ANALYSIS: 5 political factors behind the Upper Nile military offensive in S. Sudan

A United Nations map showing civilian displacement away from Kodok and Tonga.

Heavy fighting has erupted in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state over the past two weeks, pitting government troops known as SPLA against a predominantly Shilluk militia known as Aguelek, which is itself part of the SPLM/A rebel group.

Reports from the ground say that SPLA captured Tonga and Kodok by mid last week. UN officials point to the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, saying that tens of thousands of the native Shilluk have fled from advancing government troops either toward Sudan or to a displacement point at Aburoc, many of them dying of dehydration and exhaustion along the way.

“Civilians in Aburoc are at serious and imminent risk of gross human rights violations, inter-ethnic violence and re-displacement,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Thursday.

Less discussed are the political factors behind the current military confrontation. What lies behind it? Why is the government currently on the offensive in spite of a recent declaration of National Dialogue by President Salva Kiir?

The Messenger explains:

1. Scramble for legitimacy

The new military offensive is to the advantage of Shilluk loyalists in government whose inability to travel to their home territory put them in the awkward position of representing a constituency that they could not access, raising questions as to their legitimacy and their utility to the government. The loyalist group includes the recent appointees to the Western Nile State cabinet, which was created on the basis of Kiir’s ‘Establishment Order’, as well as some national politicians including the recently re-defected Tijwok Aguet.

Once the government army (SPLA) establishes military occupation over the Shilluk Kingdom, the Western Nile government will be able to take up its headquarters at Kodok rather than continuing to operate from exile in Juba and Malakal. Reports suggest that some Shilluk officials in government collaborated with the the SPLA local command to liberate Kodok. A government official hailing from the Shilluk confirmed this in an email to The Messenger this week, saying that the recent appointees are “fighting for consolidation of their states’ authority on the ground.”

“The government in Juba wants to impose a de facto situation on the ground by military might so that it could continue to justify its legitimacy. Those who have gained politically from Shilluk due to recent President Kiir’s constitutional appointments are the ones enthusiastic showing loyalty to the appointing authority in Juba, and fighting for consolidation of their states’ authority on the ground,” he explained.

Another Shilluk official in government, Minister of Agriculture Onyoti Adigo, blamed rebels and international ceasefire monitors for the renewed outbreak of conflict. In an exclusive interview on Tuesday, Onyoti said, “There is a problem with the implementation of the peace agreement and this demonstrates a clear failure of the international community to address the spiraling catastrophe in the country… What happened in Kodok, in Abuoc and other areas is the work of JMEC (Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission) through CTSAMM (the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism) to verify and report what happened.”

Onyoti, who once headed a parliamentary group in opposition, the National Democratic Alliance, before joining the government, was reacting to a question about what he thinks caused the recent military confrontation in Upper Nile.

2. Kiir’s orders

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SPLA commanders in Upper Nile and Shilluk officials in government are not acting alone. They are rather implementing the orders of President Salva Kiir, who has told his governors to report to the headquarters of their respective states, irrespective of whether these areas are controlled by the opposition or not.

The seed of the current army offensive lies in Kiir’s October 2015 Establishment Order, which dissolved Upper Nile state and divided it into three successor states. The order aimed in part at preventing implementation of a provision in the peace deal, signed two months earlier, that gave the Upper Nile governorship to the rebel SPLM-IO.

By dividing the state into smaller units, Kiir dodged discussion of implementation of the rebel governorship in this areas and instead named his own loyalists to the new governorships. He also named Kodok in rebel-held Shilluk territory as the capital of the new West Nile state, implicitly authorizing a military offensive into the area.

Kiir also recently publicly ordered his new governors to take up their headquarters no matter whether they were occupied by rebel forces or not. The fall of Kodok last week represents the fulfillment of the orders and strategy laid out by Kiir.

3. Broader military strategy

The fighting in Upper Nile is consistent with a broader SPLA offensive drive across multiple fronts in an effort to gain tactical position over rebel groups before the onset of the rainy season.

Elsewhere in the Upper Nile region, for example, clashes between SPLA and SPLA-IO in Chuil on the Sobat River corridor on April 23rd suggest an operational aim of opening the river as a movement corridor. This would link the government stronghold at Malakal with the smaller garrison at Nasser, making it easier to supply the latter during the coming rainy season, while at the same time pushing the rebels farther toward Ethiopia.

Yet farther to the south, in Jonglei, clashes around Waat and Walgak last month appear to represent the high tide in the government dry season offensive; reports suggest that SPLA have since been withdrawing heavy equipment to Yuai to avoid them getting stuck in soft rain-sodden ground. Wet season conditions will present conditions more favorable for the rebels to retake ground.

The military logic of the current offensive also stems from an assessment of unfavorable economic and logistical conditions. SPLA commanders on the east bank of the Nile, whence the Kodok offensive was launched, face hyper-inflation, depopulation and security threats to Nile river trade. Looting and occupying the west bank around Kodok potentially increases their access to food and other resources while helping to better secure barge traffic on the Nile.

According to a government insider contacted for this article, “The control of Nile routes from Renk to Juba for the benefit of Kiir’s government is also another factor. There is a pressure of bringing dura (sorghum) from stores in Renk to Jonglei, Bahr el Ghazal and parts of Equatoria for both civilians and military consumptions as air transport has proven unsuccessful.”

Throughout the current civil war SPLA forces have sustained themselves in part through local taxation and appropriation of local resources in occupied areas. Control over the Shilluk territory would present revenue opportunities “especially Gum Arabic, charcoal, fish, taxes from Arab nomadic pastoralists and North-South trade, which both Juba and state governments need direly these days to run their broke government in the wake of financial shortages from eternal disbursements and scarce oil revenues,” the insider told The Messenger.

In the meantime, rumors that President Kiir committed in late March to declare a ceasefire are unconfirmed, and possibly stem from false diplomatic reports. Kiir has not issued any declaration of cessation of hostilities. On the contrary, the spokesman of his government said Wednesday that the government “cannot declare ceasefire,” adding, “anybody who still dreams of resuscitation of the peace deal should revise his dream.”

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Michael Makuei Lueth, Minister of Information and Government Spokesperson

Nonetheless, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement yesterday urging the government to “adhere to the pledges made by President Salva Kiir on 25 March, when he committed to declare a unilateral ceasefire.” Separately, last week, the JMEC ceasefire monitors asked the government to confirm whether it had command and control over its forces — which it said that it did.

4. Capturing relief assistance

Government forces and rebels alike are struggling in near-famine conditions amid hyper-inflation and logistical difficulties; concurrently, aid operations have remained well-funded, including on the west bank in Shilluk territory.

As economic resources have dwindled and government supply systems have broken down, SPLA forces have turned to international relief operations in South Sudan as a source of revenue and food, both through looting and taxation.

Humanitarians reported earlier this week that “key humanitarian assets were looted” in Upper Nile during last week’s violence, though the UN Humanitarian Coordinator ad interim for South Sudan, Serge Tissot, blamed opposition forces and “other actors” for the looting.

The aim of capturing humanitarian relief points was discussed explicitly at a cabinet meeting last Friday, according to a cabinet minister.

Onyoti Adigo, the agriculture minister and also an ethnic Shilluk, explained the rationale for the government offensive: “There are reports that those who are holding arms, the SPLA-IO under Riek Machar in the area, have been attacking the position of the SPLA forces and have been denying humanitarian access to deliver relief assistance to the civilians. This was what the minister of defense, the minister of interior and the minister national security told the cabinet last week on Friday.”

The ‘humanitarian’ justification for the current military offensive is thus presented as a dominant one in the government discourse, next to claims of rebel aggression calling for retaliation.

5. Fragmentation of the opposition

“Juba is also making maximum use of breakdown of commands and demoralisation within SPLM-IO forces on the ground, especially the Agwelek,” says the other government insider hailing from the Shilluk ethnic group.

He pointed to differences between General Johnson Olony’s faction, known as the Aguelek, and other political and armed opposition forces, such as the National Democratic Movement led by Lam Akol and the New Tiger Forces, which he said has faced “semi-liquidation” owing to conflict with Olony’s group prior to the SPLA offensive.

The government’s new military operations prevent the opposition from resolving internal differences and consolidating power within the Shilluk Kingdom. The ultimate objective, the official says, is “denying the opposition leaders a support base so that they become confined irrelevantly to asylum in exile without posing an existential threat to the current triple alliance of Kiir-Taban-Igga who are working to unite under one SPLM and conduct elections in 2018.”

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Taban Deng Gai

Another key winner in the situation is First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, who owes his position to a claim to the leadership of the SPLM/A-IO. In reality, Taban heads only a small peace wing of the rebel group and does not have the loyalty of the remaining rebel troops in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states. The ongoing Upper Nile offensive seeks to ensure that the Shilluk territory is liberated from the ‘Aguelek’ SPLM/A-IO forces, which reject Taban’s leadership and continue to ally themselves to his rival Riek Machar instead.


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