South Sudan: Rebel Leader Gai’s Death Could Worsen Internal Violence

Earlier this week, it was encouraging to read that one of South Sudan’s rebel leaders, Gatluak Gai, had agreed to reintegrate his forces into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which is the armed wing of the ruling party and the official armed force of the newly independent state.

Now Gai is dead. The SPLA says he was shot by his own troops. His death is making it less likely that other rebels will agree to lay down their arms:

A separate rebel group headed by former southern army officer Peter Gadet, which is also active in Unity state, said the SPLA had killed Gai. “Gatluak Gai has been killed by the SPLA. They shot him,” spokesman Gatkuoth Kol said.

Sudan watchers say Gai was not one of the top rebel leaders and was less powerful than Gadet or George Athor, another militia commander.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has renewed an offer of amnesty to armed groups fighting his government, but previous pardons have had little success.

Kol said rebels led by Gadet and Athor will reject the amnesty offer after Gai’s killing.

South Sudan may have eliminated one of its rebel commanders – he is one of seven, by some counts – but Gai’s death could raise the stakes in other conflicts, and seems to have made the remaining rebels feel that continuing their violence against the state is the only viable option. The SPLA’s job just got harder.

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.

South Sudan’s Rebel Groups

The world’s soon-to-be newest country, South Sudan, faces a number of challenges, including severe under-development and tensions with North Sudan on border demarcation, oil revenue-sharing, and others issues. But it is the growing challenge from rebel groups that most threatens the political stability of the new state. Several rebel movements have clashed with the troops of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM, and the army is called SPLA). It does not seem likely that these rebel groups can topple the SPLM, but they are making life difficult for the leadership in Juba.

Here is an overview of two important leaders, George Athor and Peter Gatdet, and their forces. I refer to various states in South Sudan: see this map for help in visualizing the geography. At the end, I offer a few thoughts on what these rebellions mean for South Sudan.

George Athor and the South Sudan Democratic Movement

South Sudan has never been completely united under the SPLM, and the SPLM has faced rifts before, but the defection of George Athor from the SPLA in April 2010 has proven to be a serious headache for the SPLM. Athor, a former Lieutenant General within the SPLA, was angered by the SPLM’s decision to nominate another man for the 2010 gubernatorial election in Jonglei State. He stood as an independent and lost. Shortly afterwards, his forces began to attack SPLA outposts in the area.

In January 2011, shortly before the referendum on Southern Sudanese independence, Athor signed a cease-fire with the SPLA. But it did not last. Since February, Athor’s men have perpetrated several attacks on the SPLA. Athor expressed willingness to make peace earlier this month, but the SPLM leadership doubts his sincerity. In March, the SPLA began moving to retake territory from Athor. Some reports have identified Athor as the leader, or at least the center, of a network of rebel groups (see below).

Peter Gatdet and the South Sudan Liberation Army

Peter Gatdet held the rank of Major General until his defection from the SPLA in March. The Sudan Tribune describes his chaotic career:

Peter Gatdet was the deputy SPLA divisional commander in Northern Bahr el Ghazal [State] before his defection but has a long history of switching sides.

During the Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005), he became militia leader under Paulino Matip’s top commander in the battles for Unity state and its oilfields. Nonetheless in 1999, he then returned to the SPLA before defecting back to the Khartoum government’s side in 2002.

His defections during the war always drastically shifted the balance of power over who controlled Unity state. Since 2005, he was used by the SPLA as a field commander both in Abyei clashes in 2008 and the clashes in Malakal with forces loyal to Gabriel Tanginye in 2009.

Gatdet’s forces are based in Unity State, which borders Jonglei State. Dissidents in Unity State object, like Athor’s men in Jonglei, to the current state governor. Gatdet’s soldiers are now attacking the SPLA:

Twenty southern army soldiers were killed on Tuesday in a clash in the oil-producing Unity state with fighters loyal to Peter Gadet, a former senior southern army (SPLA) officer who rebelled this month, the military said.

“They (the rebels) overran a village in Mayom county. They burnt it to the ground before the SPLA chased them off,” said southern army spokesman Philip Aguer.

Gatdet’s South Sudan Liberation Army is distinct from Athor’s South Sudan Democratic Movement, but the two groups share common goals and a spokesman for Gatdet says that the two rebel armies are coordinating. For more on Gatdet and the latest attack, see here.


Reading the reports I’ve linked to above, three themes have leaped out at me. First, Athor and Gatdet both have formidable reputations as battlefield commanders, and both have decades of fighting experience. Defeating them will be difficult for the SPLA. Losing senior commanders, moreover, seems to indicate that major sections of the SPLA’s officer corps are politically frustrated.

That leads to a second theme – the political disputes that lie behind these conflicts. All rebellions have something to do with politics, of course, but in South Sudan’s case there are widespread grievances concerning how the SPLM apportions power and handles dissent. The multiplication of rebel movements, and the persistent violence, says to me that the SPLM must address those grievances before there can be peace. That in turn will likely necessitate a greater opening of the political system.

The third conclusion is that North-South tensions cast a heavy shadow over the conflicts in South Sudan. The SPLM accuses Athor and Gatdet of receiving support from the North, and both deny it. The Southern leadership certainly has reason to distrust Khartoum, and conflicts in the South and in border regions could draw the North and the South into direct conflict. However, I hope distrust of the North does not prevent the Government of South Sudan from addressing the local grievances I mentioned. With serious rebellions and violent battles happening in multiple states, much is at risk in South Sudan.