008 on the dusty trails of this area. I travelled with Grace Musaa. She was born in exile in Uganda and returned after many years in a refugee camp to the birthplace of her mother in her native South Sudan. She remembered the poetic narratives about Kerepi her mother told her in the refugee camp, about the fertile soil, the fruit trees, the peace and the chirping crickets. “I feel confident,” she said. “Because I can work on a future now, I can build something, something that belongs to me.” All the villagers were voluntarily helping to build a school of sticks and grass. Giggling children in blue school uniforms sat with their notebooks under trees. During the war, everyone had been dreaming of schools and education.

The SPLA did not live up to these expectations and failed in its transformation. It behaves like an army that put up its tents in Juba, not as a government that leads the way. Most social promises have not been fulfilled. Still many South Sudanese prefer to go to Uganda and Kenya for schooling. Still 80 percent of health care is done by foreign organizations. Just like during the war, the development of the country is left to foreigners. Southern Sudan has the record number of 17,000 foreign aid workers. Many of them left after the recent violence.

“Do you know who to give way to”? I ask Richard when he drives into Juba over the Bailey bridge, a World War II gift from Netherlands. He laughs: “Who is on the biggest road has priority. The strongest always has priority. That’s the way it worked in the bush. ”

South Sudan began its independence with no experience of democracy and without a tradition of tolerance. The biggest change occurred in Juba: a dusty village of a few thousand inhabitants in 1980 grew into a boomtown with half a million souls. Up to the once distant Mountain of the Witches buildings have been erected. Foreigners in particular have contributed to this growth. They can get rich quickly here. If they do find ministers willing to cooperate. Those ministers will build with the collected bribes villas in Kenya, Uganda and Australia. During the administration of President Kiir about four billion dollars in state revenues ‘disappeared’.

“A stumbling state ‘, is what a head of a UN organization called South Sudan shortly before its independence.”The ministers have learned to set a budget, but they cannot handle money. South Sudan is led by third-rate generals from the guerrilla time. ”

The doomsday predictions have come true. Donor countries flooded South Sudan in recent years with billions of dollars in aid and other billions came from the oil exploration. One corruption scandal followed another. The stumbling state became a failing state.

In Juba Richard drops me off at the house of Peter Adwok Nyaba. He was Minister of Higher Education, until Salva Kiir fired him in July along with Riëk Machar. After the conflict broke out Kirr put him in prison and then under house arrest. In the past, Peter Adwok criticized the militarism in the SPLM. Twice during the liberation struggle his comrades in arms imprisoned him in deep pits because of his criticism. “This time I’m under house arrest,” he says laconically, “that’s a big improvement.”

For him the conflict did not come as a surprise. “The SPLM never trained good leaders in the bush. We are now being punished for that.” He lays the blame for the current violence with Kirr. According to him, the President wanted to have Riëk Machar murdered. “Kiir formed his own tribal militia, the Dot’ku, like Riëk Machar can count on the White Army. The Dot’ku did most of the killings in Juba.” Dot’ku and the White Army consist of the scum of the bush, cattle rustlers and other young criminals. ”All the dirt from the SPLM has come out with the present conflict.”

The Dot’ku and the White Army are responsible for most fatal casualties. Others militias, such as the armed group JEM in Darfur in Sudan, did a lot of looting as well while coming out to help Kiir. “The president ordered the Dot’ku to murder Nuers in Juba. The massacres of Dinka’s in Bor were a reaction to the pogroms against Nuers in Juba”, says Peter

“This country has become independent too early,” admits Peter Adwok reluctantly. “We as SPLM leaders bear responsibility for the failure. Let the UN place South Sudan under its guardianship.”Then we can start all over again. ”

This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad on 3-2-2014

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