Sudan: Tribal Rivalries Trigger Civil War In The South


December 31, 2013:   The UN and the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are attempting to stop the widespread ethnic clashes in South Sudan before they turn into an all-out multi-tribal war that damages the entire region. The clashes began late on the evening of December 15 when firefights involving rival factions in South Sudan’s army (Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, SPLA) broke out in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. The initial clashes pitted presidential guard soldiers loyal to South Sudanese president Salva Kiir against soldiers loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar. Kiir fired Machar in July 2013. Kiir and Machar were both SPLA commanders during the 1983-2005 civil war with Sudan. In 1991 Machar split with the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM, the political wing of the SPLA) and allied with Sudan during the long north-south civil war. The civil war ran from.  Machar did not rejoin the SPLM until 2002. The Sudan government (led by Omar al-Bashir, who is still president of Sudan) used Machar’s 1991 defection as an opportunity to roll back SPLA gains in the south. In 2013 Sudan tried to use South Sudan’s turmoil to solidify control over disputed border areas as well as a possible attempt to seize South Sudanese oil fields. This danger is greater the more fighting there is within South Sudan.

Kiir and Machar have conflicting political ambitions-that’s one political divide. Machar’s side-switching still stirs bitterness. However, in South Sudan, ethnicity tends to shape politics. No surprise, the big divide between Kiir and Machar is tribal. Kiir is Dinka, Machar is Nuer. When he quit the SPLA in 1991, Machar claimed that the Dinkas wielded too much control within the organization.  Since the morning of December 16, fighting has erupted in at least five of South Sudan’s ten states. South Sudanese fear the tribal battles could lead to tribal war and then civil war. A South Sudan civil war could ignite broader tribal conflicts throughout the region.

The UN and IGAD have not had great success in getting Kiir and Machar to talk with one another, though Kiir claims he is open to ending the clashes peacefully. The one success so far seems to have been engineered by Nuer tribal elders in South Sudan’s contentious Jonglei state. The Nuer, Dinka and Murle tribes all have land in Jonglei state. On December 29, after several days of discussion, Nuer elders convinced a group of several thousand young tribal fighters in a Nuer White Army militia to go home.  The militiamen were heading to the town of Bor (Jonglei’s capital) to fight Kiir supporters. Bor is 200 kilometers north of Juba. However, the entire White Army force did not disband.

Another Nuer White Army was formed in 1991 after Machar defected to the Sudan government.  Then there was the 1991 episode where the White Army massacred several hundred Dinka in the town of Bor.  A Nuer White Army fought with the SPLA in March 2012. The Nuer militia sought to form an alliance with the Murle tribe to fight Dinka control in South Sudan.  In fact the Nuer White Army of 2012 urged Murle tribespeople in Jonglei state to form a White Army. The Murle found that ironic, since in late 2011 a Nuer White Army faction had vowed to wipe out the Murle tribe. In both Sudan and South Sudan the term White Army usually refers to a Nuer tribal force, but that is a bit misleading. It is not an army, but a collection of clan militias. The clan militias exist to protect family cattle camps and cattle herds. Thus a threat news media attribute to the White Army could simply be the threat of a local leader who is angry because a neighboring tribe stole his family’s cattle. Other tribes have similar militia forces.

The Nuer force is called the White Army because the militiamen cover themselves with ashes. One explanation has a scientific angle; the ashes of burnt cattle dung supposedly protect the fighters from biting insects. Could be, but the other explanation also works. The ashes indicate the warriors are prepared for battle; they also scare the enemy because the ashes make the warriors look like fearsome spirits. Call this explanation the war paint theory. (Austin Bay)

December 30, 2013: The Darfur (Sudan) rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) denied that it has fighters in South Sudan’s Unity state.

Uganda pledged to aid South Sudan if rebel forces do not agree to a ceasefire. Uganda claimed the the rebels had a deadline of four days. The Ugandans implied that Ethiopia and Kenya would also help deal with the rebels.

December 29, 2013: Gunmen in South Darfur state (Sudan) attacked a UNAMID peacekeeping patrol. Two peacekeepers were slain, one from Senegal and the other from Jordan.

The Sudan Peoples Liberation-Movement-North (SPLM-N) said that the UN cannot neglect north Sudanese refugees now in camps in South Sudan. Fighting in South Sudan has disrupted refugee assistance efforts. The refugees have fled fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states in Sudan.  The SPLM-N also claimed that its forces in Blue Nile state had ambushed a Sudanese patrol in the Bowrgo area and killed several soldiers, including the general officer commanding the Sudanese Army’s 4th Division.

Former SPLA Major General James Koang confirmed that he had defected to the South Sudan rebels. Koang had commanded South Sudan’s 4th Division in Unity state and claimed that troops loyal to him controlled several key areas in South Sudan’s Unity state. This alledgly includes the capital, Bentiu. South Sudan’s largest and most productive oil fields are in Unity state. Koang also claimed that Darfur rebels with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) have entered South Sudan’s Unity state. The JEM fighters, according to Koang, had a base in Sudan’s South Kordofan state. Koang said that he had ordered the JEM fighters to leave because the on-going conflict in South Sudan is a fight among southerners and no one else should get involved. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s Kiir government said its forces were advancing in Unity state (northern South Sudan). Oil production has been shutdown in Unity state.

After hearing a plea from tribal elders, several thousand Nuer White Army militiamen agreed to go home. The militiamen were marching toward the town of Bor.  The contingent which decided to go home was some 50 kilometers from Bor. A UN helicopter reportedly overflew this White Army contingent and confirmed its location (northeast of Bor). The UN, however, has not reported on how many militiamen were in the group. However, another contingent of White Army militiamen (also said to number several thousand) said that it is loyal to the rebel leader and it is heading for Bor. In fact, some may have reached Bor. A pro-Kiir SPLA unit reported that it had engaged a Nuer White Army contingent outside of Bor. The SPLA said that it used an attack helicopter in the battle and the force retreated to the north. The situation at Bor is confused, but that is understandable, given the lack of communication. There have been other reports militia forces in the vicinity fighting with pro-Kiir SPLA soldiers.  Refugees reported that a pro-rebel force (possibly Nuer White Army) had taken the village of Mathiang (30 kilometers from Bor). Pro-government soldiers now claim to control the town after driving out pro-Machar forces.

The Ugandan Army has soldiers in South Sudan. The Ugandan government said the forces are in South Sudan to help evacuate Ugandan nationals trapped by the fighting.

December 28, 2013: The UN announced that it had resupplied a hospital in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state. Like Unity state, Upper Nile is a major oil producing region. For the last ten days the UN base in Malakal has been a refuge for civilians. Rebel forces launched attacks in and around Malakal on December 18. Pro-Kiir forces counter-attacked. Pro-Kiir forces claimed they drove the rebel force from the town on December 21. However, firefights erupted on December 27 and today there is fighting outside between government and rebel troops.

Another 72 new UN peacekeeping soldiers arrived in Juba, South Sudan.  This is the first contingent of 5,500 troops to reinforce the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The UN estimated that around 125,000 people have fled the fighting in South Sudan. An estimated 63,000 of these refugees have gathered around UN peacekeeping bases.

A joint statement issued by the IGAD leaders conference in Nairobi said that their countries would not allow a democratically elected government in their region to be overthrown by force. IGAD representatives from Kenya and Ethiopia have offered to mediate the South Sudan conflict.

December 27, 2013: The government of South Sudan said that it is firmly committed to reaching a ceasefire agreement with the rebes. The SPLA said it will not attack rebel forces unless they shoot first or try to seize a town. Meanwhile rebels insisted that negotiators and international forces (presumably the UN) had to be able to monitor any ceasefire agreement. The rebels believe said the mechanisms for monitoring a ceasefire between his forces and Kiir’s are not yet in place.

December 26, 2013: South Sudan’s government said its forces now control the town of Bor. The Kiir government then accused rebel leader Riek Machar of inciting Nuer tribal youth to attack the town of Bor. The government claimed that Machar wants the Nuer to repeat the 1991 White army attack on Bor, which led to the massacre of several hundred Dinka.

December 25, 2013:  The main rebel group in Sudan’s South Kordofan state, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) claimed that Sudanese Air Force Antonov transports bombed the village of Tirno (Nuba Mountain region). At least five children were killed in the bombing raid.

The U.S. is encouraging the Kiir and Machar factions in South Sudan to agree to a ceasefire. China has asked all warring parties in the country to end the fighting. China is a major importer of South Sudan oil and Chinese oil companies operate several major concessions in the country. The conflict has forced the China National Petroleum Company to evacuate several dozen workers.

December 24, 2013: The South Sudan rebels offered to negotiate if the government releases the pro-rebel politicians now under arrest. The rebels claim that the governmentr has arrested 11 key rebel political supporters. After the South Sudan president fired the current leader of the rebels (Machar) in July, Machar accused Kiir of ending democracy in South Sudan. Since the fighting erupted this month, he has accused Kiir of conducting a purge of his political opponents.

Pro-Kiir SPLA units claimed they attacked and defeated the rebel force which had seized the town of Bor.  The fighting in the town seems to have been very intense. Many pro-Machar rebels in Bor had served in the SPLA and some may have been in the Bor garrison. A journalist who reached Bor reported seeing the bodies of numerous dead soldiers in the streets.

The UN Security Council has approved the request to send 5,500 more peacekeepers to South Sudan. UNMISS is now authorized 12,500 soldiers and 1,323 armed civilian police.

The U.S. has around 100 military personnel in South Sudan to assist in evacuation and security. The U.S. has also positioned a U.S. Marine platoon in Uganda to provide additional security if required.

December 23, 2013: South Sudan and rebel forces in Upper Nile state are fighting and there have been several dozen casualties.

SPLA units loyal to the South Sudan government have begun reinforcing pro-government forces manning a garrison outside the town of Bor. Rebel forces currently control most of Bor. The UNMISS base at Bor is still in UN hands. Some 15,000 refugees have taken shelter in or near the UN base.

The U.S. has moved a crisis-response team of around 150 U.S. Marines to the U.S. and French base in Djibouti. The unit us being positioned to assist additional evacuations from South Sudan.

The UN estimated that the rebel force which seized the UN camp at Akobo on December 18 had around 2,000 fighters. Two Indian Army peacekeepers died in the attack. It is believed that the attackers then killed 20 Dinka who had sought refuge in the camp. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) currently deploys around 7,000 peacekeeping troops. UNMISS is also authorized an armed police contingent of 900. The UN believes the situation in South Sudan is deteriorating and UNMISS needs major reinforcements. The UN is trying to raise an additional 5,500 soldiers and 423 policemen, increasing the UNMISS authorization to 12,500 troops and 1,323 armed police. Some of the reinforcements may be drawn from UN contingents serving elsewhere in Africa.

December 22, 2013: South Sudan’s government confirmed claims by rebels that they had seized control of the capital of Unity state, Bentiu. Unity state is an oil producing region. The government statement followed reports that the general in command of the SPLA’s 4th Division in Bentiu, John Koang, had defected to the rebels. The rebels have made Koang acting governor of Unity state.

The East African regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has offered to mediate peace talks between government and rebel forces in South Sudan.

The U.S. State Department announced that all American citizens have been evacuated by helicopter from the rebel-held town of Bor. The U.S. and UN are now moving foreign nationals from Juba to other nations in East Africa. So far 380 U.S. citizens and another 300 non-Sudanese nationals have been flown out of South Sudan. Kenya has around 1,600 citizens in South Sudan and the Kenyan government is trying to evacuate them to Nairobi. Britain and Uganda are also evacuating their citizens.

December 21, 2013: The rebels deny they launched a coup against the South Sudan government in the last two days. Meanwhile, the government announced that it is willing to have an “unconditional dialog” with the rebels, which presumably means negotiating with no pre-conditions.

Fighting between government and rebel forces is occurring throughout Jonglei state.  Clashes have occurred in the towns of Bor, Waat, Pibor, Akobo, Likunagole Gumuruk and Pochalla. A UN outpost position in Akobo was overrun by rebels on December 18.

December 20, 2013: Thee U.S. OV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft were hit by gunfire when they tried to land in the town of Bor (Jonglei state). Four U.S. military personnel were wounded by the fire.  The wounded U.S. personnel were flown to Uganda and have since been taken to a hospital in Kenya. The aircraft were trying to evacuate U.S. citizens from the town. Meanwhile, the UN confirmed that a UN helicopter was fired upon in Jonglei state on December 19. Four UN helicopters were on a mission to evacuate a contingent of 40 UN peacekeepers from a base near the town of Yuai.  One helicopter was fired on and suffered significant damage but managed to fly to Upper Nile state before conducting an emergency landing. No UN peacekeepers were wounded in the incident. The Sudanese government has accused rebel soldiers of downing the UN helicopter and firing on the U.S. aircraft.

December 19, 2013: Rebel forces have reportedly taken control of several oil facilities in Unity state (north-eastern South Sudan). Facilities could mean several things, such as drilling rigs, production wells, storage tanks or transportation infrastructure. Rebel control could mean that the oil flow has already been interrupted. If so, that means Sudan will begin losing oil transport revenue. Intervention by Sudan in the South Sudan conflict could ignite a regional war.

South Sudan’s government estimates that at least 500 people have died in fighting in the country since December 16.

There are 45 U.S. military personnel deployed in South Sudan. The small U.S. military contingent is tasked with providing security for U.S. personnel and facilities. Since the U.S. and other nations are preparing to evacuate their citizens, this mission could expand to include insuring that key transportation facilities (like Juba’s airport) have adequate security.

SPLA general Peter Gadet has reportedly allied with the rebels. Gadet is a Nuer and he commanded the SPLA’s 8th Division in Jonglei state. Gadet supported a 1991 rebellion within the South Sudan rebel movement. Gadet’s defection could explain events in the town of Bor. Soldiers in a pro-Machar rebel SPLA unit now claim to control most of the town of Bor.  Firefights broke out on the night of December 18 in two SPLA garrisons in Bor.

A militia group (according to one report a group of young Nuer men. Possibly White Army militiamen) also fired on the UN peacekeeping compound near Bor. A UN peacekeeping outpost in the town of Akobo (Jonglei state) was attacked and overrun. Initial reports indicate the attack was conducted by what was a tribal militia. Initial reports claimed three Indian Army peacekeepers in Akobo were killed in the attack. The base in Bor was sheltering a group of Dinka tribespeople. 40 other Indian Army peacekeepers and six UN police advisers at the UN camp took refuge in a nearby SPLA camp. The UN intends to evacuate the peacekeeping contingent to Juba.

December 18, 2013: Juba’s airport has re-opened. Aircraft have begun evacuating foreign nationals.

Rebels claim that the government has used the fighting between Dinka and Nuer SPLA soldiers in Juba as a pretext for moving against rebel leaders and trying to eliminate them as a political rivals. President Kiir claimed on December 16 that rebel leader Machar had tried to launch a coup d’etat to topple his government. Machar supporters now claim that on December 16 and 17 pro-government soldiers in Juba conducted house to house searches for members of the Nuer tribe and then murdered the Nuer they found. Some in Juba said that if ethnic cleansing had occurred then South Sudan was on the brink of tribal war.

December 17, 2013: Sudan announced that its new budget will not cut fuel subsidies. Cuts in fuel subsidies in September 2013 led to nation-wide unrest.

Some 70 soldiers have been killed in street-fighting in Juba. Firefights have occurred around the National Security Ministry building (south-central Juba) and in the western neighborhood of Gudele. The first battles erupted near the SPLA headquarters building (central Juba, near the presidential compound) late on December 15. A radio station reported that pro-government forces had attacked the homes and compounds of rebel supporters. 

In Sudan the SPLM-N claimed that the Sudanese Air Force has been conducting daily bombing attacks in South Kordofan state. The attacks began to intensify on December 8. The SPLM-N claimed that three villages in the Kega-Alkhail area have been completely destroyed. 2,000 people have been forced to flee the region.

December 16, 2013:  South Sudan imposed a curfew in its capital, Juba, after gun battles erupted in the city late on the evening of December 15. Sporadic fighting continued until morning with reports of gun fire around the SPLA’s national headquarters and another military barracks in the city. The South Sudan president called the battles an attempted coup d’etat staged by soldier supporting former vice president Riek Machar. Government supporters claimed that troops supporting Machar tried to seize a weapons depot located at the SPLA headquarters. Soldiers in the presidential guard unit drove off the raiders. There was also reported mortar fire in Juba and the airport was closed. The UN has its headquarters near Juba’s airport (northeastern part of the city).  As the firefights continued, several hundred residents sought protection at the UN compound.  Coup or not, the Juba gun battles are the biggest domestic political crisis South Sudan has faced since it separated from Sudan because the battles definitely included extended firefights between groups of rival soldiers. Disagreements within the SPLA have become more evident and entrenched since July 2013 when president Kiir removed Machar as vice president. Machar had announced that he intends to run for president in 2015. Machar also accused Kir of acting like a dictator. Machar, like Kiir, had been a senior officer in the SPLA during the war with the north. He was also deputy leader of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLA’s political organization).  The biggest difference, unfortunately, is tribal. Kiir is a Dinka, Machar a Nuer. Political and tribal differences have always existed in the SPLA. During the long war with the north, some rebel units would make deals with the Sudan government. Often those deals broke down and the rebels would rejoin the SPLA.  Since 2005, the SPLA has managed to avoid major defections. However, South Sudanese leaders know that it could split into rival factions. It looks like it has. (Austin Bay)





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