Unity at last, or just a smokescreen?
There’s more than meets the eye to a declaration of unity signed on January 6 between two south Sudan rebel groups that have been at war with one another for more than a decade. Sources told Africanews that factors propelling the latest agreement between the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan Peoples’ Democratic Front (SPDF) include: preparations for fresh military offensives; designs to control more oil-rich territories; and a quest to shore diminishing political fortunes by one southern Sudan leader in particular.
While officials belonging to both the SPLA, led by John Garang, and the SPDF, led by Riek Machar, reject any charges that they were pressured by outside forces to merge, and had specifically stated in their declaration that they were motivated from within, sources say otherwise. They claim that the US last month threatened the two groups, especially the SPLA, with a financial, logistical, and political freeze if they didn’t forge a united front in the war against the Sudanese government. The cash in question is some US$10 million that the U.S. Congress allocated mid last year to all anti-Khartoum forces in the country, of which the SPLA is the largest and most powerful.
Significant pressure might also have come from a threat issued last November by the new U.S. special envoy for Sudan, John Danforth, that he would abandon the country if the warring parties didn’t agree to his proposals. Although this was aimed at the SPLA and Khartoum as the main warring parties, it seems for the SPLA and other southerners that there is no harm in uniting before Danforth returns to the country later this month.
Nevertheless, the rapprochement leaves more questions than answers. For example, on December 20, the two groups had engaged in a war of words, with the SPLA accusing the SPDF of supporting government troops and militias during a December 4 attack on SPLA units in Biel, Boryenm, Kop and Nhialdiu areas in Western Upper Nile. In an angry rejoinder, SPDF spokeswoman Christine Lino denied such support by the SPDF and added that the SPDF was “deeply appalled by this negative attitude of the SPLM/A, which aims to make southern Sudanese political movements to fight each other, instead of concentrating in fighting the terrorist regime.”
But such animosity was nowhere on January 7 when SPLA spokesman Samson Kwaje said that the “search for unity among our people and our fighting forces has been the concern of all peace loving Sudanese, particularly the people and their leaders.” Under the declaration, the two groups are required to immediately cease any hostilities between their forces; allow the free movement of people - both civilians and military - in all the rebel-held areas; and set up three technical committees to facilitate the merger.
For Khartoum, the timing of the SPLA-SPDF merger is suspect. To government officials in the north, it is seen as a declaration of fresh military activity by southerners now that the dry season has started in many parts of southern Sudan, especially in Bahr el Ghazal, Equatoria, and Upper Nile regions. “We expected that the merger agreement would talk about reaching peace in Sudan instead of showing an intention for escalating the military operations,” Sudan Foreign Affairs Minister, Mustafa Ismail said on January 7. He added that the revamped SPLA will “never manage to resolve the (Sudanese) issue militarily.”
The dry season, which began in November, has now seen military action shift to the oil-rich Central Upper Nile region. Since mid-December this Nuer-dominated area has been engulfed in fierce fighting, especially for control of the strategic town of Old Fangak. The fighting, which began on December 9, led to the evacuation of church and relief workers by Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) security people on January 5 after pro-government militias mounted ferocious attacks on the town.
The conflict started when SPLA forces commanded by Michael Tap attacked bases hosting pro-Khartoum militias commanded by Gabriel Tangniya, a Nuer warlord active around Old Fangak. Three weeks later, Khartoum’s most reliable Nuer warlord, Paulino Matip, arrived in the area via River Nile from Juba backed by 12 barges and 1000 militiamen. According to church officials working in the area, these had been recruited from Khartoum and Nasir, the ex-capital of the SPDF in Eastern Upper Nile now controlled by Gordon Chuol, a former ally of Machar now turned pro-Khartoum operative. The rumour in Central Upper Nile, said one Catholic cleric, was that Matip, who had effectively carved up oilfields in Western Upper Nile for the government, had come to achieve the same feat in the area. Most of the oilfields in Central Upper Nile are still unexplored with the SPLA and SPDF controlling most of the area. After a few days of fighting, Matip’s forces captured the town but lost it on January 7 to the SPLA.
But it is not oil alone that has inflamed warring parties in Central Upper Nile. The lure to capture the region’s capital Malakal is too much to resist, owing to the strategic importance of being in control of the town, the country’s third largest. Malakal is currently held by government troops. Its capture by the rebels would have far-reaching effects. Not only would the fall disrupt river transport between the capital, Khartoum, and southern government-held towns such as Juba in the far south, but it would also freeze supplies to government troops in the area, as the town is an important inland port co-ordinating trade between the south and north.
At the same time, the fall of Malakal to the rebels would expose the Adar oilfield in Eastern Upper Nile to rebel attack. Chinese and Malaysian oil firms have invested US$30 million to operate this oilfield, according to a recent report by the international relief organisation Christian Aid. In September last year, the SPLA claimed that its forces had killed 150 government soldiers and destroyed two steamers ferrying government troops and militias to defend oil installations in the area.
SPLA spokesman Kwaje said: “All these operations fall within the Movements’ (SPLA) resolve to stop oil exploration, production and export from the country until the war in the Sudan is stopped and a just and lasting peace is achieved.” Such skirmishes are set to intensify now that the dry season (November to May) has set in, making it easy to move troops and heavy artillery in areas that have some of the largest swamps in southern Sudan. “More attacks are likely to be on the way so as to ensure the capture of oilfields in the area,” said one Catholic cleric who knows the area very well.
For the past four months, SPLA forces have been mounting attacks in the area to gain more territory and also to maintain a grip on the ones they currently control. They do this by attacking the positions of three local, pro-Khartoum Nuer warlords: Commanders Mabor Dhol, Gatwich Dual, and Koang Chuol, a trio keen to hand over all oil-rich fields in the area to Khartoum.
Whatever the case, the SPLA-SPDF merger, if it comes to fruition, will facilitate the political and military rehabilitation of Machar, the Nuer leader whose fortunes have declined dramatically in the last few years, especially after he signed a peace deal with Khartoum in April 1996. There is also the other fact that his forces have been unable to deal with the devastating raids that pro-Khartoum militiamen have carried out in Upper Nile during the past three years. During one such raid in 2000, the militias even destroyed Machar’s home area, Leer. Displacement as a result of fighting between government troops and the SPDF has been the cause of food insecurity in the past two years, says a World Food Programme Annual Needs Assessment report for the area dated October last year. Indeed, the report warned that “factional fighting is likely to worsen causing more displacement and general distress.”
Sources told AFRICANEWS that by the time the merger was concluded, Machar had only three commanders and less than 1,000 troops under his command. Further, add the same sources, Machar was frightened that two of these commanders - Daniel Koan and Simon Kuan, long opposed to any rapprochement with the SPLA - were preparing to sabotage any unity overtures. Machar denies this, and even with no empirical evidence to back his claims, says that his forces control the whole of Upper Nile.
However, Machar’s name still evokes magic in Nuerland, even if he has no troops or territory. The reverence for Machar is rooted in an old Nuer prophecy that a Nuer from Machar’s family will achieve the liberation of southern Sudan. The deeply spiritual Nuer believe Machar is that man. Such reverence could greatly aid Garang’s SPLA to gain more areas in Upper Nile after recently suffering from serious military setbacks in western Bahr el Ghazal.
It remains to be seen whether the latest SPLA-SPDF declaration will hold this time, unlike past agreements that have decomposed fast amidst a war of words and bullets between the two largest rebel movements in southern Sudan.