Are Rebels Destabilizing South Sudan?

South Sudan will officially become independent on July 9. Already, the world’s newest nation enjoys substantial autonomy. Its government, controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has been working to build a state for some time. With independence approaching, though, an uptick in rebel activity has some observers wondering whether South Sudan will become “destabilized” before it even has a chance to function as its own country.

Last week, I profiled two commanders, George Athor and Peter Gatdet, who have broken from the SPLA (the army of the SPLM) and formed rebel movements. The forces of Athor and Gatdet – which are separate, but have sympathy for one another – have inflicted significant casualties on the SPLA in a series of clashes.

Over the weekend, Gatdet and another rebel commander in South Sudan, Gabriel Tang, made more news. Fighting between Gatdet and the SPLA in Unity State resulted in over 100 deaths, while clashes between Tang’s forces and the SPLA killed dozens in Jonglei State. Tang (also called Tanginye in some sources) has since surrendered to the SPLA. Tang, unlike Athor and Gatdet, is not an SPLA dissident, but rather “a warlord sponsored by the north during the decades-long north-south civil war…[who] accepted amnesty from the southern government” last year but returned to fighting last week. Athor and Gatdet remain renegades for now.

The magnitude of the violence and the proliferation of rebel groups is leading some news outlets to talk about “destabilization” in South Sudan. The New York Times, citing human rights violations, North-South border tensions, and the failure of programs aimed to demobilizing combatants, writes: “The closer southern Sudan gets to becoming the world’s newest country, the less stable it appears.” Reuters counts seven rebel groups at work in South Sudan, and adds that disruptions in oil production “underscor[e] the threat insecurity poses to the economy.”

In addition to the economic and military toll of rebellion, other potential factors in destabilization are civilian suffering and political tension. Regarding civilians, the fighting has displaced perhaps 100,000 people. Watchdog groups have reported human rights violations by both the SPLA and the rebels, and these abuses could weaken the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of many ordinary people. Violence is also interfering with aid groups’ efforts to help civilians; the World Food Program has had to reduce its activities in South Sudan. As these problems interlock to make ordinary people’s lives desperate, it is again the government that stands to lose major credibility. That could even feed rebel recruitment.

Politically, the rebellions have begun to affect “mainstream” politics as well. Party politics are already tense. As the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) works on the new country’s constitution, opposition parties are denouncing the draft version, calling it “dictatorial.” The SPLM’s response to the rebellions and to opposition criticism, Sudan Vision says, has been to link the opposition with the rebels. “GoSS has accused these very political forces of providing support to the militia and threatened to prosecute their leaders.” Whether these accusations are true or not, the rhetorical lines between non-violent political opposition and violent rebellion are beginning to blur, at least in the Government’s eyes.

Finally, the draft constitution opens the door to greater violence by claiming the disputed region of Abyei, which sits on the North-South border and has been the site of significant conflict. Control of Abyei could give the GoSS jurisdiction over yet another rebellion.

Does all this add up to destabilization? Destabilization is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, but whose meaning is often unspecified. Chris Albon, writing at UN Dispatch, puts the question in specific terms, headlining his post, “Civil War in South Sudan?” Albon argues that with international support, South Sudan can neutralize the rebels who see the new state as an “easy target.” Given that South Sudan does have powerful friends, and given the SPLM’s long history and strength as an institution, full-scale civil war may not break out. Still, there are other, less severe but still serious forms of destabilization short of civil war. One scenario involves intermittent conflicts between rebels and the state, with civilians caught in the middle. Whatever the case, the next two and a half months will help set the tone for what a formally independent South Sudan will look like.

2 thoughts on “Are Rebels Destabilizing South Sudan?

  1. These events appear to be South Sudan’s inevitable outcome from the beginning. This split, while popularly supported on one end, remains inherently unstable. A stable division may require more work in the South than Western and African officials can imagine – nation-building, in other words. Cleaning up splinter groups in a region already dominated by factions will be measured in years, nor has al-Bashir sincerely accepted the South’s independence. But I would lean towards proxy insurgency over declared civil war.

  2. Pingback: South Sudan happenings | ikners.com

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