South Sudanese government forces, known as SPLA, this week captured rebel-held Yuai in Jonglei State, marking a defeat for the rebel movement that had controlled the town since the start of the civil war.
The significance of this goes beyond territorial loss for the SPLA-IO rebel group. The development could have profound political, military and humanitarian consequences. The Messenger explains:
1. Crossing the Rubicon
Yuai lies behind a frontline that has not moved substantially since the outbreak of the war. In part this was due to the reluctance of Dinka Bor commanders in the SPLA to prosecute Salva Kiir’s war into territory of their tribal neighbors; in part it was because SPLA-IO had a strong grip over the Lou Nuer territory – militarily and otherwise – making it difficult for the government to make inroads. The swampy nature of the terrain in parts of Jonglei also made it difficult to carry out offensive military operations.
So why has Yuai fallen now? Is it the result of a military breakthrough? Or is it more an outcome of political developments?
SPLA-IO’s military spokesman has denied that the group put up a fight for the town, but an aid group operating in the area confirms that fighting did take place and that the population fled as a consequence. SPLA-IO has faced shortages of men, materiel and ammunition on multiple fronts, which likely contributed to the loss of Yuai. However, internal divisions are also a possible factor.
Reporting on the takeover of Yuai, Sudan Tribune suggests that the fighting was actually sparked by a defection of troops from SPLA-IO to the SPLA-IO ‘peace wing’ – and that SPLA only intervened later. Whether or not this is true, it is clear that Salva Kiir and the SPLA have been actively seeking to entice defections using a mix of money and coercion. In a recent speech, President Kiir told his own ‘governor’ for the area that he should ‘open the road’ to Waat, nearby Yuai. This suggests that Waat is a likely next target, as well as Akobo beyond it. SPLA efforts to capture these areas are more likely to succeed if they can assemble Nuer defectors to lead the way into the territory.
Should the SPLA continue their eastward drive toward Akobo, overrunning some of the last SPLA-IO strongholds, they would send another quarter million to half million people fleeing into neighboring Ethiopia. Retaliatory raids into SPLA-held territory – if the rebels were able to mount them – would in turn drive Dinka Bor residents in droves southward toward Juba and westward across the Nile to the Minkamen camp.
Aid agencies already can’t cope with the twin disasters of hunger and displacement as the war devastates the economy and agriculture and sends millions into refugee camps and IDP camps. Last week aid groups halted services at Wau Shilluk in Upper Nile after a separate government offensive. The UN said that about 30,000 people fled Wau Shilluk northward into Fashoda County following “continued advances by armed forces on the western bank of the River Nile in Upper Nile.”
Fighting in Wau Shilluk, Jonglei and elsewhere suggests a general SPLA offensive across multiple fronts. Wau Shilluk was in the hands of the SPLA-IO commander Johnson Olony, but now has changed hands. The UN says it is concerned about aid workers and civilians “in areas affected by the ongoing offensive.”
3. Nuer vs Nuer
The capture of Yuai points to profound weaknesses in the SPLA-IO, both militarily and politically, which the government is looking to exploit. The defection of Taban Deng last year from the SPLA-IO and his subsequent elevation to the position of first vice president has opened the door to division and distrust internally. SPLA-IO’s troops in Juba were routed in July last year. And the group’s leader Riek Machar was driven from South Sudan to Congo to Sudan until finally landing ignominiously in South Africa, at a remote distance from his supporters and commanders.
Politically, SPLA-IO largely exhausted their political capital by taking part in the 2014-2016 IGAD peace process, which alienated rebel hardliners without winning over a broader section of the population. Even regional neighbors that have hitherto tolerated the presence of SPLA-IO cadres are now turning on them; some of Machar’s lieutenants in Kenya recently have been hunted down by South Sudanese intelligence officers and deported back to Juba to face indefinite detention and possibly death.
The Nuer rebels now face the possibility of defeat at the hands of SPLA and its allied SPLA-IO ‘peace wing’, which Kiir is looking to install as a puppet government in the occupied SPLA-IO territories. This would result in a military occupation of Nuerland by a Dinka army, supported by smaller but still significant contingents of Nuer militia proxies. A similar militia strategy was employed by the Sudan Armed Forces during the 1983-2005 civil war, and has also been effective in Unity State during recent government offensives.
4. ‘Victory is certain’?
A government occupation of the Lou Nuer territories of Yuai and Akobo would likely be costly and bloody. Even if the SPLA-IO were defeated conventionally, allied ‘White Army’ units – civilian cattle camp guards – could continue to fight on using hit-and-run tactics. Only by depopulating the area and targeting livestock herds and agriculture would the government be able to seize control of the territory effectively and route the White Army as well.
Nonetheless, the government’s continuing grip on oil revenues, its superior arsenal, and its continuing dedication to a military solution do make the progress of its offensive somewhat inexorable. The government’s determination to achieve a military solution is captured by the SPLA slogan ‘victory is certain’.
But would a victory in Jonglei really help end the civil war? SPLA’s grip on power throughout the Equatoria region and Western Bahr al Ghazal has been increasingly tenuous since late 2015. And their control in the Upper Nile region is costly and requires large numbers of troops. Even if SPLA-IO were routed entirely in Nuerland, the civil war would not end. Instead, rebel fighters in isolated pockets of the country, often led by men with little or no national profile, are preparing to fight on.
The absence of any political process and the government’s own insistence on a military solution renders mediation efforts with such groups useless. And with neighboring countries like Kenya now refusing to honor the asylum status of South Sudanese dissidents, the rebels fighting on the ground are increasingly without an intelligentsia to provide them with political control and direction.
If the rebellion is to survive at all, it will survive as a disjointed, desperate and potentially extremely violent insurrection of scattered groups of partisans. Dinka civilians have already begun leaving parts of Equatoria en masse in fear of reprisals. Whereas SPLA-IO in its original incarnation had national political aspirations, few if any of the remaining rebels seem to believe in anything of the sort. The common ground among these groups is a shared desire for survival – and revenge.