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Nineteen years of the SPLA

The Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) came into existence 19 years ago. The occasion of this anniversary affords one to reflect on how far the movement has come and the challenges that still remain in the "New Sudan."
Brian Adeba

May 16th marks the nineteenth anniversary of the founding of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA). On that day in 1983, two battalions of the Sudanese army mutinied in the southern town of Bor. By the time a force was said to quell the mutiny, the first bullet in what was to become one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest wars had already been fired. The mutineers of battalions 105 and 106 fled to the bush towards the Ethiopian border.

Nineteen years of fighting has taken its deadly toll. An estimated 2.5 million people have lost their lives; four million have been internally displaced, while thousands have been forced into refuge in neighbouring countries. War-induced famine and disease are still a looming threat to the lives of many.

But as the death toll continues to rise every year, so has the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) been growing. From a band of a few hundred men, today the Sudanese rebels number in the thousands. From controlling a small area along the Ethiopian border, the SPLA is now in five regions of Sudan. Nineteen years have also seen the SPLA transform itself from a classical hit-and-run guerrilla army into a formidable conventional army that has thwarted the efforts of successive Khartoum governments to defeat it militarily.

The strengthening of the SPLA’s military clout meant an increase in the area under its control in the three regions of the south, Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile province. Government control in these areas is limited to a handful of heavily fortified garrison towns.

"The fact that the movement (Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, or SPLM) has firmly established itself in these areas is evidence of its military gains," says John Luk Jok, director of the Nairobi-based Centre For Documentation and Advocacy, and editor of the "South Sudan Post."

"It [SPLM] would have done more if there were no problems in the movement," he adds, referring to a 1991 split in the SPLA that generated fighting for the better part of the 1990s. But in January of this year, the splinter group, the Sudan Peoples’ Defense Force (SPDF) led by Dr Riak Machar, returned to the SPLA fold after a deal it signed with the government in 1997 went sour.

However, the growth of the SPLA has not been without its hitches. As it became a conventional army, the area under its control grew larger and so did the increase in human rights abuses. Citizens under SPLA control termed it an "occupation army" as rape, plunder, arbitrary arrests, and executions became the order of the day.

In 1994, 11 years after its birth and three years after a devastating split, the SPLA held a convention in the town of Chukudum in Equatoria region to map out the way forward. Among the issues raised by civilians was the wanton abuse of human rights. The convention also mandated the creation of a civil authority that would revive administrative structures, which had collapsed as a result of the war. The Chukudum convention is considered a watershed in improving things in the SPLA.

"It [the human rights situation] has improved a great deal, but there is need to strengthen the institutions for the protection of human rights, for instance the police and judiciary," argues Jok.

Today, the SPLA is talking of "peace through development" in the areas it controls, arguing that while it pursues the option of a negotiated political settlement with Khartoum, it should start socio-economic development of the "New Sudan" (a term it uses for areas under its control) and provide social services to the civil population.

"Peace through development," argues Jok, "is a show of confidence and consolidation of the gains achieved so far. A liberation movement that does not have confidence can’t do that!" Jok further says some countries are now providing development assistance - rather than emergency support - to the civil authority of the New Sudan (CANS).

Two years ago, the SPLA introduced a controversial document that forced the more than 45 international non-government organisations working in areas under its control to shift efforts away from providing emergency relief to setting up development-orientated projects. Since 1989, an estimated US$2 billion has been used for emergency relief in areas under SPLA control.

"Half of this amount would have had significant developmental impact on the livelihood of the people of the New Sudan, if it were (sic) utilized in the development of the economy," says a booklet titled "Peace through Development: Perspectives and Prospects." The booklet, issued two years ago, is basically a blueprint of the SPLA’s objectives of development.

More recently, while on a trip to the United States in March, SPLA leader John Garang said that the movement would soon launch its own currency, to be known as the New Sudan Pound. The SPLA also envisages the creation of a central bank soon.

While all of these developments show that the SPLA is becoming more and more sovereign, the challenges still remain daunting. These challenges include creating a monetary system that will harmonize the four currencies in circulation in areas under its control, maintaining and sustaining the military gains achieved so far, and developing the required infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the Khartoum government has been replenishing its war machine. In April, Khartoum’s Minister for Defense, Bakri Hassan Saleh, went on an arms shopping trip to Russia. In a deal analysts say is worth between US$200 to 300 million, Khartoum plans to modernize its Russian-made armoury acquired in the 1970s and 1980s. It plans to buy 12 state-of-the-art Mig29 fighter planes.

Says Dr. Cirino Hiteng Ofuho, an assistant professor of International Relations and Politics at the United States International University in Nairobi and adjunct lecturer at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi: "This is indeed worrying. There are only two countries in Africa, Egypt and South Africa, which have these planes!"

Analysts say oil revenues, which have been on the rise in the last three years, have enabled Khartoum to afford the expensive planes. According to Ofuho, although the areas surrounding the oilfields remain the "most active fronts," this has not prevented Khartoum from trying to consolidate its troops in northern Bahr el Ghazel, which has been the scene of serious fighting in areas around the SPLA-controlled towns of Gogrial and Tonj in recent months. These are areas that have been a foothold for the SPLA, and its proximity to the oilfields has been a major source of worry to Khartoum.

Ofuho says the recent upsurge in fighting in these areas is because Khartoum has moved troops from the Nuba Mountains. "Khartoum is taking advantage of the ceasefire in the Nuba Mountains and is sending troops to Bahr el Ghazel," he argues. Thanks to the oil money, Khartoum is now spending an estimated US$1 million per day on its army. Analysts say it fancies itself as a regional force because of its growing military strength.

But as the SPLA struggles to sustain its military gains and at the same time fend off the advances of a stronger enemy, its diplomatic front needs to be strengthened, as Khartoum is constantly on the lobby in the region using oil as bait. At the start of the war, the SPLA’s diplomacy was not effective and mainly limited to countries of socialist leanings. "Diplomacy was weak mainly because of a lack of resources. The immediate threat, which was the military front, took all the resources," says Ofuho.

But now, says Ofuho, the SPLA has realized the importance of diplomacy and has stepped up its efforts on this front lately. The pressures that have brought this diplomacy about are the issues of child soldiers, oil, and internally displaced people. After nineteen years of fighting, the SPLA can boast of friends sympathetic to its cause in East Africa and the Horn. These countries are Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. But internal political changes in these countries have the potential of changing this situation. The Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict was a good example.

Last year in Uganda, the opposition made a point of Museveni’s alleged support for the SPLA, which became an election issue. Had the opposition won the elections, this would have affected the SPLA adversely. In Kenya, President Daniel arap Moi is expected to step down at the end of the year. Although he has not officially named and groomed a successor, among the four men expected to succeed him is Minister of Energy Raila Omolo Odinga. Odinga raised public outcry last year when he announced that Kenya would start buying oil from Sudan, which he argued is cheaper. There is no saying what a man like this would do if he becomes president.

However, Moi has said he will remain chairman of the ruling party Kenya Africa National Union after he steps down as president. For a man who wields enormous political influence in Kenya, this might be a consolation to the SPLA. But it would be unwise to bank on this. Change, any type of it, is always a possibility.

On a peaceful settlement to the conflict, both the SPLA and Khartoum are still haggling over the points that form the basis of the IGAD-led negotiations. The issues of self-determination, separation of religion and state, and the interim period remain as contentious as they were seven years ago when the IGAD talks were first launched.

How can one sum up the SPLA after nineteen years of fighting? "The SPLA has grown into a formidable opposition to governments in Khartoum," says Ofuho. "It has also emerged into an alternative system, but it can not afford to be complacent."

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