Natives of South Sudan’s Waat area are asking themselves whether their homes could come under attack soon after the nation’s president ordered a loyalist to “open the road” to the rebel-held area.
Waat and surrounding areas are controlled by rebel group SPLA-IO – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition – which is led by former vice president Riek Machar.
But the government led by President Salva Kiir has appointed “governors” for this territory who are based in the capital Juba and loyal to a breakaway faction of SPLA-IO loyal to himself and Vice President Taban Deng.
Speaking to these new governors on Thursday at State House, Kiir ordered the new governor of Waat area to open access to the rebel-held territory, emphasizing that the territory is “ours,” even though ceasefire terms had designated the territory as rebel-held.
The president said, “I heard that you can go by land from here up to Bor. But if you want to go to the direction of Waat you cannot go,” according to remarks aired on state-run TV.
“Who is the governor of Waat [Bieh]?” Kiir asked.
The new governor Majok Gatluak Thoah stood to answer him. After an exchange over why the road remained closed, Kiir asked whether the rebel command in Jonglei was “a separate country,” before rejecting this emphatically: “That is one of our states,” he said.
Governor Majok agreed: “That is part of the nation of South Sudan. That is one of our states.”
The president concluded, “Okay, if that is one of our states, you go and open the road.”
His remark comes after earlier threats to launch dry season offensives to exterminate pockets of resistance in Jonglei, Equatoria and elsewhere. However, the president did not elaborate on how Majok should open the road – whether by force or peacefully.
Reacting to Kiir’s remarks online, Lou Nuer observers interpreted the remarks as a threat to attack the rebel territory. “Salva Kiir ordered his government to capture Lou Nuer area,” said Sirir Gabriel, an active supporter of rebel SPLA-IO, writing on Facebook. Mun Jock, another rebel sympathizer, said Kiir is “about to disturb the wild bee’s hive.”
Likewise, David Jock Nhial commented, “Kiir has declared war against civilians by ordering the new appointed governor to attack or take aggressive military action against civilians in Lou-Nuer Land.”
The frontline between SPLA-IO and the government has not changed substantially in this area since 2014, but some significant fighting took place after the July 2016 breakdown of the peace deal. Any government advance toward Waat and Akobo beyond it would be complicated by poor roads, swampland and resistance by ‘white army’ militia allied to the rebels.
Nonetheless, Kiir this month reiterated his claim to the territories by decreeing their subdivision into three states and appointing his loyalists to govern there.
Modifying his “Establishment Order” of October 2015, he renamed Eastern Bieh State to Akobo State and split Western Bieh into Bieh and Fangak states. The problem is that his appointees cannot travel to the states that they claim to governor – for now, that is.