First Vice President of South Sudan Taban Deng Gai currently heads a government-funded militia that makes use of hundreds of child soldiers, according to a new report by international ceasefire monitors.
Although the militia is cooperating with United Nations child protection officers in one part of the country – Pibor – elsewhere it has made it difficult for monitors and child specialists to visit the militia forces, verify, and assist child soldiers.
Ceasefire monitors in South Sudan have been investigating allegations of the use of child soldiers by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (Taban Deng faction) since mid-last year.
A commander under Taban Deng in the Pibor area met with international observers in July 2017 and admitted that his group had hundreds of children within its ranks. Later in July and August, the militia submitted lists of 590 names of the child soldiers to the ceasefire monitors.
According to a newly published report by the international ceasefire motioning body in South Sudan, known as CTSAMM, this commander says that the child soldiers at Pibor were originally recruited in the early phase of the South Sudanese civil war while the forces were still in rebellion and under the leadership of Riek Machar, the original head of the rebel group SPLA-IO.
“The faction of the SPLA-IO (RM) involved in the control and administration of the Child Soldiers changed allegiance to SPLA-IO (TD) in April 2017,” says the report.
Taban Deng Gai has been a key interlocutor between South Sudan’s government and international partners since he replaced Riek Machar Teny as vice president in mid-2016, upon collapse of the peace deal that had given Machar that post. He was in New York in September last year where he gave an address at the UN General Assembly (pictured above).
Some of the children employed by Taban Deng’s militia are being helped by child specialists with the UN Mission in South Sudan. The monitoring report says that the SPLA-IO (TD) forces in Pibor are “co-operating with international organizations working on Child Protection in South Sudan to return the children to families and to remove them from the military forces.”
Elsewhere, however, no such cooperation is reported. For instance, Taban Deng’s forces at Masna in Western Bahr al Ghazal, on the other side of the country, are also involved in the maintenance and control of a force of child soldiers. Ceasefire monitors say that they first learned of this on September 30th and requested repeatedly to visit the militia’s Masna base. These requests were granted only in late November, whereupon the ceasefire monitors dispatched a patrol to Masna to verify the allegation.
“The patrol met with senior commanders at the site who confirmed that there were Child Soldiers within their ranks. The Child Soldiers were referred to as the ‘Red Army’ and were reported to be based at Wadehelo. The patrol met some soldiers at Masna who appeared to be children but have not yet visited Wadehelo,” says the CTSAMM report, which was published Tuesday, January 16th.
In the report, rebel forces under former vice president Riek Machar are also faulted for using child soldiers, as well as for originally recruiting those child soldiers now affiliated with Taban Deng. “In Masna and Pibor the presence of Child Soldiers was admitted by SPLA-IO (TD) and it is likely that their recruitment was conducted by SPLA-IO (RM).”
Child soldiers also continue to be spotted in the ranks of other government forces, including the Mathiang Anyoor, a force associated with President Salva Kiir and his former chief of staff Paul Malong. CTSAMM mentions in its newest report, for instance, that one of its patrols in August last year in Central Equatoria spotted “children as young as 13 years old” manning a checkpoint. The report notes that the children hailed from “Twic, Aweil and Warrap,” the home territories of Kiir and Malong.
In a separate development, CTSAMM announced today, January 17th, that it is investigating SPLA troop movements in Jonglei earlier this month that may have led to clashes this week. The troop movements were not authorized under the terms of a ceasefire agreement; SPLA had claimed that the movement consisted of “administrative convoys,” but fighting broke out soon afterwards “in the area where the administrative convoy was said to be.”
CTSAMM has also recently completed investigation into a rebel attack last December on a government-held town in Unity State, which the SPLA-IO under Riek Machar admits that it carried out and which is called by ceasefire monitors a “blatant violation” of the cessation of hostilities agreement.
– South Sudan has suffered form a civil war since December 2013. The war pits government forces known as SPLA and allied SPLA-IO (TD) against several rebel groups, including the SPLA-IO (RM).
– Although it may be unusual that the vice president of a country should head a paramilitary force, as in this case, the political logic for this in South Sudan derives from Taban Deng’s position as a former member of the rebel SPLA-IO led by Riek Machar. The government succeeded in splitting this rebel movement in mid-2016 by securing the defection of Taban Deng and other politicians belonging to the rebels.
– South Sudan’s government no longer recognizes Riek Machar as a legitimate peace partner under the terms of the 2015 peace agreement but instead has offered posts awarded to Machar under the power-sharing terms of the peace agreement to Taban Deng’s breakaway faction. This is how he became vice president.
– Taban Deng Gai began a recruitment drive for his militia after his defection to the government in mid-2016. Bolstered by government funds, he sought to eclipse the larger but poorer funded SPLA-IO led by Machar and to unite a coalition of rebel defectors as well as new recruits under his leadership.
– Government support for the SPLA-IO faction under Taban Deng has been a key pillar of a strategy to encourage defections from Machar’s forces as well as build up a credible proxy force that can support SPLA operations. Taban Deng’s SPLA-IO has played a key role in offensive gains this past year in Waat as well as Pagak.
Further reading: CTSAMM’s full report on child soldiers in South Sudan (PDF)