Five year-old South Sudan coming apart as inter-ethnic divisions worsen

Monday March 13 2017

Women and children at a camp for internally displaced people in Wau, South Sudan. The turmoil in South Sudan has seen an increase in the number of refugees fleeing the country. PHOTO | FILE

South Sudan is heading towards disintegration as various ethnic groups form militias to defend themselves against what they call Dinka hegemony and persecution.

With more than 10 militia groups, observers say that the country — which is only five years old — could be divided into the three regions that formed the South under the larger Sudan: Equatoria, Upper Nile and Bahr-el-Ghazal.

A failed peace agreement, lack of institutions of governance, economic collapse, lack of donor support due to embedded official corruption and increased ethnic cleansing are driving the disintegration. 

What started as a political disagreement within the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) between President Salva Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar has now metamorphosed into an inter-ethnic battle for survival, with the majority Dinka perceived as the common enemy by the 64 other ethnic groups. Most of the militias are emerging in the former greater Equatoria to defend their lands from Dinka invasion.

A United Nations report says that South Sudan is experiencing ethnic cleansing and edging closer to genocide.

READ: South Sudan edging closer to genocide, says UN


Complicated network of rebel groups

In a recent interview with The EastAfrican, former president of Botswana Festus Mogae, who leads the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), said these new rebel groups that did not exist before are emerging and threatening the country’s unity.

“Some of the groups are driven by revenge along ethnic lines, others feel marginalised and excluded by the peace deal, which largely brought together President Kiir’s Dinkas and Dr Machar’s Nuers,” said Mr Mogae, adding that a complicated network of rebel groups with different agendas are joining the conflict.

READ: MOGAE: National Dialogue can’t replace Juba peace deal

Besides Dr Machar’s SPLM-IO that is largely based in Upper Nile, the formerly peaceful three Equatorias are now producing various militia groups to defend themselves against government atrocities, which have seen more refugees fleeing to Uganda to escape systematic killings, rape and burning of houses.

General Thomas Cirillo Swaka, the former deputy-general chief of staff for logistics, who resigned in February, has formed the National Salvation Front (NSF) movement to oust President Kiir from power, claiming that the military was dominated by Dinkas. They blamed the government for orchestrating the violations of the August 2015 peace agreement.

Gen Swaka, an ethnic Bare who hails from Rajaf in Central Equatoria — just six kilometres from the capital Juba — is  gaining support from various militia groups that have emerged since renewed fighting started in Juba in July last year.

READ: Ex-South Sudan general forms rebel group, vows to topple President Kiir

The Cobra Squad, led by Lieutenant General Khalid Botrus Bora and based in Pibor near the border with Ethiopia, dissolved itself last week to merge with Gen Swaka’s NSF with the target of toppling President Kiir.

Cobra Squad is mainly made up of the Murle ethnic a group — a close cousin of the Kalenjins in Kenya — and was started by David Yau Yau who defected to the government and has since been made Assistant Minister for Defence.

Arrow Boys

Also operating in Central Equatoria is Martin Kenyi, whose militia is allied to Dr Machar but who is responsible for attacking commercial trucks and buses along the Juba-Nimule Highway. Mr Kenyi, who leads the Equatoria Defence Force is from the Madi community who are mainly found around Nimule and have cousins across the border in Uganda.

Also present in the same region are the Mundare militia, led by former governor of Central Equatoria Clement Konga who was sacked by President Kiir. However, the Mundare militia have not issued any political statement since the outbreak of violence last July.

Then there are the Arrow Boys in Western Equatoria, which borders DR Congo and which has the only Bantu groups in South Sudan. The green and fertile Western Equatoria is home to the Azande, Moro, Avokaya and Baka communities, who are mostly farmers. The Arrow Boys claim they are defending themselves against mistreatment by government soldiers and invasion by Dinka pastoralists of their farms.

While the Arrow Boys are mainly concerned with local issues, former governor of Western Equatoria Joseph Bakosoro — who is currently in exile in the US — has offered to lead them. Mr Bakosoro was sacked by President Kiir last year and detained for several months, being only released following pressure from the international community.

In Upper Nile, Johnson Olony, a Shiluk who leads the Aguelek Militia allied to Dr Machar, has been battling government forces in Malaka town along the banks of the River Nile and its surroundings. 

Mr Olony was previously allied to President Kiir when the civil war broke out in December 2013 but later changed and sided with the rebels. In the same region is the National Democratic Movement (NDM) belonging to former minister of agriculture Lam Akol, who resigned from the Cabinet last year and went into exile.

In an interview with The EastAfrican when he launched NDM in Nairobi in September last year, Dr Akol said President Kiir continued to violate the peace agreement, forcing him to take up arms to topple the government. However, Dr Akol’s forces have since become dormant after his commander, Gabrial Tenginya, was killed.

President Kiir called for a National Dialogue in December last year but it is proving to be a non-starter as various groups dismiss it as a gimmick to buy time and divert the world’s attention from the government’s failure to implement the 2015 peace agreement.