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A Second 'Split' for South Sudan?

Ethnic Violence, the State, and Whether Peter Gatdet is the Most Dangerous Man in South Sudan

July 7, 2011

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On the surface, southern Sudan is in a state of euphoria. The signs of celebrating a new national identity are everywhere, from the Southern capital, Juba, where vendors approach your car selling the new national flag and an enormous clock in the center of the city counts down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds to the July 9th independence date, to Malakal, Upper Nile State, where cars with giant microphones crawl up and down the muddy, potholed streets for six hours a day, blaring out the newly-written, soon-to-be national anthem. Juba, Malakal, Bor, Wau, Aweil, and all the other major cities and towns in southern Sudan are expected to have a week-long public holiday to celebrate the birth of the 'Republic of South Sudan' after decades of war with the north.

Only the most cynical of individuals would downplay the momentous and extremely emotional historic occasion that will be southern independence after so many generations of brutal conflict with the north. Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, Murle, Azande, even northerners who live in southern Sudan will be united in patriotism on July 9, 2011. Yet only the most optimistic would declare that such displays will set the tone for the future. From the 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the 22-year Second Sudan Civil War, the divorce between what is often described as the "African Christian/Animist" south and the "Arab-Muslim" north has grown steadily more acrimonious. Indeed, reportage and analysis in the media is rife with supposition of a 'return to war' with the northern government in Khartoum.

Disputes over border demarcation and allocation of oil revenue (70 percent of Sudan's oil is in the south, yet exported by pipeline though Port Sudan in the north) and regular skirmishes have culminated in recent months with Khartoum's aggressive capture of the disputed Abyei region; a brutal crackdown on southern-allied ethnic groups living within north Sudan's Southern Kordofan State; and reports of northern bombing runs in the southern Unity State. Anyone with even a basic grasp of conflict in Sudan would be skeptical that a purely peaceful secession had a better than 50/50 chance. The warlike northern National Congress Party (NCP) almost always opts for a military solution such as those on display in May/June of 2011. In the short term, the best-case scenario is that Juba and Khartoum can carve out some kind of revenue sharing and border agreements and that violence between the two states is kept at its current low levels—a task much easier said than done.

But even if this can be sustained, South Sudan's biggest security concerns will be internal ethnic conflict. Such conflict has always been the case in the region, but for the medium and longer-term future, South Sudan needs to reflect on the direction Sudan's Second Civil War took in the 1990s. The legacy and lessons from this time period show that in the coming years, the 'tribal violence' of the new Republic of South Sudan may look a lot less like cattle raiding and more like a threat to the state itself. The ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Juba should have no higher priority than conflict resolution and prevention with various ethnic groups who are skeptical about the SPLM's commitment to inclusive politics. Otherwise, the ruling elites in Juba may find that they simply replace Khartoum as the ultimate cause of the political and economic grievances in the minds of its new citizens. And because the SPLM is viewed as being dominated by, and therefore favoring, southern Sudan's marginally largest ethnic group the Dinka, the danger is that such grievances will increasingly be seen through an ethnic lens.

The 1991 'Split' in Southern Sudan

Ethnic identity in Sudan can be dizzyingly complicated. The country contains scores of major ethnic groups, tribes, and clans. The Dinka and the Nuer make up the largest ethnic communities, and it was these two groups that made up the bulk of the force that revolted against the increasingly Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum to start the Second Sudan Civil War in the early 1980s. Around that time, a group of Nuer fighters established a base in Bilpam, southwestern Ethiopia, with the objective of independence for southern Sudan. In May, 1983, they were joined by over 3,000 defecting soldiers from Bor in southern Sudan, led by John Garang, a Dinka.

Leadership issues soon erupted between Garang and his Nuer colleagues. Although ethnic tensions played a role, more divisive was Garang's vision for the rebellion: his goal was not southern independence, but rather a unified, democratic, secular Sudan liberated from the grasp of the aggressive Islamic Khartoum regime. This objective suited their Ethiopian hosts, enemies of Khartoum, who were themselves fighting to suppress independence movements in Eritrea and Tigrea. For those committed to southern unity against a common northern enemy, however, this presented a significant change in direction. As Sharon Hutchison (whose anthropological works on the Nuer in particular should be required reading for any policy makers tasked with conflict resolution or prevention within South Sudan) points out in her essay, "A Curse from God? Religious and political dimensions of the post-1991 rise of ethnic violence in South Sudan," "While this objective was more palatable to [Ethiopian leader] Mengistu and other potential international supporters, it provoked considerable confusion and resistance among southern civilians and military recruits alike and, ultimately, undermined southern feelings of nationalism that had been maturing since the start of the first civil war."

Regardless of these disagreements Garang, through international backing and a dictatorial leadership style, was able to solidify control of his Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and transform it into a guerilla force capable of fighting the better-armed northern military to a stalemate. ( Today's SPLM is the political party that formed out of the SPLA, which will now become the national military.) Seeking to create a more inclusive SPLA, Garang invited southern elites such as (now Vice President) Riek Machar, a Nuer, and Lam Akol, a Shilluk, to join the movement. While this may have been good strategy, Garang's total intolerance of criticism and autocratic nature eventually became too much for his senior comrades to tolerate.

Therefore the infamous event in southern Sudan's modern history known as 'The Split' was initially driven more by a personality conflict than by ideological or ethnic divisions. In August 1991, Riek Machar and other senior SPLA officers attempted a coup d'état against Garang's leadership. The coup failed, but resulted in Machar leading a Nuer breakaway faction of the SPLA. Machar and other Nuer contended that secession was the right political agenda, that Garang was brutally intolerant of dissent, and, most crucially for the purposes of this article, that under his leadership the SPLA favored the Dinka in leadership roles and the geographic distribution of humanitarian aid. This led to demonization, and ultimately brutalization, of both ethnic groups. No one was more pleased than Khartoum.

The Changing Landscape of Inter-Communal Violence in Southern Sudan


For generations prior to the Split, Dinka and Nuer groups lived side-by-side in alternating periods of peace and conflict. It is important to note, as Hutchison does in detail, that these two ethnicities, which make up the majority in southern Sudan, do not conform to simplistic group definitions or assertions of zero-sum tribal rivalry. "Nuer and Dinka communities have never been organized into neatly circumscribed 'tribes'. Rather, members of both groups have held overlapping and sometimes competing identities and loyalties to a wide spectrum of named social units, including patrilineal clusters, regional court systems, town groupings, temporary confederacies, and large, flexible networks of cross-cutting kinship ties. Both groups have also intermarried heavily for generations and continue to recognize their common ancestry through a variety of oral traditions and shared cultural practices."

Conflict was and is often to gain cattle, which both groups value as currency and status symbols. During such raids, their warriors did not intentionally kill women and children—to do so was considered morally reprehensible by both sides. Women and children were more likely to be seen as valuable commodities to be abducted and assimilated into their captors' families. Killings between groups were punished by payments of cattle to the families of the deceased.

All these long-standing cultural ethics of warfare, and indeed some conceptions of identity itself, came crashing down in 1991. With Machar's attempted coup and subsequent declaration of his faction's political objectives and tribal grievances, an ethnic collision course was set. Both Garang and Machar and their lieutenants used their positions of power and influence to mobilize Dinka and Nuer identities into adversarial positions. Khartoum did all in its power to fan the flames, providing weapons and other material support to Machar and his commanders, who often shifted loyalties for personal gain between the government, SPLA, and various other warlord militias.

The results were horrifying. After some skirmishes, Machar's commanders attacked Garang's Dinka home area of Bor, in what has become known as the "Bor Massacre." In the words of historian Robert O. Collins "They swept southward through Kongor to Bor, slaughtering thousands of Dinka, including women, children, and the elderly. No Dinka was spared. Many were mutilated in a spate of atrocities, and Bor was methodically destroyed, its citizens massacred." The SPLA's response to drive the Nuer force out was similarly destructive to civilians and their homes. This type of Dinka-Nuer violence was to become a pattern for more than a decade to come. Various sub-groups of Nuer also succumbed to intra-ethnic violence, often at the whims of their self-serving commanders attempting to secure cattle and land for themselves, and oil fields for Khartoum.

Why? How do groups with a cultural norm for ethics in war suddenly resort to a strategy of 'fratricidal' annihilation? Hutchison argues that Nuer identity itself calcified from codes of honor and ethical behavior —what it meant to be 'Nuer—to a more uncompromising definition. "Nuer fighters, in particular appear to have adopted a more 'primordialist,' if not 'racialist,' way of thinking about their ethnic 'essence' in recent years…it is precisely this kind of thinking that can so easily be twisted into military justifications for the intentional killing of unarmed women and children residing among these ethnic groups."

"Here until Next Week"

As mentioned, Khartoum did all it could to exploit and exacerbate the southern Split, arming warlords and fomenting insurgency at every available opportunity. However, since the signing of the CPA in 2005, the SPLM (headed by fellow Dinka Salva Kiir after the 2005 death of John Garang in a helicopter crash) has changed course and has sought to incorporate former Nuer faction leaders into high-ranking positions in the government and military.

Yet low-level ethnic violence is still disturbingly common in southern Sudan. Cattle-raiding is the norm, as it has always been, but now the region is flooded with more modern weapons than ever before. Daily, unclassified United Nations security briefings make mention of "cattle raiding" between ethnic groups in which someone is nearly always killed or abducted. Sometimes the numbers are in the dozens. This year in Jonglei State alone, hundreds of people have been killed in vicious ethnic clashes between the Murle and various Nuer sub groups. I have sat in weekly UN security briefings, being updated on regional events followed by national issues. When one particular meeting came to security issues in Jonglei, the officer flipped the page saying, "If I went through all the tribal violence in Jonglei we'd be here until next week."

At the time of writing, thousands of Nuer youths are currently sweeping into southern Jonglei in what can only be defined as a war. They are murdering hundreds of Murle, kidnapping their women and children, and stealing tens of thousands of cattle in acts that increasingly look like ethnic cleansing. Juba has no interest in getting involved with what the elites consider bush tribalism, and coverage of these events in the international media never warrants more than a footnote.

Dismissiveness of this sort is unwise for the future of this new-born country. While these clashes may be a cultural regularity in remote areas, over time and with development the areas will not be so remote, the clashes will increase in scale as they are doing now, and representatives of these communities will eventually come to local, state, and national officials looking for conflict resolution answers, perhaps not peacefully.

If there is a potential threat of revolt against state negligence in Jonglei, violent rebellion is already ongoing in Upper Nile. The Shilluk population there have been politically marginalized by Juba, and brutalized in crackdowns by the SPLA, some of whom have responded by forming militia groups. They attacked Malakal in March of this year, and have been increasingly active along the Nile in Fashoda and Manyo counties in recent weeks, with many alleging that Khartoum is offering material support.

Is Peter Gatdet the most Dangerous Man in South Sudan?

Some have argued that the 'Republic of South Sudan' is a failed state in waiting. Facing enormous challenges of minimal infrastructure, an almost nonexistent economy, and the poorest of health and education standards, it is an assertion that is hard to contradict. Compounding this pessimistic view is the fact that, despite Juba's efforts at incorporating rogue factions into SPLA ranks, there are currently upwards of six major rebel militias wandering the bush in southern Sudan with the government and SPLA as a target. With the notable exception of George Athor, a Dinka former SPLA commander who lost the election for governor of Jonglei state and started a rebellion as a result, and the Shilluk in Upper Nile, most of these rebel militias are Nuer.

Gatluok Gai and Gabriel Tanginye offer typical profiles of current, and likely future, rebel militia leadership—both are Nuer and were formerly in cahoots with Khartoum after the 1991 split. Both of these commanders, along with David Yauyau, a Murele rebel from Jonglei State, are currently in the process of making peace with the SPLA, which will absorb their troops into an already bloated force of questionable command and control. This is probably the least bad option, since crushing them militarily is unlikely. However, it sends a clear message that all a disgruntled soldier (or individual) needs to do to obtain a high-ranking position in the SPLA is to pick a grievance against the state and find armed men—both of which are in abundance.

Then there is Peter Gatdet. Gatdet is a Nuer warlord, and along with his mentor Paulino Matiep (now chief of staff of the SPLA), a former stooge of Khartoum long involved in the high stakes politico-military operations in oil-rich Unity State for reasons of personal financial gain. In the 1980s, Khartoum deployed him to Iraq to fight with Saddam Hussein's Baathists against the Iranians. Although he was integrated into the SPLA after the CPA, he defected in March 2011, forming the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), and has since been wreaking havoc in his native Unity State with what is widely believed to be Khartoum's support. It is probably no coincidence that the Abyei offensive was launched shortly after the SPLA were tied up fighting Gatdet's forces.

Although these rebel groups, Gatdet included, threaten oil production in Unity and Upper Nile States, militarily they offer little threat to the central government itself in South Sudan. Khartoum will continue their disruptive tactics of fostering low-level insurgencies, and Juba will regard it as an annoyance rather than an existential menace. Gatdet's rebellion, however, stands out for a different reason: the Mayom Declaration he announced in March. Named after his home county in Unity State, the declaration lists grievances against the government in Juba. It accuses the government of corruption, mismanagement, and tribal political exclusion—in effect saying the future of southern Sudan will be a Dinka-dominated, one-party state where the perks of government are felt through tribal patronage networks. What makes these statements so dangerous is that most people in southern Sudan agree with Peter Gatdet. In my discussions with various Nuer associates, their responses were remarkably similar: Peter Gatdet is the wrong man, conducting his revolt at the wrong time, but he has the right message.

Despite the ethnic-based violence that was unleashed after the 1991 Split, most Nuer are aware that many of the high ranking Nuer military officers eventually succumbed to greed and self-interest in their operations (often at Khartoum's behest). Gatdet is one of them, and he does not command popular support in southern Sudan. There is also the sense that as independence approaches, for which jubilation is widespread across the ethnic spectrum, now is not the right time to launch a rebellion with the objective of overthrowing a yet-to-be-born government. There is a desire for the SPLM to allow more multi-party freedom and issues to be worked out politically. But there is also a worry that the enormous amounts of money coming from the international community and U.S. in particular are cementing in power a government that is corrupt and disproportionately favors the Dinka. Peter Gatdet has codified that in a declaration that resonates with many in southern Sudan, which alone should worry Juba in the likely event that eventually a public figure who commands more respect than Gatdet decides to take up the same cause.

Kaldak: Signs of Things to Come?

The SPLA is, at best, a poorly organized force. At worst, it is what many have long argued; a force reasonably capable of gaining and holding territory and looting commodities, where insubordination is cause for a soldier's immediate execution but the killing of villagers is a non-punishable offence. Many argue that it is double the size it should be, and incorporates commanders of questionable loyalty to the state-in-waiting (SPLA Chief of Staff Matiep being a prime example, as he did Khartoum's bidding for years and has connections with Gatdet). Command and control is a major issue and drunken, armed SPLA soldiers wandering the streets of state capitals or at checkpoints along the Nile River are common. They harass aid workers and abuse civilians at will. The government line is that this is a rebel force going through the difficulties of becoming a national army. The fact is, this 'rebel force' is made up mostly of troops who are in their late teens/early 20s and were not involved in combat against Khartoum or other armed groups. They are poorly paid, and were the SPLA leadership to crack down on the current military culture of disorder, they risk further defections.

On 23rd April, 2011 the SPLA entered the Nuer village of Kaldak, south of the city of Malakal. They were there to confront the forces of Gabriel Tanginye, the previously mentioned Nuer rebel militia leader. After driving out Tanginye's forces, the SPLA went on a rampage, massacring hundreds of civilians. Not satisfied with going house to house to indiscriminately murder noncombatants, they forced villagers to call out in Nuer to those who had fled to the bush, and then shot them when they returned under the impression the fighting was over. Subsequently, the Red Cross and UN were requested to collect what bodies had not been thrown in the Nile.

Anyone in the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) and SPLA who desires stability and development for the newly independent state needs to realize that allowing ethnic cleansing like this to take place, a horror already in the collective historical memory of those who lived through the carnage of the 1990s, is an invitation to reprisal after reprisal in the future. This was a Dinka SPLA force massacring a Nuer village, and word of it spread quickly. If such incidents continue, there will come a time when the 'fratricide' of the post-1991 Split will not be fratricide any longer, as these groups will no longer see themselves as related at all. The Shilluk conflict is a perfect example of Juba's myopic tactics of dealing with perceived threats. When Shilluk candidates from an opposition party won a parliamentary election for Upper Nile, the SPLA arrested and incarcerated them. Shortly thereafter, in response to increased banditry in Shilluk areas, the SPLA cracked down with extreme violence on Shilluk communities. This is insanity. For government forces to viciously respond as they did is a recipe for armed rebellion, which is exactly what has happened.

For generations, southern Sudan has struggled against a combination of aggression and neglect from Khartoum. Although Khartoum may continue to be a thorn in Juba's side, after July 9th the government's legitimacy will soon be viewed through the prism of those citizens of the ten southern states. With the North/South paradigm coming to an end, the danger is that this conflict will turn inward, and that the Nuer and other ethnic groups will see the state as an obstacle, or worse, an enemy and a second 'Split' will occur.

The third and final verse of the new national anthem that is blared from speakers on a constant basis on the streets of Malakal, is in praise of the creation of the state:

Let us stand up in silence and respect,
Saluting our martyrs whose blood
Cemented our national foundation,
We vow to protect our nation.


If there are too many more 'Kaldaks' over time, and the perception of political exclusion solidifies among southern Sudan's many ethnic groups, people will start to ask 'whose nation is it?', and the "national foundation" may prove to be far less stable than was hoped.

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