The “Coup” Attempt in South Sudan: What we know

By Eric Reeves

December 17, 2013 (SSNA) — It must be said first that there is a great deal that we don’t know about events that began in Juba Saturday, December 14.  Indeed, it appears that there is more of importance that we don’t know than we do.  But reports are coming from the ground in Juba and from a range of Sudan observers.  Other sources with close contacts with the government and the military have also conveyed substantial information.

It is certainly clear that substantial military violence began the night of Sudan, Sunday, December 15 and continued into Monday, December 16.  News reports today from various quarters, with a range of sources, suggest that heavy fighting resumed last night and continued into this morning (Tuesday, December 17); however, a report from someone traveling by car to different sections of Juba indicated (Tuesday, 6pm GMT) that fighting had died down since noon.  But scores have been killed in the fighting, hundreds hospitalized, and ethnic tensions between Nuer and Dinka have been badly exacerbated.  Many thousands of primarily Nuer have fled for the safety of the two UN compounds (the compounds are part of the UN Mission for South Sudan, UNMISS), to churches, or left Juba altogether.  The United States is sufficiently concerned that it is evacuating its non-essential staff from Juba and advising U.S. citizens to leave; various humanitarian organizations are seeking to extract their personnel as well, a deeply ominous sign.

What follows is not so much a narrative as a chronology with commentary and assessments of plausibility.  Much has been confidentially conveyed, though much is also sourced.  Inevitably there is a lag-time between completion of writing and the events that are occurring in that moment.  Even so, public news reporting has been sufficiently ragged, inconsistent, or incomplete that some attempt at broader clarification seems warranted.

If there was a genuine attempt at a military coup d’état, we need a full account.  It may be as characterized by Magdi el-Gizouli of the Rift Valley Institute: “‘It doesn’t seem to be a full-fledged coup attempt in the sense that there’s an organized attempt by Machar to seize power. It appears a bit disorganized” (Wall Street Journal [Kampala], December 16, 2013).  Others in Juba also find the nature of the coup puzzling—its apparently ad hoc quality hardly signifying a well-planned action.  It may be, as one highly informed observer with numerous contacts in Juba has said, a “coup” that began by accident but took on a predictable political and ethnic character, of a sort that could be expected in the event of a fully developed coup plan:

“On Sunday evening shooting began in a former Joint Integrated Unit camp [stipulated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement]. We are not yet sure about what triggered the fighting, but those who began shooting are members of the Presidential Guard allied with Riek Machar.  Some of his guards and those of Paulino Matip’s [a notorious defector, and re-defector, died 2012] forces were absorbed into the Guard.” (email received 5pm GMT December 16) (all highlighting within quotations is mine)

Yet another source, cited by Hannah McNeish writing for Al Jazeera, also has a good deal of plausibility:

A security expert close to the army—who asked not to be named because his access to the military depends on his anonymity—brushed off any ideas that the initial fighting was a coup attempt. He said it was sparked by rumours of arrests following a series of public statements criticizing Kiir’s increasingly dictatorial style, saying it was “an accident centred around paranoia and rumour.”

But he said the factional fighting within an army that is “a reflection of politics”—in a nation where many complain of the major tribe’s influence as a “Dinkocracy”—had the potential to ignite serious ethnic fighting nationwide. “It’s the real lack of control that anyone has that’s the dangerous thing, and especially if fighting spreads to the peripheries,” he said.

What we know is that ten former senior officials have been arrested as of 3pm GMT (Tuesday), including former Finance Minister Kosti Manibe.  Just what their role is in the violence that broke out Sunday night needs to be assessed fully and with as much detail as can be established.  Any judicial process must be scrupulously fair and transparent.  The events of the past few days have been an immense shock to the political system in South Sudan, and pose deep and likely ongoing threats.  We may be sure that the Khartoum regime, which has long waged a deliberate war of economic attrition against Juba in the hopes of its collapse, will take every opportunity to exploit present political instability.

A brief and highly selective historical chronology:

1991: Riek Machar, the focus of so much attention currently, defected from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army led by John Garang; he was joined by Lam Akol (Shilluk) and others, and the defection of troops proved a disaster for the SPLA.  Ethnic tensions between the Nuer (the tribal group to which Machar belongs) and Dinka (the tribal group to which Garang and the majority of the SPLA leadership belong) were greatly exacerbated.  The infamous “Bor Massacre” (of Dinka in the Bor area) for which Machar was responsible stands as an enduring historical symbol of civilian slaughter. Turning Southerner against Southerner on the basis of ethnicity was Khartoum’s most potent weapon in the long civil war.

Though these events occurred more than twenty years ago, they live on in the minds of many in their assessment of Machar.

1997:  Riek Machar and Lam Akol signed the absurdly futile “Khartoum Peace Agreement.”  Far from working to end the civil war, it removes Nuer and Shilluk forces from the opposition to Khartoum’s military forces and militias, setting the stage for large-scale oil development in what was at the time known as Western Upper Nile.  The years from 1998 – 2002 are among the most violent and destructive of the entire civil war, with mass civilian clearances of areas in all directions around Bentiu, currently capital of Unity State and at the time epicenter for oil development activities by Canadian, Chinese, and Malaysian oil companies.

January 2005: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is signed, guaranteeing South Sudan the right to a self-determination referendum in six and a half years.  John Garang remains as leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A)—effectively the interim government of South Sudan.

July 2005: Garang is killed in a helicopter crash, and Salva Kiir Mayardit is named his successor.  Although also a Dinka (from a different region of the South), Salva is widely credited as being a conciliator, and this was demonstrated in his choice of Riek Machar as Vice President.

July 2011: South Sudan gained its independence, but extreme tensions remained with the Khartoum regime, which in May 2011 had ordered the military seizure of the Abyei region; Abyei was to have had its own self-determination referendum in January 2011.  The results of such a referendum would certainly have seen the “residents” of Abyei vote to join the South.  In March/April 2012 fighting broke out in the area south of and in Heglig, a contested border area near Abyei and in the center of oil production.  The approach to resumed war was far too close.

2011 – present: It becomes increasingly clear that the South has squandered many opportunities for economic development, and that neither executive nor cabinet powers have been creatively or productively deployed, leaving the South without a single means of exporting its oil except via the pipeline through Sudan (to Port Sudan).  As of December 2013 there is not a single operational refinery in South Sudan, although construction has belatedly begun in earnest.  Any overland export of oil to the south or east remains years away, certainly if the commitment to an oil pipeline for transport remains primary.

Capacity within South Sudan—in all forms—remains dangerously weak, as suggested in a recent characterization of current dysfunction by Jok Madut Jok, one of the most talented men to have served in the GOSS:

“The first leg for any government is a disciplined military. We have problems with the way our military functions today. That’s a broken leg. We have civil society; right now it is very weak. The third leg is delivery of services. It is hard to deliver security … The fourth leg is political unity. We had political unity in the days leading up to the referendum [which led to independence]. Since the referendum, we have been having difficulties uniting our ranks. So right now the animal is standing on four crooked legs. If we do not fix these legs, the future is going to be very, very difficult.” (Al Jazeera, December 17, 2013)

By 2011 it had also become clear that massive corruption has seen billions of oil revenues siphoned off by a number of Southern officials.  The figure is a matter of controversy, as is the question of who is responsible; but the amount is staggering and accounts for much of the lack of economic development.  There has still been no adequate account of the failures in oversight of these revenues.

Spring/Summer 2013: Vice President Riek Machar and his followers engage in increasingly sharp sniping at Salva Kiir, until in July President Kiir decides that such criticism could no longer be leveled at him from within his own government, and relieves Machar of his post as Vice President.  A more comprehensive cabinet shake-up occurs subsequently in July 2013, leaving many disgruntled former minister and cabinet members feeling aggrieved.  Pagan Amum, a powerful figure in the SPLM/A for many years, was relieved of his role as Secretary-General of the SPLM/A in late July 2013, putting him in the camp of those critical of Salva Kiir.

Notably the charges against Salva, for the most part, are not of corruption but of wielding power “dictatorially.”  Tensions have continued to build until the events of this Sunday, December 15, and exploded out of what appears to be an unplanned military confrontation that nonetheless is framed by the ethnic and political vision of Riek Machar and those disgruntled former officials who have sided with him.  Since the army remains multi-ethnic, the role of Nuer-Dinka tensions—while still unclear—is almost certain to have been significant, since Machar’s personal security is almost exclusively Nuer.


Events since Saturday, December 14: (sources of information are often confidential)

Figures of note (a very partial list; those with asterisks [*] have reportedly been detained):
Salva Kiir Mayardiit: President of the Republic of South Sudan
Marial Barnaba Benjamin: current Foreign Minister, former government spokesman
Riek Machar: former Vice President of the Republic of South Sudan; dismissed July 2013; apparently in Juba, but whereabouts unknown
*John Luk: former Justice Minister
*Kosti Manibe: former Finance Minister
*Majak d’Agoot: former deputy Defense Minister
Pagan Amum: suspended Secretary-General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and a chief negotiator with Khartoum; he remains in Juba but his whereabouts are unknown
*Deng Alor: former Foreign Minister and Minister of Cabinet Affairs
Rebecca Garang:  widow of John Garang, and former minister
Taban Deng, former governor of Unity State; apparently in Juba, but whereabouts unknown
*Oyay Deng Ajak, former head of national security
*Madut Biar, one-time telecommunications minister
*Cirino Hteng, former minister of sports

Saturday, December 14:

The opening of the National Liberation Council was attended by all who were politically opposed to Salva, with the exception of Deng Alor (who had left for Ethiopia several days earlier) and Pagan Amum, because he had been suspended from his position within the SPLM.

Riek, Rebecca Garang, Kosti, Gier, and several others proposed that they vote by a secret ballot instead of a show of hands; but the rules require that a third of those voting support such a motion and in the event it was defeated.  There was another motion challenging the appointment of staff by the President to the National Liberation Council; again the motion was defeated.

Sunday, December 15:

Riek leaves his home, apparently to go into hiding, taking with him his personal security force.

Other members of the opposition group were not present on the Sunday session of the National Liberation Council.

Pagan Amum is reported not to have been seen since Sunday.

The most plausible account of how the fighting began is that offered above:

“On Sunday evening shooting began in a former Joint Integrated Unit camp [stipulated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement]. We are not yet sure about what triggered the fighting, but those who began shooting are members of the Presidential Guard allied with Riek Machar.  Some of his guards and those of Paulino Matip’s [a notorious defector, and re-defector, died 2012] forces were absorbed into the Guard.” (email received 5pm GMT December 16)

Monday, December 16:

Fighting continued into Monday morning, when government forces gained control of Juba, and President Salva Kiir held a press conference, announcing inter alia that there would be curfew from 6pm to 6am.  As widely expected, although there was relative quiet during daylight hours, fighting began again Monday night and has spilled into today (Tuesday).  It is difficult to gauge how significant the fighting was, but reports received from Juba and in wire reports suggest it was substantial.

Tuesday, December 17:

There have been many reports of heavy fighting overnight from Monday to Tuesday, continuing well into Tuesday morning.  The most recent reports suggest fighting is much diminished, and sporadic.  The GOSS announced its detention of ten figures implicated in one way or another in the “coup.”  There is still no word on the whereabouts of either Riek Machar or Pagan Amum.

Again, the United States is sufficiently concerned that it is evacuating non-essential staff from Juba, suspending normal embassy operations, even as various humanitarian organizations are seeking to extract their personnel as well.

The Future

As noted above, Salva Kiir has been celebrated in the past as having a conciliatory manner, in sharp contrast to the often autocratic style of John Garang, who was leading a rebel movement, not governing a country.  That reputation has served Salva well, but many argue—including those in the opposition group—that he has become increasingly “dictatorial.”  Indeed, the word is a virtual mantra in criticism of Salva.  It is here that judgments will vary most.  What it is important to say of Salva is that he has not taken action against those who have opposed him politically outside the government.  At the same time, government security forces have often trampled badly on press freedoms, especially when news reporting is critical of the government Salva heads.  (A lengthy recent conversation with a senior GOSS official convinces me that the problem is certainly recognized, and that greater efforts are being made to halt these threats to a basic freedom.)  There have been severe human rights abuses in Jonglei, both in disarmament efforts and in the ongoing effort to defeat the Khartoum-backed rebel forces of David Yau Yau of the Murle tribe.  Atrocities have been committed again Murle civilians, although Salva’s government has recently moved against these abuses and there have been a number of arrests.

But events have forced on Kiir the most difficult challenge of his presidency, and have called into serious question his viability as a candidate in the 2015 presidential election as the SPLM candidate.  There are a number of urgent steps he must take to secure the confidence of the international community, and to put the Nuer community at ease in the Juba area and elsewhere.  Critically, he must ensure that fighting does not spread, and he must do whatever is necessary to forestall this most dangerous of possibilities.  A South divided against itself will be largely helpless to resist military incursions by Khartoum’s forces, either in the oil regions (Upper Nile and Unity states), in Kafia Kingi and other areas in Western Bahr el-Ghazal that clearly are in the South according to all maps of 1956, and in the contested areas of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, especially those around Kiir Adem.  Abyei, seized in May 2011, will become fully part of northern Sudan.

There are no simple answers here.  Salva must recognize that the charge of his being “dictatorial” has taken deep hold, and he must do what is necessary to shed the label as much as possible.  There are a number of possibilities.  He must also do more to enlist the “best and the brightest” of South Sudanese—whatever ethnicity or political disposition—in the critical tasks of building a South that functions effectively in utilizing its many resources: human, agricultural, minerals and oil, timber, eco-tourism, and others.  But others must put aside their personal agendas and work shoulder to shoulder with Salva.  The task of building South Sudan is one for many hands, and if those hands are carrying guns, they cannot possibly do the work that is essential.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author most recently of Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012.

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