Conflict in South Sudan: A Tale of Two Leaks

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On 8th November 2014 the leader of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, signed a new peace agreement with the leader of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) and former Vice President of South Sudan, Riek Machar. The resolution was reached during a summit in Addis Ababa convened by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Despite the breaking down of similar agreements on a number of occasions over the past year, there appeared to be a greater level of optimism amongst commentators due to IGAD’s warning that they will directly intervene if the war continued. This is a scenario which both the SPLM and the SPLM-IO have publicly stated they want to avoid, and is one of the few issues the groups are in agreement over. However, optimism was short lived as the ceasefire was broken on 10th November in Upper Nile State. The SPLM and SPLM-IO both refused to take responsibility for the resumption of hostilities and blamed the other party.

Thus far, peace negotiations are predominantly reported as resting upon an agreement between Kiir and Machar. However, this over simplifies the conflict. On 11th November Machar was reported as describing the peace negotiations as “a hard sell”, stating that for his allies “the choices are hard: it’s either continuation of war, or making compromises, so they will decide”. This indicates that Machar does not have complete authority over the rebel groups fighting under the SPLM-IO banner. An International Crisis Group report on the conflict from April 2014 supports this by noting that the SPLM-IO has a weak chain of command, and that local communities tend to engage in conflict on their own terms. This therefore brings into question what impact an agreement with Machar would actually have on the ground.

This problem is not only limited to the SPLM-IO. The same International Crisis Group report noted through its process of mass recruitment the SPLM has provided weapons to local communities to fight the rebels. This creates a problem of how much command the SPLM’s army has over its expanding number of recruits. Moreover, in Unity State the SPLM have been predominantly represented by the partially integrated South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA). This group was only amnestied by the SPLM in April 2013 after openly opposing the SPLM government since independence. Thus Kiir and the SPLM also have the problem of how much authority they command over their fighters. Additionally, as the conflict continues it is likely to increasingly take on an ethnic nature, which will make it harder to control and reduce the likelihood of a united national government emerging.

Furthermore, the conflict cannot be removed from the wider regional context. Despite an air of optimism surrounding IGAD’s involvement in negotiations and possible direct intervention, this organisation is far from unified and its involvement has the potential to exasperate the situation.

Sudan, a member of IGAD, has been accused by the SPLM of supporting the SPLM-IO. For example on 13th November an SPLM army spokesman said that an air attack on a village in Upper Nile State was carried out by a Sudanese Antonov aircraft.  Although the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has previously voiced his support of Kiir’s government, an alleged leaked document containing minutes from an apparent Sudanese Joint Military and Security Committee Meeting in August 2014 indicated the opposite. In these minutes Sudan’s senior military and security officials are allegedly recorded discussing the growing threat of South Sudan, and proposing the provision of weapons to Machar. The director of the National Intelligence and Security Service is quoted in the document as saying “We must use the many cards we have against the South in order to give them an unforgettable lesson”. It must be noted that Sudan’s government, military and security services have stated that this document is a fabrication and at the time of writing there is no definitive evidence to support the authenticity of this document.

Nevertheless, there are obvious tensions between the SPLM and the government of Sudan. In the Blue Nile, Kordofan and Darfur regions of Sudan, the Sudanese government is fighting against the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which includes the SPLM-North. The government of Sudan has accused the SPLM of supporting its northern partner which means these two conflicts are inherently intertwined. South Sudan’s peace negotiations are therefore linked to Sudan’s negotiations with the SRF, as Sudan is likely to want a weak SPLM which cannot provide support to its northern partner as long as it faces conflict with the SRF. As a Sudanese official said during an interview with Crisis Group International in March 2014, “we’ve been very neutral so far, but there is no guarantee it will last. If the government of South Sudan supports the SRF, we might have to intervene directly”.  In addition to this, the SPLM and Sudan face a number of unresolved issues including oil pipeline charges and the status of border regions. These unresolved issues are of such importance that the UN secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated in May 2014 that the disputed Abyei region has the potential to cause war between the two countries. Moreover, the SPLM-IO has been reported as stating that if it was able to secure oil fields it would be open to negotiating with Sudan over sharing oil revenues. This therefore provides another motivation for the Sudanese government to support the SPLM-IO.

On the other side of IGAD there is Uganda. Uganda’s army, the UPDF, have been instrumental in supporting the SPLM, especially in the early stages of the conflict where they arguably prevented the SPLM-IO from taking Juba. Uganda has a number of interests in South Sudan and over the past year Museveni’s government has cultivated close ties with Kiir’s regime. Thus, a victory for the SPLM-IO is highly likely to damage Uganda’s position in South Sudan. On 5th November the South Sudan News Agency leaked a report which allegedly contained the UPDF’s war strategy. According to the report, the UPDF view the SPLM-IO as “a threat to our general security” and state that “they must either surrender or face being wiped out completely”. In the report the UPDF are also shown to perceive the IGAD peace talks as “useless” and not to be relied upon. Again this document has not been verified but it is clear that Uganda firmly supports a military victory for the SPLM.

Moreover, there is a large degree of animosity between Uganda and Sudan due to Uganda’s historical support of the SPLM and Sudan’s of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). There are also suspicions from both sides that this support continues, and in the case of Uganda has extended to include the SDF. Each country is therefore highly unlikely to want the other to have substantial influence in their mutual neighbour, South Sudan. Thus, these tensions would exist within any form of direct intervention undertaken by IGAD.

The conflict in South Sudan is too often oversimplified to merely negotiations between Kiir and Machar. Although these individuals play a vital role in the potential of a lasting peace settlement being realised, there are a number of players, both internal and external, who have a large degree of influence and must not be overlooked. All of these players must be committed to peace and play a role in the negotiations if there is going to be a chance of a definitive end to hostilities.

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