December 19 Update: The “Coup” Attempt in South Sudan: What we know now

December 19 Update: The “Coup” Attempt in South Sudan: What we know now (this brief updates December 17 overview)

BY Eric Reeves

December 19, 2013 (SSNA) — We know a good deal more than we did two days, and the news is grim all around.  Much remains unconfirmed, and rumors abound.  But there is growing definition in the picture of what is occurring in South Sudan.  Most striking is the contrast between the responses of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar to appeals for negotiation and reconciliation coming from the UN, international organizations, church groups in Sudan, and most Sudanese citizens, of all ethnicities:

"South Sudan’s Kiir says ready for dialogue with Machar"

The South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is ready for dialogue with his former deputy, Riek Machar whom he accused of masterminding Sunday’s coup attempt in the capital, Juba. “We are open for dialogue with anyone who is willing,” Kiir told reporters in Juba, adding, raising hope for peaceful resolution to the volatile situation. (Sudan Tribune [Juba] December 19, 2013) (all emphases in quotations have been added)

Agence France-Presse quotes a terser version of this statement, in which Salva is reported as saying:

“I will sit down with him, Riek, and talk…but I don’t know what the results of the talk will be.” (Juba, December 18, 2013)

But of Riek Machar’s position on talks and negotiations there appears to be no doubt on the basis of statements reported yesterday and today:

“Machar [said] in the interview that Kiir was continuing to violate the constitution and ‘was no longer a legal president.” “We don’t want him the president of South Sudan anymore.’” (Agence France-Presse [Juba], December 18, 2013)

“Machar accused his former boss of ‘inciting ethnic killings and tribal divisions,’ claiming that Kiir was no longer South Sudan’s legitimate leader.” (Al Jazeera, December 19, 2013)

In the interview [with Radio France International], Machar said he wants to avoid a civil war, favouring a peaceful solution to the conflict, but expressed a desire for a “palace revolution” in which the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) would force out the sitting head of state. (December 19, 2013)

Questions about whether events of this past Saturday began as a coup d’état or not are now irrelevant: Machar is here in effect declaring that he is committed to a coup—and by any means, judging from the military actions he has begun through proxy forces, preeminently that of the fearsome Peter Gadet.  All too predictably, Machar offers the words used, in one form or another, by all who seek to justify a coup:

“We want him to leave. We want him to leave. That’s it,” Machar told Radio France Internationale. “He can’t unite the people and he kills them like flies.”

This extraordinary use of the first-person plural pronoun is part of an assessment coming from the architect of the Bor Massacre of 1991, the most infamous of many atrocity crimes committed by Riek’s forces in the 1990s before he defected to the Khartoum regime and signed the counter-productive “Khartoum Peace Agreement” (1997).  Indeed, we must ask how seriously to take any of Riek’s accusations in light of such arrogation of national opinion and self-aggrandizement.

This is not to exonerate the performance of Salva Kiir as president, or his cabinet, in the years during which South Sudan has had substantial oil revenue and the freedom to use it for development purposes as it wishes.  He has too often been rudderless, without vision, and has done far too little to ensure against the massive corruption that prevented so much from being accomplished.  His choice of ministers has often been excessively political and unwise in nature, and this is also true of some recent military appointments.  We should not forget, however, that as Vice President Riek Machar was given a large portfolio of responsibilities—and he left with very little to show for his years in office.

Most recently, as President, Salva Kiir he has not done enough to halt the violence against Nuer civilians in Juba during the present crisis. Al Jazeera has offered a particularly revealing portrait of this gruesome and widespread violence today; so, too, has Radio Dabanga, which reports ”truckloads of bodies removed from Juba military hospital” (confirmed by an independent and highly reliable source in Juba).  There is much he must answer for; but that can’t be done by coup d’état or at gunpoint.

Machar is well aware that from a safe distance he can call on the army and the SPLM to “remove Salva Kiir from the leadership of the country.”

In an interview with RFI radio Thursday, Machar said he had appealed to the ruling party and army “to remove Salva Kiir from the leadership of the country.” (Interview reported in AFP, December 19, 2013) (also reported by Agence France-Presse [Juba] December 19, 2013) (Al Jazeera in its interview [December 19] with Riek heard many of the same views)

But as Riek also well knows, the removal of Salva Kiir from office ensures that the civil war now rapidly expanding will reach a rapid crescendo of violence, with a strong ethnic inflection.  Such a war would split South Sudan into fragments that might take decades to re-stitch themselves—if ever.  That Riek is willing to take this risk betrays an ominous ambition.  Indeed, if fighting were to break out in areas outside Juba, where dominant ethnicities in many regions are well armed, we may see large-scale killings of people of other ethnicities, justified as contributing to the “cause”—whichever “side” they are on.  This is the fear that is being widely expressed five days into the crisis.  As Jok Madut Jok, a former government minister and academic now running Juba’s Sudd Institute think tank, warns, “While the capital was now calm there had been ‘ghastly acts of revenge… stoking what might escalate into tragic acts of ethnic cleansing’” (Agence France-Presse [Juba], December 19, 2013).  In its dispatch of December 17, the Sudd Institute argues the current rebellion “is arguably the most devastating politically motivated incident since 2005 when the comprehensive peace agreement was signed to end the north-south war of the old Sudan.”

In short, the stakes could not be higher, and the International Crisis Group has sounded the appropriate alarm:

The scenario many feared but dared not contemplate looks frighteningly possible: South Sudan, the world’s newest state, is now arguably on the cusp of a civil war.

Daniel Bekele of Human Rights Watch underscored the urgency and potential scale of the crisis, and the need for political consideration to take a back seat to saving lives and avoiding further suffering:

“The awful accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg,” said Daniel Bekele of Human Rights Watch. “Government officials—whatever their politics—need to take urgent steps to prevent further abuses against civilians and quickly de-escalate rising ethnic tensions.” (Human Rights Watch press release, December 19, 2013)

Gerard Araud, the French permanent representative to the UN who currently serves as President of the Security Council, put the matter bluntly: “The two main ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, could go into a full-fledged civil war in the country” (BBC, December 18, 2013).  Spokesman for the UN Mission in South Sudan Joseph Contreras said in an interview today with Deutsche Presse Agentur (dpa): “[That the] violence has spread to other states is worrying.”  By some accounts, the violence has spread to five of the ten Southern states. An unnamed security analyst cited in the Al Jazeera dispatch of today puts the matter most starkly: “A security analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the worst-case scenario was ethnic violence taking place in South Sudan’s periphery. ‘And we’re at that stage now.’”

There is all too much evidence that this is so, and while there is still a great deal we don’t know—and much reported that can’t be adequately confirmed—there is sufficient overlap in reporting to allow for a broad overview account, both of military developments and threats to civilians.

Military threats

Many hundreds of soldiers have been murdered in Juba by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in the wake of fighting that began within the Presidential Guard last Sunday; the vast majority of them are of Nuer ethnicity.  Nuer civilians have also been murdered by both the military and security forces.  Word of this will spread quickly to the hinterlands, where the Nuer people are the second largest tribal group in South Sudan.  Some 20,000 civilians have fled from Juba to the UN compounds on the outskirts of the city.

At the same time, there appear to have been murders of Dinka civilians in Juba and more particularly in Bor (Jonglei State), some 200 kilometers north of Juba.  Although reporting has been erratic on developments in this region, the SPLA now concedes that it no longer controls Bor or the two army barracks associated with the town, in which Nuer soldiers distinctly outnumbered Dinka soldiers.  The Bor trading center is reported to be ablaze and fighting has triggered a massive exodus of Dinka civilians, according to the UN Mission in South Sudan.  Agence France-Presse (Juba) reports today that,

South Sudan’s Red Cross reported at least 19 civilians [were] killed in news clashes between rival army factions that have now spread outside the capital Juba,” UN Spokesman Martin Nesirky told journalists in New York. These attacks, if not ordered by Riek Machar, are part of any military plan that would permit military advances toward Juba. (AFP December 19)

This is particularly true since Riek has enlisted the military services of Peter Gadet, the notorious embodiment of military brutality who previously commanded the Eighth Division of the SPLA.  Gadet has made a career of defection, selling his very considerable military skills to the highest bidder.  Though claiming to be fighting on behalf of the Nuer, there is no reason to credit this claim.  Throughout the day today there have been reports (unconfirmed) of Gadet having successfully attacked Mangalla and Terekeka, in Central Equatoria (between Bor and Juba).  Civilians are reported to have fled, and Gadet has moved on.

There are multiple and authoritative reports of violence in the oil regions of Unity State, a Nuer stronghold (former Unity State governor Taban Deng is one of those still being sought in connection with events of the past several days).  We have this report from Reuters:

Fighting between workers in two oil fields in South Sudan has killed at least 16 people but the government is now in control and oil production has not been affected, a senior official in a major oil producing area in the country said on Thursday. Unity State Deputy Governor Mabek Lang De Mading told Reuters that five people were killed late Wednesday in fighting between what he called “oil property workers” in Unity field. Another 11 people died on Thursday in fighting in Thar Jath field. Both are north of Juba. “We have sent reinforcements to Unity yesterday night and they contained the situation. This morning fighting broke out in Thar Jath. We have sent reinforcements and they have now contained the situation. It is stable now,” he said by phone.” (Reuters [Juba], December 19, 2013)

But Reuters also reports:

About 200 oil workers who sought refuge at a United Nations base in Unity State, a South Sudanese oil-producing region bordering Sudan, are expected to be evacuated by their employers, a United Nations official said on Thursday. (Juba, December 19, 2013)

We don’t know how many of these are skilled or professional workers, necessary for continuing oil extraction as well as equipment maintenance and repair.  If they are essential personnel, despite present claims that the oil is running smoothly, there may soon be technical issues that cannot be resolved with remaining staff.

Her we must remember that the generals in Khartoum who increasingly call the political shots in all areas of regime policy may decide that if the South is truly enmeshed in civil war, this creates be a pretext for seizing oil production areas south of the working North/South border, no longer fearing a united or cohesive or even functioning SPLA.  The claim will be that seizure of the oil fields is for the “mutual benefit” of both countries, since the South can “no longer provide the security necessary for this shared resource.”  There will be little push-back from an international community that has grown deeply weary of South Sudan and its problems—and ever more willing to do business with Khartoum.

In addition to the defection of Peter Gadet to Riek, a reliable source reports that David Yau Yau, who is leading a Khartoum-backed Murle rebellion in Jonglei, has offered to join Riek’s cause.  He was accepted by Riek with the proviso that he not kill civilians; this seems a commitment Yau Yau is highly unlikely to abide by, if the report is true (no confirmation of this report).

Humanitarian implications

Even following independence South Sudan has been wracked by lack of adequate food, clean water, and primary medical care.  It has been compelled to accept as many as 250,000 refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states because of Khartoum’s relentless assault on civilians and civilian agricultural production in areas where the rebel movement is active (the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North, SPLM/A-N).  Many people live in extremely precarious conditions and require international relief assistance (many of these are the Dinka Ngok driven from Abyei by Khartoum’s military seizure of the region in May 2011, forcing more than 100,000 people to flee to South Sudan).

In perhaps the most ominous report of the day, the BBC and Agence France-Presse report the attack on a UN compound in the remote Akobo region of eastern Jonglei:

Attackers stormed a UN base where civilians took refuge in South Sudan on Thursday and deaths are feared, a UN spokesman said. The UN has sent reinforcements to the base at Akobo in Jonglei state and to help other groups fearing for their lives amid a worsening showdown between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, a spokesman said.

Ethnic Nuer youths forced their way into the small UN mission in Akobo where more than 30 ethnic Dinka had sought shelter, UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

“Fighting took place,” he told reporters. “We fear there may have been some fatalities but can’t confirm who and how many.” The 60 peacekeeping reinforcements are only expected to arrive on Friday because the base is so difficult to get to, the spokesman said. The attack was the latest reported as fighting spreads across South Sudan between army factions split between Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer. (Agence France-Presse [UN/New York], December 19, 2013)

Reuters reported later today on the same events:

A United Nations peacekeeping base in South Sudan’s Jonglei state was attacked on Thursday and the body has received reports that some people have been killed, Deputy UN Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said. Our base in Akobo, Jonglei state, was attacked and we have reports that lives are lost. We don’t have the details of that yet,” Eliasson told reporters….

UN spokesman Farhan Haq also spoke about the attack. “The situation in Jonglei has deteriorated,” he said. “In Akobo earlier today, where civilians have gathered, including 32 as of last night, (ethnic) Lou Nuer youth have reportedly forced an entry into the UNMISS Temporary Operating Base to reach to those civilians.”

Haq said it was possible that the civilians were the target of the attack, adding that he understood those civilians were of the Dinka ethnicity. “There have been signs of different attacks by one of the (ethnic) groups against the other,” he said. “We of course have urged the government and indeed all sides to protect all civilians regardless of ethnicity.”

And late today Agence France-Presse reported the most ominous news from Akobo:

The United Nations said it has lost contact with a South Sudan base that was stormed by attackers Thursday and at least three peacekeepers and civilian staff are unaccounted for. UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said 40 Indian peacekeepers at the base at Akobo in Jonglei state had been moved to a nearby South Sudan army camp, but that three peacekeepers and possibly one civilian worker were missing. The fate of more than 30 ethnic Dinka civilians who had taken refuge at the Akobo base was also not known, Haq added. “We are no longer in contact with the Akobo base,” Haq said. (UN/New York, December 19, 2013)

This exceedingly brazen attack on a UN base threatens further, similar violence—and has certainly added to the fears of humanitarian organizations on the ground in South Sudan, often in places that are equally or even more remote from Juba.  A number of these organizations have raised their threat assessment level, some to the stage just before mandatory evacuation.  In the event of such evacuations, the growing number of wounded in need of primary medical or even surgical attention will have a much diminished chance of receiving assistance.  Civilians who depend on these organizations for food, clean water, and medicine will find themselves bereft, perhaps precipitously.

But for the moment greatest concern must be for those already threatened, whether in Juba or Bor or anywhere where ethnic violence has already begun to gather pace:

UN forces are also protecting 14,000 civilians gathered around a base in Bor, capital of Jonglei state, and protecting the Bor airstrip, Haq said…

Between 2,000 and 5,000 civilians have gathered in another part of Juba, the Kator complex, and had also requested help from UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) peacekeepers, Haq said.  More than 15,000 people have sought shelter at two UN and one World Food Programme compounds in Juba. Haq said that food and water supplies and sanitation at the compounds are “overstrained.”

“Violence is spreading and could spread even further and we need all South Sudanese leaders and political personalities now to immediately appeal to calm and call on their supporters to suspend hostilities,” said UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson. (Agence France-Presse [UN/New York], December 19, 2013)

But how can this be accomplished if one party to the violence refuses to negotiate with the president of the country?  Words alone will not halt the violence; only good faith negotiations—conducted with mediators credible to both parties—can produce the momentum that will bring South Sudan back from the brink of a terrible self-destruction.

Moving forward

Several useful recommendations made by the International Crisis Group and the Enough Project should anchor international efforts, which must begin immediately.  Among its recommendations, Enough argues for the creation of “safe havens” and the protection of free humanitarian movement.  Given the threats to civilians this seems imperative:

Support the creation of safe havens and press for unrestricted humanitarian access.

The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan should immediately establish safe havens for vulnerable civilians in areas most affected by the fighting. Civilian protection is incorporated in the mission’s Chapter VII mandate, so the mission is already authorized to take these steps. The U.S. government should urge UNMISS to move outside of their compounds on patrol and offer logistical and technical support, as necessary. UNMISS will potentially need additional logistical support from UN contributing countries, and may well need additional troops, which would require UN Security Council action. In light of the growing humanitarian crisis within Juba and the potential for mass displacement in the wake of a return of violence to Jonglei, the US government should also make an immediate additional emergency allocation to fund a robust response to the crisis. Humanitarian groups must immediately be given assurances of safe and unrestricted passage. (Enough Project, Memorandum concerning the ongoing political crisis and violence in South Sudan, to senior Obama administration officialsDecember 18, 2013)

Based on the December 17 Presidential Statement by the UN Security Council, ICG recommends:

• Wherever possible the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) should increase its presence outside its bases, both in Juba and at the state level, while maintaining strict impartiality between all armed actors. The mission, building on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s statement of 18 December, should also offer its good offices in order to help facilitate dialogue between the opposing factions.

• South Sudan’s most important neighbours—Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia—under the auspices of the sub-regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), will send a delegation of foreign ministers, who should take the lead in assisting Sudanese parties to resolve divisions within both the SPLM and, vitally, the SPLA.

• The Troika group of governments that supported the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) process that ended Sudan’s civil war in 2005 (U.S., UK and Norway) should condemn outright all violence against civilians and give full backing to IGAD’s civil-military mediation efforts.

What is critical, as ICG rightly stresses, is that there be an “honest broker,” a party or parties genuinely committed to peace in South Sudan, willing to listen carefully, and not afraid to make difficult recommendations.  But there must be near term buy-in by Riek Machar and those who have followed him into rebellion; if there is no conversation, no face-to-face discussion of outstanding issues, there can be no progress.  Both President Kiir and former Vice President Machar have used strong language in characterizing one another, and they must put this behind them, however difficult.  For there is only one alternative to urgent, productive dialogue—and it is too hideous to contemplate.

Eric Reeves’ new book-length study of greater Sudan (Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012) is available in eBook format, at no cost:

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