The South Sudan Army SPLA: a critical analysis of its performance and its ability to provide adequate security to civilians’ population in the Republic of South Sudan

By John Bith Aliap, Adelaide, South Australia

December 3, 2011 (SSNA) — The South Sudan Army known as the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) won the trust and confidence amongst the South Sudanese citizens when it altruistically defended the South Sudan territories under Arab occupation throughout the past decades. The SPLA fought with the North for many years, which resulted in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and subsequently led to South Sudan’s independence. Although the SPLA previously won the trust and confidence amongst the South-Sudanese people, this highly held trust and confidence appears to be dissolving. Its recent efforts, especially in the states of Jonglei, Unity, Upper Nile and Western Equatoria has called into question whether the SPLA is capable of fulfilling its constitutional responsibility to protect the citizens of South Sudan and the national sovereignty of its new nation. Despite its constitutional mandate to provide adequate security to civilians throughout the entire nation of South Sudan, the SPLA recent effort has been called to question by South Sudanese citizens.

This analysis provides an overview of the SPLA’s past and current performances in the states of Unity, Jonglei, Western Equatoria and Upper Nile. Furthermore, it highlights how the SPLA has inadequately protected the civilians in those states based on the evidence found in multiple sources. Subsequently, the analysis provides some immediate recommendations that could improve the ability of the SPLA to provide adequate security across the geographical areas of South Sudan.

The concept of civilian protection is frequently highlighted in international political discourse and debates due to the high toll amongst the civilian population where armed conflict is present. Through International Humanitarian Law (IHL) the international obligation exists for all states and governments to protect their civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. However, some states do not honour this international obligation in ensuring the adequate security of its civilian population. The example of these countries is the state of South Sudan which recently gained its independence in the 9th of July 2011. More recently, the United Nations became increasingly concerned about civilian safety and created a resolution that obligates all states to be morally responsible in the protection of their citizens from any form of abuse, harm and crime.

According to the UN Security Council chapter 138, in which the Republic of South Sudan is a signatory, each individual state has the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. This article clearly affirms that the state holds the responsibility in the prevention of such crimes including through deterrent by appropriate and necessary means.

Through the United Nations mechanism of civilian protection, the Republic of South Sudan should not be considered an exception. Furthermore, the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan article 151 (4) also authorises the country’s army to protect its civilians. This article clearly specifies that the SPLA should defend the sovereignty of South Sudan, protect the people of South Sudan, secure the territorial integrity of South Sudan and defend South Sudan against external aggression. The translation of these international and national obligations of civilian security into practice has proven to be one of great complexity in South Sudan. The question remains whether the SPLA has the ability to observe its national and international obligation in the provision of adequate security to the citizens of South Sudan.

As has often been the experience of conflict between Sudan’s North-South, Khartoum’s military aggression has more recently become noticeable through the eyes of the international community, regional blocs and the South Sudanese population. Since the signing of the CPA, Khartoum has continuously aggressed and provoked South Sudan as though the republic of South Sudan has no army to defend its people and territories.

Despite Khartoum’s ongoing calculated military aggressions and provocations, the president of the republic of South Sudan Lt. Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit consistently maintains that South Sudan ‘shall not go back to war’ with the North. This assertion from Kiir provides the Khartoum regime a free ride to bomb and assault the territories of South Sudan. Another implication of Kiir’s reluctance to address the possibility future warfare is that it can psychologically dishearten the South Sudanese citizens whom are known for their bravery while standing their ground for the last 21 years throughout the dark days of the North-South civil war.

Khartoum has a history of backing proxies such as the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) and other self centred rebel groups in South Sudan to serve as counter-insurgencies in order to weaken the social and political strength of the South Sudanese people. Despite this, the SPLA which retains a constitutional obligation to protect its civilians has done little in the face of these challenges to adequately protect civilians from rebels and the ongoing Khartoum regime’s military hostility.

It is widely known by the South Sudanese that Khartoum has supported a sizable number of regional and national militias groups that are opposed to the republic of South Sudan’s government. A notable example of this militia group is the LRA which has been fighting the Ugandan government for decades. Hoigilt et al. 2010 asserts that the ‘Khartoum regime has been providing continuous support to LRA in the form of military logistics, finance and safe haven bases in Dar Fur region’. The LRA activities in western Equatoria have also caused the massive and untold deaths and displacement of civilians. Although the responsibility to protect civilians in South Sudan rests on the SPLA, the SPLA response to LRA attacks in Western Equatoria have always been inadequate and ill planned.

According to the Enough Project ( field research in Western Equatoria, many locals doubt the SPLA’s ability to counter-attack LRA attacks. A witness to the LRA attacks on the 5th September 2009 in the village of Bomu in Western Equatoria conveyed to the Enough Project field research workers that the SPLA in Western Equatoria can not protect civilians from the LRA attack. Another witness in the same interview expressed the same doubt and claims that the SPLA was unwilling and sometimes refused outright to pursue the LRA after the village was attacked.

A religious worker provided a similar view regarding the SPLA’s inability to protect the civilian population in Western Equatoria. This worker expressed that the SPLA often deploys too late to provide meaningful protection to civilians, and in some cases, failed to act even when they were nearby. Another person who came from the same village of Birisi, just a small distance away from Yambio in Western Equatoria further claimed that in three separate LRA attacks in July and August 2009, SPLA soldiers did not deploy to confront the LRA despite being based in close proximity. According to the same person, SPLA soldiers told the local villagers in Birisi that they did not have the authority to fight LRA rebels ( interview with religious worker October 9th 2009).

It is apparent that the South Sudan Army has often been very sluggish when it comes to emergency response. For example, after several attacks on the villages of Ukcuo, Bureangure and Sakure, Boma and Baikpara in August and September, it was alleged that the SPLA soldiers did not respond despite the loss of 16 people, the injury of scores and numerous abductions. A displaced person who was present during these attacks testified to the Enough Project field workers that SPLA soldiers arrived at the scene at least eight hours after the attacks ( interview with Anzara residents, October 9th 2009).

It becomes clear based on the numerous testimonies of South Sudanese residents that the SPLA has been ethically and morally unwilling to fight the LRA fighters despite the threat they pose to the civilian population in Western Equatoria. The Enough Project interview with a local pastor in Yambio also revealed the shocking weakness of the South Sudan Army’s inability to deal with and address external and internal threats.

A local pastor in Yambio revealed that when the SPLA was provided with the positions of the LRA, it often failed to seize the initiative in the protection of civilians. Additionally, people driven from the village of Karika told the Enough Project that after the LRA attacked their village in August 2009, they informed the SPLA base nearby and the SPLA did nothing to avert the ongoing LRA attack. These people further claimed that the SPLA commander in charge of those forces told the villagers to pursue the LRA fighters and inform him of their whereabouts. The village of Kirka was attacked for the second time by the LRA even though the exact location of the LRA fighters was purportedly disclosed to SPLA forces (www.enoughproject/interview with local pastor in Yambio, October 8th 2009).

Following the national election in 2010, the people of South Sudan have witnessed the worse insurgencies from the North in its history since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Whilst it is the duty of the intelligence community in South Sudan to encounter internal and external insurgencies, the SPLA intelligence has undisputedly failed to closely monitored the rebellious tendencies of David Yauyau, Bapiny Monytuel, Gatluak Gai, Thomas Mabor Dhol, Olieny, Gordon Koang, Peter Gadet, George Author and Gabriel Tanginye before the greater loss of lives could arise amidst combatants and civilians alike. These renegade groups have caused and continue to cause untold human suffering throughout the territories of South Sudan, although the SPLA has neutralized few of these insurgencies.

One of the most notable SPLA failures can be identified in its lack of protection to the civilians in Fangak from sub-human and blood sucker George Athor’s rebel forces. In fact, there were some indicators of Athor’s disloyalty and his intent; however the SPLA failed to address the probability of imminent human loss. As reported at (, the rebel forces of George Athor Deng who dropped out of the governorship race in Jongulei, attacked unarmed innocent civilians in Fangak, resulting in 200 fatalities and over 100 casualties. It was reported that the majority of civilians lost during the eve of this attack drowned in the river. A witness who recalls fleeing the scene of fighting blamed the SPLA for failing to rescue them from the carnage of Athor’s rebels. This witness claimed that the SPLA forces arrived almost 6 hours after the attack and were unable to rescue the civilians.

Similarly, the SPLA failed to protect the civilians in Kaldak from Tanginye’s rebel forces despite the clarity of their location. These rebels used reintegration as a method of organising themselves to implement devil acts in Jongulei state, while the SPLA intelligence which is supposed to dig out intelligence information about the raising insurgencies failed to do so. The South Sudan Advocacy Group report highlighted that the attack which took place at Kaldak in Jongulei state resulted in the death of 254 civilians and unknown numbers of casualties and unaccounted for in this evil attack (

In most cases of insecurity, tribal feuds have often been a notable security threat in South Sudan and the SPLA has often overlooked this issue. For example, the recent catastrophe between Murle and Lou Nuer could have been avoided had the SPLA deployed some of its forces to create a buffer zone between the communities of these two tribes. In fact, the recent Lou Nuer-Murle tribal feud had been ignored by both the South Sudan Government and the army. The Murle offensive against Lou Nuer on the 19th August 2011 resulted in 640 fatalities, 861 casualties, 208 children kidnapped, 38,000 head of cattle stolen and approximately 3431 houses burned down to ashes ( This is a heart breaking tragedy that no true citizen of South Sudan would want to glimpse or be party to.

The SPLA was unsuccessful in restraining Peter Gadet’s insurgency when the SPLA administration in Juba itself granted him sick leave to Nairobi without clearly verifying the agenda of his travel to Nairobi given his track record of disruptive loyalty. The confrontation between Peter Gadet’s forces and the SPLA caused untold human suffering and property damage at extreme levels in Mayom County which was used as a battlefield. The insurgencies of Peter Gadet and George Athor in particular have posed a greater challenge both to the Juba government and the SPLA. Gadet’s assault on Mankien could be regarded as one of the greatest tragedies in South Sudan. A UN report on the incident of Mankien has detailed that 250 people were killed and more than 20,000 displaced as a direct result of Gadet’s assault on Mayom County, mainly during the April and May clashes (Internal Document Provided by a UN Source, Juba, August 2011).

Abeyi which has historically been an undisputable region of Southern Sudan was promised a referendum under the 2005 peace deal between the North and South Sudans, however the Khartoum regime has continued to regard military force as the solution to its problems took a unilateral decision to invade Abeyi. On January 11th 2011, the Sudan Armed Forces invaded Abeyi and took control over it territorially and administratively ( This invasion displaced 120,000 Dinka Ngok according to the (United Nations Report, 2011). Yet the South Sudan Army did not manage militarily to uphold its constitutional obligation to protect the civilians in Abeyi region as clearly specified in the South Sudan constitution.

Despite the restraint that the South Sudan government and its people have exercised in the past years and presently, the ongoing provocations and aggressions from the Khartoum regime continue to be observed in the areas of Western Bahr el Ghazal, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile and Unity states respectively. On December 8th 2010, the Sudan Armed Forces dropped 18 bombs between Timsa and Raja counties in Western Bahr el Ghazal state. As a response to this direct attack, the spokesman of the South Sudan Army had not suggested any military response, and in another way appealed to the international community to stop Khartoum from bombing the Southern territories ( The frequent appeal to the international community has not always yielded any substantial result to forestall the civilian casualties in the Republic of South.

The Sudan Armed Forces have also carried out the aerial bombardment in some areas of Northern Bahr el Ghazal and the SPLA Army has failed miserably to bring down any aircraft that carried out the attack. On the November 24th 210, Sudan Armed Forces carried out a broad day light aerial bombardment in Kirr Adem in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state ( Following the attack in discussion with the media, the SPLA spokesman Kuol Diim Kuol appealed to the United Nations to investigate and prove that the incident had surely took place, and yet the Southern Sudan Army provided no military response or labelled any military threats against Khartoum’s systematic provocations and aggressions.

On the 18th of November 2011, the Sudan Armed Forces bombed Yabus in Upper Nile state, and this bombing resulted in a significant number of civilian causalities. Following the incident, Simon Kun Puoch, Upper Nile state governor, avoided requesting military action against SAF, but called upon the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNIMISS) and the international community to take immediate action against Khartoum’s regime (

However, the Upper Nile’s governor failed to distinguish that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan is a ‘toothless tiger’, an international peace keeping force that can not take military action to save and protect the lives of civilians as is their mandate, but rather behaves as a mourner and an investigative team after tragedy. According to SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer Panyang, there was also a cross border attack launched at Kuek on the same day, at a SPLA army base in Upper Nile by the Sudan Armed Forces infantry units although they were lastly rolled back by SPLA forces. This incident left 18 fatalities and 73 casualties from both sides (

Recently, the Sudan Armed Forces bombed the Yida refugee camp which provides asylum for thousands of displaced Nubian refugees from the most recent conflict in South Kordufan between the SPLM-N and Sudan Armed Forces military confrontations. This attack resulted in a high number of civilians casualties, especially amongst women and children. The Sudan Armed Forces also carried out an air strike in Guffa locality also in Upper Nile state resulting in 12 fatalities and 20 casualties according to local officials in the area (

The Khartoum government’s aggression against the Republic of South Sudan is an ongoing phenomenon, and if the government of South Sudan and its army fail to take concrete steps to address this issue, it will likely become a thorn in the foundation of South Sudan. Up to now, Khartoum’s warplanes continue to fly in the Republic of South Sudan air space. Philip Aguer Panyang, the SPLA spokesman confirmed ( on the 26th November 2011 that border tension between the North-South is building up due to the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) deployment at Abukedma, Karasana and Heglig.

Aguer has further claimed that Khartoum warplanes are continuously performing airspace surveillance over the border. This seemingly confirms that the possibility of military confrontation between the North and the South seems to be inevitable. This is also suggestive that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) will likely continue its customary violation of South Sudan territorial sovereignty as they have deployed their troops in close proximity to the South Sudan border.

Despite the most recent failures of the SPLA in its civilian protection, the SPLA remains deserving of credit for its past achievements during the North-South civil war. It must also be acknowledged that army failure is not limited to the SPLA. Throughout history there have been instances of military failure in protection of civilians, both regionally and internationally. The government of South Sudan is increasingly now required to organise the SPLA army to adequately discharge its constitutional responsibility. In doing so, the Government of the Republic of South Sudan can do the following to improve its army’s potential:

(1) Improve ground and air transport

Many parts of South Sudan are inaccessible and have vastly difficult terrains, especially during the rainy season, and this potentially hampers the aversion of risk in those areas. It is important that the government of the Republic of South Sudan considers investment in transport helicopters to improve SPLA’s provision of security to civilians and their property. As noted in this analysis, there have been many cases where the SPLA forces arrival was hours after an attack, and this may be partly attributed to poor and inadequate modes of transport.

(2) Increase soldier’s salaries

The government of the Republic of South Sudan needs to consider increasing the reimbursement of soldiers as a means of boosting their morale. The current salaries that soldiers receive are not equivalent to the role and responsibility they fulfil in fighting with militia groups and also with the enemies in the North. There have been some cases in the past and perhaps up to the present where salaries are delayed or sometimes omitted. This can serve as declining the morale amongst soldiers and soldiers may be unwilling to honour their duties and responsibilities.

(3) Sign security pacts with other countries

Given the challenges the country is facing, the South Sudan army (SPLA) cannot adequately manage the continuous conflicts on its own. Signing security pacts, especially with immediate neighbours provides the possibility of improving the SPLA’s defence capacity in the areas of training, discipline, logistics, command and control, management and administration. Many of the SPLA failures have resulted from these areas, and are often ignored by or remain unaddressed by the SPLA administration.

(4) Improve the capabilities of SPLA intelligence

Intelligence in some other advanced countries serves as the judgment of the nation, but in the Republic of South Sudan where ignorance has seemed to have become the norm, this concept is dissimilar. The recent rise of insurgencies within the South Sudan territories has put to the test the ability of SPLA’s intelligence to uncover what is taking place within the country and on its borders. The South Sudanese people are seemingly surprised by events that they never dreamt about taking place, and this is observed in the lack of answerability within the intelligence community. There needs to be accountability in South Sudan’s intelligence. This is a reality as there has in fact not been any intelligence officer or network held responsible for the string of intelligence failures that have taken place in South Sudan, especially since the national election of 2010 that was marked by a number of insurgencies. The government of South Sudan needs to revisit and check the structure of the intelligence given their past inability to detect insurgencies such as George Athor and Peter Gadet and the rest of insurgencies.

The SPLA intelligence needs to widen and create a relationship of trust with the local communities across South Sudan, and advance these communities to dissect and watch everything that may go wrong within their own respective communities. This may be a cooperative method the SPLA intelligence can access helpful information, and also develop clear knowledge about issues that are unfolding across the communities in South Sudan. Currently, the SPLA intelligence in its nature is merely reactive and not proactive, as it only react to the state of affairs like the recent insurgencies in Jongulei, Unity and Upper Nile.

In conclusion, given the unpleasant examples explored in this analysis, it can be reinstated that although failures are part of military operations, the SPLA which is constitutionally tasked to protect the national integrity and citizens of South Sudan must seriously reconsider its efforts to avoid future failures.

In this analysis, it has become clear that most of the SPLA’s failures have resulted from the lack of air and ground transport, its intelligence, lack of decent payment of its soldiers and a lack of regional and international support given the background of the SPLA being in its transformational epoch to the modern and conventional army. Given the importance of South Sudan’s national integrity, safety and the welfare of all South-Sudanese, it should be considered that future failures from the SPLA’s engagement are undesirable, and that the SPLA must make it imperative that adequate measures are in place to reduce the occurrence of future catastrophes in all territories of the Republic of South Sudan.

Due to the current state of affairs that exist in South Sudan, the government of South Sudan needs to walk an extra mile to reduce the multiple internal fronts created by insurgencies through popular, realistic, meaningful and symbolic reconciliation with insurgent groups who are currently battling the government with the agenda of overthrowing Juba’s government as they often depict.

In the case of Khartoum’s frequent provocations and aggressions, the government of South Sudan does not necessitate to response military to Khartoum’s aggression and provocation now before it unifies its internal front with insurgencies groups, as these groups would punch holds on South Sudan if spacious magnitude war is to occur between the South and the North. The president of the Republic of South Sudan Lt. Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit needs to alter his usual rhetoric of ‘no return to war’ to ‘there is a possibility of wide scale war’ should Khartoum persist to contravene the sovereignty of South Sudan. In this way, Khartoum would act with caution fearing should it continue with further aggression and provocation, South Sudan can formulate appropriate military action.

This analysis has also found that tribal feuds are a major basis of uncertainties in South Sudan. As the government has already launched the disarmament process in some states, this disarmament process should not occur as a one off process, rather as an ongoing process until all the fire arms possessed by civilians are collected. This process of disarmament should also be accompanied by figurative reconciliation; in light of the fact that reconciliation is a paramount tool that a responsible government can use to bring its people together for the common good of nation.

The author of this work is a concerned South Sudanese citizen and can be corresponded at [email protected]

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