A T-72 battle tank stands outside the Sudan People’s Liberation Army general headquarters in Bilpam, just outside the capital, Juba. It is not clear whether this was the tank that allegedly fired on Riek Machar’s home after fighting broke out on December 16.
The situation in Juba is slowly returning to normal. The dusk-to-dawn curfew has been peeled back two hours to 8pm. Shops, offices and market stalls are open and the crowds are slowly beginning to form once again at the arrivals counter at Juba International Airport.
Yet the mood remains tense. Heavily armed soldiers patrol the streets of Juba, their fingers nervously dancing around their triggers. Machine-gun mounted pick-ups line up outside the Presidential Palace.
However, it is what you don’t see in Juba that tells the real story of the conflict between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former deputy president Machar.
“There is no Nuer on the streets of Juba,” a cab driver says quietly. “Those that weren’t killed had to flee to save their lives.” The cab driver, who belongs to one of South Sudan’s smaller tribes (the country has more than two dozen tribes), was an observer of the mayhem; saved by his tribe but punished by his nationality.
It is not clear how many Nuer have been killed for the simple crime of sharing a tribe and ancestry with Dr Machar. It is similarly not clear how many Dinka have died in places like Bor in the reprisal killings that followed.
Army spokesman Col Philip Aguer said 450 people, two thirds of them civilians, were killed in Juba on the first day of the fighting. Estimates by the UN and aid agencies say the figure across the country is significantly more than a thousand.
The conflict, which was sparked by fighting in the presidential guard, was quickly framed as an ethnic contest between the Dinka and the Nuer. That fit nicely and conveniently into the good-guy, bad-guy narrative preferred by international media serving global audiences with little time and short attention spans.
While the conflict has now morphed into an ethnic conflict, its origins can be traced in a fight for the economic benefits of the country, and an ideological contestation within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
Since its founding in 1983, the SPLA/M had been caught in a binary ideological bind; between agitating for the Independence of the South and agitating for a united, secular Sudan.
Its founder, John Garang, belonged to the unionists, as they came to be referred to. Many senior officials, including General Salva Kiir, were separatists keen on an independent country in the South.
“SPLM was revolutionary in its emergence as a Southern movement that called for a secular, united Sudan,” says Mabior Garang, son of the country’s founding father, who has become a critic of the Kiir administration.
Most of the people of the South preferred to form a separate state and Col Garang and the unionists were always swimming against the tide of public opinion.
To accommodate the rival ideological camps (and try to appeal to the nationalists in Khartoum) the question of Independence was ambiguously clothed in the grey robes of “self-determination” and kept unresolved.
As long as the North remained a threat, however, the SPLA/M was able to remain united, says an SPLM old hand who remains part of the government.
When Garang’s ideology of a united secular Sudan, however, began to find favour among intellectuals in the North, it became a threat to the ruling elite in Khartoum, as well.
Letting the South go, on the other hand, came with eased restrictions and economic benefits to the North and, in the face of so much international pressure was a fait accompli anyway and not worth resisting for the northern elite.
The death of Garang in a helicopter crash only weeks after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Khartoum galvanised the pro-secession camp in SPLA/M. It also set up a quiet power struggle between Kiir, the heir apparent, and the ever-pragmatic Machar.
Kiir himself had been embroiled in a bruising power struggle with Garang in the months leading to the helicopter crash. The SPLA top leadership had met in Rumbek in November 2004 to try to reconcile the two leaders.
Leaked minutes of the meeting show an organisation whose leaders were surprisingly and refreshingly candid in their self-criticism and criticism of their leader. But such candour also revealed something that would feed into the current crisis — that the SPLA remained at heart a collection of militia, some tribal, held together by the common goal of fighting for a separate state or “self determination.”
How would the rebels survive without a cause? Not very united, as it turns out. When the power and resources of statehood came they found a political movement that was devoid of strong leadership and a military that, while united on the outside, remained loyal to its various commanders.
This was visible in the speed with which the SPLA disintegrated into splinter factions following the lead of commanders such as Peter Gadet, rather than the central command of President Kiir and the mainstream army.
To a casual visitor, Garang was Moses — leading the people of Southern Sudan through years of hardship to the edges of the Promised Land; Kiir would be Joshua, to whom the baton was passed to complete the rescue.
Garang’s family has become one of President Kiir’s strongest critics. Garang’s widow, Rebecca Nyandeng, was fired from the Cabinet after a short stint as roads minister and has since joined the Machar faction of the SPLM opposed to the president.
Mabior Garang weighed in last August in a newspaper interview in which he accused President Kiir and his inner circle of carrying out a posthumous coup on his father by trying to bask in his image while doing the opposite of what Col Garang stood for.
An SPLM official told The EastAfrican that the current crisis arose out of a fight over control of the party – a fight he says had been simmering since the signing of the CPA in 2005 and the death of Col Garang.
“The first warning signs were in the 2010 election where some candidates ran as independents when you expected us to have all the goodwill in the country and to sweep all positions without contest, yet already divisions were beginning to emerge.”
He added: “Whoever controls the SPLM brand controls the politics and the country as well as the resources. So the contest is about who represents the Garang legacy and who represents the true spirit of the SPLM.”
That contest had emerged in the aftermath of Garang’s death but as the country was preparing for a referendum on Independence even President Kiir’s strongest critics opted not to rock the boat and upset the birth of the new nation.
“Everyone wanted a perfect baby,” said Mabior Garang, “and Salva Kiir took advantage of that.”
Riek Machar has never hidden his presidential ambitions, a respected journalist in Juba told this newspaper, and had built a political alliance within the SPLM that had become a very serious threat to Kiir’s grip on the party and the country.
The months before the outbreak of violence saw a back-and-forth contest within the SPLM with President Kiir attempting to cut out dissent by firing his critics in a July Cabinet reshuffle and writing to 75 senior officials accusing them of stealing as much as $4 billion and demanding that they refund the money.
Corruption remains endemic in the country but it is a symptom of much deeper problems. A diplomat in Juba describes South Sudan as Toyota Country, pointing to the large number of luxury 4x4 cars plying the city streets.
The roads are slowly improving but poverty remains endemic with the World Bank estimating that one in two people in South Sudan lives on less than a dollar a day.
The country’s per capita income of $1,800 glosses over some sobering statistics: malnutrition is at 47 per cent; three out of four can’t read or write; only one in four people have access to a proper toilet and the country is the second-most-dangerous place for women to have babies. Many die.
Frustration, especially among young people, is brewing as the expected benefits of Independence fail to materialise.
Many youths have no skills and no education. Many spent their teenage years in the army and are yet to find opportunities elsewhere. Frustrated and desperate, many have turned to xenophobic attacks against traders from Uganda and Kenya.
Few opportunities are being created. The country depends almost entirely on oil for its revenues; out of the 17.3 billion SSP it plans to spend in the current financial year, 10.6 billion is expected to come from oil revenues and only 1.5 billion from non-oil sources. The rest will come from loans and grants.
Yet half the country’s budget will be spent on the army and security agencies this year. This is probably acknowledgment of the country’s precarious security situation and government officials point out that it is less than the 57 per cent spent last financial year but it delays the Independence dividend for many people in South Sudan.
Only 130 million SSP is earmarked for agriculture and jobs creation, less than half of what will be handed over to members of parliament for pork-barrel projects under the constituency development fund.
Critics say the government has not built a single school since coming to power in 2011 and has only rehabilitated existing health facilities. Government officials say many schools have been built in partnership with development partners and that social services are improving slowly but steadily.
The current crisis will roll back many of those gains. Although it did not start as an ethnic contest, the protagonists quickly fell back into their tribal enclaves for safety and support.
Almost everyone has an anecdote drenched in blood.
At a UN camp teeming with internally displaced people on the outskirts of Juba, 21-year-old Moses said he watched as soldiers in SPLA uniforms shot and killed his friends in cold blood.
In another camp on the other side of Juba, an Eritrean recently arrived from Bor said they had gone to a water point with his Dinka neighbours when armed men ambushed them.
“They told us the foreigners to step aside and told the Dinka to stand to the other side. Then they shot them one by one in the head.”
At the Sheraton Addis Ababa Hotel where a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed this week, a senior military officer who is part of the rebel delegation shows a picture of his dead brother on his mobile phone.
Pro-Kiir officials in Juba insist that the fighting broke out after forces loyal to Machar tried to carry out a coup. Col Aguer said the coordinated nature of the fighting points to a planned rather than spontaneous uprising.
Pro-Machar officials have a different version. They say fighting broke out after an attempt to disarm Nuer fighters within the presidential guard before a specially-trained section of the guard went around the city killing Nuer. They claim that word of the targeted killings went around sparking revenge killings by the Nuer on the Dinka.
Who is telling the truth?
It is hard to tell which version of the story is correct. United States government officials have said they have found no evidence of an attempted coup and an NGO worker who has spent 11 years in Sudan points out that the pro-Machar officials arrested after the shooting broke out are all politicians, not military officers.
Both sides have tried to present a national outlook by sending delegations of both Nuer and Dinka to the Addis peace talks. The opposition around Machar in the months before the outbreak of violence was political and multi-ethnic.
Now the ethnic genie has been let out of the bottle. And it is armed and bloodthirsty.
Rebuilding South Sudan will take a lot more than a military victory by one side. Neither will a negotiated solution between the elites from both ethnic groups be sufficient.
The people of South Sudan spent three decades dying to have their own country. It will take a lot more time for them to build a country they are willing to die for.