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.

South Sudan Braces for More Rebel Attacks

South Sudan will become independent in ten days, but its future stability is far from guaranteed. In addition to the host of final status issues (oil revenues and borders, for example) that remain unresolved between North and South Sudan, there is turmoil in South Sudan itself. Some seven rebel movements operate in the South, their grievances fueled in part by ethnic tensions and competition over resources. Now the regime in Juba is saying that the most famous of the South’s rebel leaders, renegade General George Athor, is plotting new attacks with Northern support:

Philip Aguer, the spokesman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA [the armed wing of the ruling SPLM party – Alex]), in a televised message on SSTV on Monday announced the intention of the militia leader, Athor, allied to the Khartoum government to destabilize the region.

Aguer said the army has reliable information that forces loyal to George Athor are being assembled and organized in the North Sudan’s Senar state which borders the Upper Nile state of South Sudan to launch attacks targeting the disputed areas between North and South Sudan as the region prepares to formally become independent in less than two weeks time.

The army spokesman accused the Khartoum government of supporting and arming the rebels and unleashing them to disrupt the process of smooth road to independence of the region.

Sorting out what is true and what is not in such allegations, particularly when it comes to the question of Northern support for Southern rebels, can be difficult. What seems absolutely clear, though, is that officials in Juba are worried about the prospect of further rebel uprisings, and that South Sudan is likely to enter independence still gripped by substantial violence.

Sudan: Keep An Eye on South Kordofan


Heavy shooting broke out on Monday in Kadugli, the capital of Sudan’s volatile oil-producing border state of South Kordofan, amid soaring tensions ahead of southern independence, witnesses and the UN said.

“The fighting appears to be between elements from the SAF and SPLA,” said Kouider Zerrouk, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Sudan (UNMIS), referring to the respective armies of north and south Sudan.

He added that the fighting had stopped, but gave no information on casualties.

When South Sudan becomes formally independent on July 9, South Kordofan State will remain part of North Sudan. South Kordofan lies on the border between the two countries and is a zone of, as you can see, considerable tension: gubernatorial elections that ended there on May 4 resulted in a victory of the North’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) over the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which rules South Sudan but has a significant presence in parts of the North, including South Kordofan. The NCP victory in South Kordofan produced considerable bitterness among SPLM partisans, exacerbating NCP-SPLM tensions nationwide as well as within the state itself. The SAF and the SPLA (the army of the SPLM) are taking the political conflict to the battlefield once more.

The region of Abyei, control of which is formally disputed between the North and the South, has received tremendous attention in recent months. What happens in Abyei will help set the tone for relations between the North and the South after the latter gains independence. But South Kordofan is important too; even though its status is not disputed, its cultural and political identity is, and that dispute could lead to conflict just like the one in Abyei has to some extent already.

As I and others have said before, the secession of South Sudan will give birth to not just one new country, but two: North Sudan has been changed already by the process, and will continue to change post-separation. Old tensions have flared up in new ways, as the North – which is more internally diverse, ethnically, ideologically, and politically, than many people realize – confronts its problems once more, but this time in a political and geographical space that is being reconfigured before our eyes. The conflict in South Kordofan will not be the last of such struggles.

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.

Update on Sudan Referendum

Despite certain rumblings that Sudan’s government might delay a planned January 2011 referendum on Southern Sudanese independence, preparations for the referendum – and for South Sudan’s post-referendum future – are going forward.

Assurances about the referendum’s integrity continue to come from the top. A high official from the ruling National Congress Party, Rabie Obeid, recently said the vote will take place, fairly and transparently, in January.

Meanwhile, the government of South Sudan acts as though it is ready for independence. The government in Juba has already begun purchasing military aircraft, a move in keeping with the stockpiling of weapons on both sides of the North-South divide but also technically a violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005.

Outsiders are also starting to think of South Sudan as an independent country. Opinion leaders in Kenya are urging the Kenyan government to stand with South Sudan. And the World Bank is urging South Sudan to re-orient its economy, and is talking of the region as though it were already a nation:

South Sudan must shift its massive dependence on oil and instead work to develop its agricultural sector, the World Bank’s vice president for Africa said on Saturday.

Obiageli Ezekwesili said that farming had massive long-term potential for the south, which is due to hold an independence referendum in January that many believe will lead to the partition of Africa’s largest country.

“Agriculture sector development is the antidote to the famous resource curse, that natural resource endowed countries like south Sudan could suffer from,” he told reporters in the southern capital after a four-day visit.

I think that word choice was deliberate, though I could be wrong.

Still, despite words and deeds that assume the imminent independence of South Sudan, the region hasn’t cleared the final hurdles yet. Disagreements over the demarcation of the North-South border could derail the referendum, and other logistical issues still need solutions as well. No wonder Washington is worried. And why various commentators are warning of looming disaster for Sudan. The next three and a half months could be long ones.

Violence in South Sudan: Potential Explanations

When I write about violent clashes occurring in South Sudan, I feel like a broken record: typically I cite concerns that the clashes are a harbinger of renewed civil war, and then speculate about what effects this violence will have on the political transitions planned for the next two years, namely the 2010 elections and the 2011 referendum on Southern independence.

I’m going to try a slightly different approach in this piece and look at how different theories explain the violence.

To do that, it helps to get a sense of the chronology. Reuters has a timeline of major incidents of violence from March, when major violence began, through late September. To give a partial update, clashes between the Dinka and Shilluk tribes took place in Jonglei State on at least two occasions earlier in November, and this week Mundari fighters attacked Dinka villagers in Lakes State, with 47 casualties reported. Much of the violence has involved Lou Nuer and Murle groups, especially in Jonglei State, with some involvement by the Dinka and other groups.

It’s possible to explain the violence as tribal rivalry, but if you end the conversation there you miss other aspects of the situation. Here are some additional factors to consider:

What do you make of these explanations? To the extent that any of them are persuasive, they are more so in combination. Perhaps it makes sense to say that changing power balances created by peace and partial disarmament, combined with instability, poverty, lack of deep governance, and the continued availability of weapons, inflamed ethnic conflicts and competition for resources. I’m not ready to commit to that explanation yet, though. Any reader insights or additional information would be much appreciated.

In any case, I think looking at these factors adds depth to the oft-made but seldom-elaborated statement that these clashes are a precursor to a broader civil war. Thinking about the widespread problems in the region and about the fact that so many groups are heavily armed, and looking at areas on the North-South border where tensions run high, it’s easy to see how something that begin as ethic or tribal conflict could quickly, under certain political circumstances, draw the SPLA or the Northern army – or both – into the fray.

South Sudan Death Toll Mounts, Civil War Fears Rise

Recurring violence in South Sudan this summer – and now fall – has caused serious concern among many observers, who fear signs point to a renewal of civil war between North and South.

Jonglei state has seen a number of clashes recently – 185 people died in raids between ethnic groups in August, and over 100 were killed in a battle this weekend. Though ethnic tensions are the ostensible reason for the violence, some Southern officials and foreign observers point to another source for the trouble: the government in Khartoum.

Major General Kuol Diem Kuol told the BBC a nearby company from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had been able to retake the village.

He said the attackers had targeted the military and that 22 of the dead were soldiers, including the major commanding the unit.

“This is not a raid for cattle but a militia attack against security forces,” he said[…]

Mayen Ngor, the commissioner of surrounding Duk County, said the attack had been part of a campaign against [the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005].

He told Reuters news agency that 260 huts had been burned down along with the police station and local government buildings. Thousands of people had fled, he said.

A national election is due next year and southern Sudanese are meant to vote in a referendum to decide whether to secede from the north in 2011.

The BBC’s Peter Martell in the southern Sudanese capital Juba says many people fear that Khartoum is orchestrating the violence.

Some southern politicians believe the government is arming militias from both sides in an attempt to destabilise the region and delay the votes indefinitely.

But the south is made up of a patchwork of rival ethnic groups who have long fought over grazing land, cattle and other resources.

Khartoum vehemently denies playing any part in the violence in the south.

UN officials did not accuse Khartoum of orchestrating the violence, but did say the clash this weekend represented a targeted attack on Southern authorities.

David Gressly, a regional co-ordinator in south Sudan for the United Nations Missions in Sudan, said the attack appeared to have targeted SPLA forces based in the village.

“It is quite clear that the focus of the attack was on the organised forces themselves,” he said.

“It is way too early to call this a civil war, but it is a significant law and order problem and one that the government of southern Sudan needs to stand up and address,” he told the AFP news agency after visiting the area.

Hopefully US policymakers have a clear plan for addressing this conflict even as they grapple with how to help resolve the conflict in Darfur.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning another source of destabilization in South Sudan: Uganda’s LRA, whose raids in the region – and in CAR and DRC – have killed hundreds and forced youth from South Sudan and elsewhere into military service. Some analysts warn that the LRA “may resume its role as a proxy force for those keen to destabilise oil-rich south Sudan before its independence referendum due in 2011.”

In other words, the pressures on South Sudan are intense and coming from multiple sides. Let’s hope they don’t make the region explode.