Research group Small Arms Survey has published a new report on the ongoing rebellion in South Sudan’s southernmost region, Equatoria, which has become a focus of new violence since August 2015.
Equatorian rebels are battling government militias and the army, known as SPLA. Counter-insurgency efforts and reprisals have depopulated many of the region’s towns and agricultural areas and sent huge numbers of refugees into neighboring countries.
The below insights are excerpted or paraphrased from the Small Arms Survey report, which was written by former journalist and conflict researcher Alan Boswell (@).
- Many South Sudanese saw the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) as primarily a Dinka–Nuer pact that forced the nation into a binary power arrangement. Fearing exclusion, Equatorian rebels picked up the pace of their recruitment in late 2015 to mid 2016.
- SPLM/A-IO fighters who came to Juba as part of the ARCSS peace deal were chased out in July 2016. Some fled with their leader Riek Machar to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) while others (roughly a battalion) remained behind in Equatoria, led by Lt. Gen. John Jok, former head of the SPLA-IO police units in Juba.
Spreading conflict along Congo-Equatorias border
The Zande ethnic group spreads across the borders shared by the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan. Conflict in the Zande ethnic zone of Western Equatoria began after the signing of the ARCSS in August 2015 with the removal and arrest of Governor Joseph Bakosoro.
President Kiir replaced Bakosoro with Raphael Patrick Zamoi, the highest-ranking Zande in the SPLA. Machar immediately negotiated with two militia groups formed under Bakosoro’s patronage:
- the South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLM), a group led by Victor Wanga (since deceased) in Gangura;
- the loose ‘Arrow Boys’ network of community security militias led by Alfred Fatuyo, originally mobilized to fight the LRA, ‘Mbororo’, and Dinka cattle herders.
The SSNLM rejected Machar’s overtures, signing a local peace deal with Zamoi in April 2016. SSNLM members have since been deployed as a government security force. The group continues to control the important Nabiapai border market.
“A cross-border ethno-nationalist movement remains a long-term threat, given the weak governance in the area and grievances on both sides of the border.” – Alan Boswell
Machar won Fatuyo over with a promise of 2,200 of officer positions and an appointment as major general. Fatuyo established a base in Li-Rangu, near Yambio. He also has the loyalty of a separate force in Andari, near Ezo at the junction of South Sudan, the DRC, and CAR, led by John Umee, a local Arrow Boys leader, and James Nando, a defected SPLA veteran.
Nando moves in and out of the DRC with ease, operating from a no-man’s land around the forested Biki River area, across the border from the SPLA-IO Arrow Boys’ base in Andari. Locals accuse Nando of benefiting from artisanal gold and diamond mining in the area, while using it as a base for recruitment in the refugee sites that lie around the periphery of the Biki forests. Some reports suggest Nando has recruited dozens or even hundreds of militiamen in the Congo border regions.
Central Equatoria: ‘centre of the rebellion’
SPLA-IO forces in Kakwa territory have steadily overrun a string of SPLA posts south of Yei, near the DRC border, a sign of strength not matched by other Equatorian rebel units. Rebels from other areas to the north, west, and east — including Machar’s forces under Lt. Gen. John Jok — have converged into the Kakwa zone, which is now the centre of the SPLA-IO rebellion in Equatoria.
- Ceasefire monitors have since documented a government scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign in parts of Central Equatoria including Lainya and rural areas around Yei.
- After the SPLA-IO took Lasu, which became its Equatorian headquarters, in December 2016, rebel assaults swept east along the borders with the DRC and Uganda, including assaults on Morobo, Kengazi-Base, Kaya, and Kajo Keji. The SPLA-IO moved relatively freely outside of government-held towns.
- The presence of herders, primarily Bor Dinka, in depopulated areas north of Yei and north of Kajo Keji continues to feed concerns of not just intentional depopulation, but long-term population engineering. SPLA-IO supporters consider the armed Dinka cattle herders to be a government proxy force.
The Central Equatorian war is primarily a guerrilla war, characterized by rebel ambushes and hit-and-run attacks, but SPLA-IO offensives are shifting this dynamic. The punitive, retaliatory nature of the SPLA counter-insurgency activities has embittered and emboldened desperate local populations, fuelling a popular call to arms and solidarity within the community.
Rebel militias in Equatoria may originate locally, but cross-communal integration—not fragmentation—is the dominant trend in the Central Equatorian rebellion, as shared objectives on an active military front against a common enemy supersede elite politics and ethnic divisions.
Interested to learn more? Read Boswell’s full report here.