Monday, December 30, 2013

South Sudan: Making Sense of December the 15th, Start of War – Part 1

By John A. Akec

It is slow and difficult to build anything worthwhile, but it takes just a few reckless hands to bring to naught what has taken years, many hands, and resources to construct. Thus, goes the perceived wisdom. And of all humanity's endeavours everywhere, nothing surpasses the continuous struggle to achieve peace and to maintain it.

And if bad peace is better than just war, an unjustified war is a double tragedy that can afflict any nation.  And tragedy is what befell our nation on December 15th 2013 when the hell broke loose and hundreds of lives were lost in fighting involving the national army and soldiers loyal to former vice president Riek Machar.
Scenes of devastation were evident everywhere in Juba and Bor. A journalist who accompanied the army that recaptured Bor from Machar's forces wrote:

"The chaos caused by the rebels is everywhere to see. Shops are looted, houses smashed down, while in the office of the governor -- used by the rebels as a base during their occupation -- windows have been bashed in and doors ripped off their hinges."

In addition to media reports, the author held interviews with lay citizens, SPLM party officials, politicians, academics, civil society leaders, and army and police officers, some of whom were directly involved in combat operation.  The outcome is a two-part article in which the author strives to provide an analytic perspective of the conflict. This is part 1 and part 2 will follow immediately soon.

Media reports were quick to christen it as a fight between Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups in the army, and that Dinka elements in the Presidential Guard got involved in lynching of Nuer civilians in Juba. There were expressed concerns that the endorsement of these media reports by Dinka politicians close to Riek Machar, and most notably the statement by Rebecca Nynadeng de Mabior to BBC, might have contributed to inciting more revenge killings against Dinka civilians and army colleagues by Nuer soldiers in areas under their control.

Fighting spread to Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile states; and thousands of civilians took refuge in churches and UN compounds in Juba, Bor, Akobo, Bentiu, and Malakal. Hundreds of civilians died of cross fire or by ethnic-based targeted killings in Juba, Bor, Akobo, Bentiu, Rubkona, and Thar Jath.

Embassies rushed to evacuate their staff and their nationals from South Sudan, as did international NGOs. Foreign nationals and their businesses struggled to scurry out of South Sudan in the shortest time and through quickest route possible, mostly by air; and Juba International Airport was chocked to the brim.

An angry young Nuer civil servant with whom the author had a discussion at Juba International airport said a week after the incident:
"The situation has now subsided, but I am leaving the country to Nairobi because I am afraid, very afraid. The bottom line is: there will never be a Nuer country without Dinka, and there will never be a Dinka country without Nuer. But there will always be one South Sudan. What happened recently shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current system of government."

And judging from media reports in regards to targeted killings that claimed many lives of Nuer civilians which included members of parliament, civil servants, pastors, and teachers in Juba, this author have nothing but great regret and sympathy for those who have lost their loved ones in these senseless killings, and a concern as a citizens about the breakdown of rule of law in our country.

Both civilians and members of organised forces I have spoken to did admit that "some very bad atrocities" were committed in block 107 and Gudele areas of Juba against members of Nuer community, especially at Lou Police station where unconfirmed reports say many ehnic Nuer were dragged, and never to be seen again. The police authorities concurred that the whole "situation went out of control" especially on Tuesday afternoon and throughout night of 17 December.

A civil society activist from Nuer community in Juba sent me an email saying he was on the run after receiving death threats through text messages from unknown people which the activist believed are security personnel angered by his organisation's human rights activities.

I asked the authorities how come such a thing could be allowed to happen, and a senior police officer replied:"What we have is not a civilized, well-trained, and professional army that is guided by values and principles of the military profession. Even chiefs who cannot read or write have been integrated into the army and given the rank they have requested. This has demoralized the whole army. We are still waiting for reports from Central Equatoria Police authorities in regards to the reported killings of ethnic Nuer"

An academic who survived revenge killing against Dinka co-passengers at Thar Jath airstrip on Thursday 19th December spoke to the author by phone from UN Compound in Rubkona:

"We traveled to Thar Jath air strip this morning and were in the process of checking in when armed men in non-uniform suddenly appeared and asked everyone to go inside the airport lounge. Later, all the cars and buses were instructed to drive in convoy to Dan Duk, fifty miles from Bentiu were all passengers were lined up. Each passenger was asked to step forward and was asked about their place of origin and supportive id. Many were allowed to get back on the bus and ordered to return to Bentiu."

Later on, the academic learned that two co-passengers were identified as Dinka and were killed, in addition to not less than four other Dinka who were in a land cruiser vehicle a head of the convoy and a Kuku serving with National Security Service were shot dead by the armed men believed to be Nuer. "One of the attackers was a 14-year old boy who frantically held out a gun at passengers and was in tears and appeared very upset and was asking to be allowed to shoot all the passengers but was constrained by armed men in his company who took the gun away from him", said the academic. The academic also said the attackers also took mobile phones, cameras, and other valuables from the passengers.

Eventually, the academic and another colleague of his were evacuated by WPF plane to Juba, three days after the incident.

The retaliatory atrocities committed by Nuer elements against Dinka in the Nuerland has also undermined their commitment to respect of human rights in the eyes of many lay Dinka who had nothing to do with said atrocities against Nuer:
"In contrast to what happened to Dinka in Bentiu, Bor, Akobo, and Malakal, no single Nuer has been killed in the whole of Greater Bhar El Ghazal; and yet, the international community and media has not been fair on Dinka.", said one citizen from Warap State.

Yet, it would also be unfair to conclude that all Nuers have shown mo mercy and there are many stories heard by the author about saving lives of Dinka members in Nuerland by Nuer friends or work colleagues. A pastor and member of National Legislative assembly from Akobo county in Jonglei state told the author:"I lost two members of my previous Church in Akobo when they tried to protect Dinka friends. They were killed by their Nuer clansmen because they wanted to protect two Dinka soldiers who are members of my church."

What Actually Sparked the Fight on Sunday 15th December 2013?
According to some analysts, the shootout that started at the headquarters of Presidential Guards Division of South Sudan army was caused by "rumour and paranoia." Another version provided by sources close to Riek Machar say the conflict was sparked by "an attempt to disarm members of Presidential Guards that belong to the Nuer ethnic group by a force composed of Dinka elements of Presidential Guards."And still others say it was sparked by "a fight between two drunken soldiers in the Tiger and Buffalo brigades", and evolved into a confrontation between Dinka and Nuer elements in the army.

Furthermore, government officials described it as an "unsuccessful coup attempt by Dr. Riek Machar in collaboration with a number of former cabinet ministers." This was flatly denied by Riek Machar, although he later on admitted being the leader of the mutiny. What is more, a few days later, and precisely on Friday 20th December 2013, Dr. Riek told Al Jazeera interviewer that he wants to be the next SPLM flag bearer in 2015 election, and the next president of South Sudan.

As always, the first casualty of war is truth itself. Major General Marial Chanuong Yol, the Commander of Presidential Guards in South Sudan, told the author:
"I felt something was wrong when Dr. Riek Machar wanted to force his way into the convention hall where the meetings of National Liberation Council (NLC) were scheduled on Saturday December 14 with all his 30 guards who arrived with him in 4 cars. Only one guard was eventually allowed to accompany Dr. Riek into the conference hall and the issue was peacefully resolved after one of his officers almost caused a fight at the gate just before the opening ceremony of the SPLM NLC convention."

Maj. Gen. Marial Chanuong said he was at the division headquarters up to 6 pm on Sunday after which he went home. At 8 pm, he received a report that there had been a dispute at first battalion where a certain Nuer major  expressed anger because the number of guards at ammunition store was higher than normal. Chanuong sent a Nuer colonel to resolve the issue. He then requested the colonel on duty to be alert. He also noted that colonels John Malual Biel and Peter Lok, both Nuers, who are first and second battalion commanders had arrived back at the army garrison that evening.  "The two were believed to have been in contact with their politicians", according to Chanuong. Also eye witnesses said money was distributed to Nuer soldiers on Sunday and many of them came back to garrison and took up their arms early in the evening that day.

At around 10:17 pm exactly, Colonel John Malual Biel, head of first Battalion shot his deputy, Akol Reec (a Dinka from Warap State) unprovoked. He died a day later from his bullet wounds. At the same time, Abraham Manyuat Ajou was shot by a certain Nuer Brigadier General James Koch Gak (there is slight variation as to who was shot first). Hence at the start of the incidence, the shooters were all Nuer, and the victims were all Dinka. The killing of the two Dinka officers was in cold blood, and was never preceded by arguments or "wrist fight" as some media has reported it.

Fighting then erupted. An unknown number of soldiers were killed on the side of government forces and mutineers. And contrary to reports that the mutineers had control of army headquarters on Sunday night, Maj. Gen. Chanuong said the battle raged throughout the night and that the mutineers could not succeed to capture the ammunition store and were pushed out of the garrison by 2am of morning of 16 December 2013 into Jebel area of Juba, according to Chanuong.
"Nuer soldiers in non-uniform mobilized Nuer civilians in 107 area and they tried unsuccessfully to take over the ammunition store at New Site", Chanuong relates.

Chanuong also dismissed the reports that it was a fight between the Dinka and Nuers per se:
"More than 50 percent of our forces are Nuer. My deputy is a Nuer. My office manager is a Nuer. Three of Ltd colonels under my command on Sunday night operation were Nuer. Why didn't they kill me if it was an issue between Dinka and Nuers? Many of those who defected did so from the wrong information they got in the media."

Asked about the report of atrocities against Nuer civilians in New Site and block 107 area of Juba, he replied:
"I can only speak about the forces I command. We are not responsible for the atrocities reported." He said some of individuals many of whom are not part of the army have been arrested in relation to the atrocities and that investigation is ongoing to identify those involved in the killing of civilians.

Maj. General Marial Chanuong acknowledged that there were indicators that this was coming but did not have evident to make the arrest:
"Had we done that [arrested perpetrators], we would have been accused of sparking the fight. That they have ventured to execute their plans makes them fully accountable for their deeds."

After more than one hour of conversation with the author at his office at Division headquarters where troubles started, Maj. Gen. Chanuong introduced his second in command, Brigadier Simon Yien, a Nuer, as well as other Nuer, Dinka, and other South Sudan ethnicities in the Presidential Guards. 
He said:
"Please tell them when you write your report that you found Nuer and Dinka eating together."
This was in stark contrast to claims by some sources that the coup was led by Brigadier Simon Yien, a proof of how much disinformation was being generated in Juba!

Of 11 politicians that have been arrested by the authorities, mostly from Dinka ethnic group, two have been released as at the time of this writing. The government has also agreed to a cease-fire and called for 
unconditional dialogue with Machar's group.

In summary, it would appear that what took place on the night of December 15th was less of a Dinka-Nuer conflict, and more of a pre-planned politically motivated mutiny using ethnic card to mobilize a support base. The mutineers were all Nuer, while those fighting against them were a multi-ethnic army. The severity of the conflict has also been aggravated by inaccurate media reporting and the inflammatory statements by some politicians. It has also created an environment of mutual mistrust amongst the citizens as to who is against or for the government; or who is your friend and who is your enemy. In words of Bishop Daniel Deng of Episcopal Church of South Sudan, "we do not know is fighting whom."

December 15th incidence, therefore, presents the nation with open questions as to what were the underlying causes of the conflict, how it might be resolved, how its repeat may be prevented in future, and what are its implications for nation-building, organisation of armed forces, and the future political stability of the country.

The second part of article series is going to examine the political causes of the unrest and the implications for the political future of the country.


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