December 31, 2013 (SSNA) — About fifteen days have passed since the conflict erupted between two SPLM rival factions. The conflict came about as the backlash of what was then an ongoing party third National Liberation Council, NLC meeting since May 2008’s 2nd National Convention. NLC is the party’s legislative wing that normally passes scores of drafted documents, namely the basic rules and constitution. In these documents are contentious clauses which the internal opposition claims are skewed in favor of party Chairman who is also President of the Republic, Salva Kiir Mayardit. On the second day of meeting, that is Sunday 15th December 2013, the group opposed to Kiir pulled out of the meeting citing lack of peaceful atmosphere conducive to the democratic method necessary to discuss the document. As alleged the Chairman was literally turned abusive to Machar’s personality. Machar who has turned rebel fighting government forces is the leader of the group some of its leaders are locked behind bars the same Sunday night when the war broke out between Presidential guards. These guards are an amalgamation of both Kiir and Machar loyalists.
The fight began in earnest when Presidential guards’ commander loyal to President named Marial Chinuong decided to redeploy from key installations in the Unit soldiers sympathetic to Machar and to re-assign in their places soldiers fanatically supportive to Kiir. As the war enters its third week these three states of Greater Upper Nile region have become nasty scenes of protracted gun battles with their capitals changing hands back and forth. They are the traditional political base of Machar besides being bread basket of the newly independent country as major reservoir of oil reserves. Foreign diplomats and in particular those from Eastern African Bloc have been in shuttle diplomacy between their respective states’ capitals and Juba in recent fruitful attempt to bring warring factions to the negotiating table. With Machar changing his previous position of only accepting peace talks if all detained political allies are released so that they are part and parcel of his negotiating team. Two of the eleven detainees are released so far but the big fish that include suspended Secretary-General of SPLM Pagan Amum are yet to be let out of the cage. He bowed to external pressure as a strategy to fend off the impending military assault of the East African bloc should he fail to respond to the outlined deadline.
But one more hurdle remains in force, being Machar’s refusal to the proposed cease fire as requested by Eastern African member states to pave way for the mediated peace talks between him and Kiir. To him, cease fires are negotiated beforehand so that there are laid down mechanisms for proper monitoring with their subsequent effective implementation otherwise we would be deceiving ourselves, Machar concluded in an interview with the BBC while Kiir is adamantly opposed to any preconditions prior to the talks. That is already the stalemate which the IGGAD member states want to break in threatening Machar with military intervention in support of Kiir. And as they are talking with each other on how to make good their threats in imposing cessation of hostilities as four day deadline to bring parties to the negotiating table has passed, Machar forces have recaptured the strategic town of Bor, capital of Jonglei State as an act of defiant.
As Machar forces set on their 200 miles long march from Bor to Juba, it is prudent to analyze costs and benefits of each rival side in a two – week old war that looks likely to attract a regional conflict reminiscent of Congolese war of late 1990s. For one, oil fields control wields a considerable influence over who between the two protagonists will win the war. Since their production accounts for 98% of total South Sudan annual revenue. If Machar controls majority of them as he claims, he will not only deny government of resources and allies to persecute the war but uses them to get cash or credit from international financial lenders to oust Kiir’s government. Machar has already directed the diversion of oil cash to private accounts under his own gridlock and key. When he is fully in charge of Greater Upper Nile region, Machar will have the control of the fiercest fighting force who are the Nuers and other Nilotic groups in the country. Based on the atrocities allegedly committed by Kiir government against ethnic Nuer in Juba, human rights groups in their hostile crusade shall deprive Kiir and his government of global moral support that in turn will translate into arms embargo if not outright military intervention. It is this human rights issue with regards to Bor incident of 1991 which caused Machar led Nasir faction not to access arms and as a result lost out to Dr. John Garang’s SPLM/A Mainstream eventually. On political front most media reports and analysts have rubbished the alleged coup as Kiir’s fabrication meant to stifle internal democratic process in the party SPLM and to a larger extent the whole country. That news sounds pretty good for Machar while it paints Kiir as ruthless war monger.
Kiir’s secret weapons
While Machar victory lies in the battle field where he has what it takes to remove Kiir military wise, Kiir strength depends heavily on a couple of reasons that follow. That is Machar’s future miscalculations or blunders are likely unless he guides against pride of making too many successive victories against Kiir forces. Negotiations in one way or another are Kiir’s set trap to put Machar in a tight corner of legal quagmire. For an example if he says he is ready to accept all democratic processes under supervision of the international community as well as formation of Government of National Unity comprising of all political forces in the country with Machar being offered key decision-making position in the run up to scheduled post independence 2015 general elections. Support of East Africa regional powers of Kiir is another dangerous equation to Machar’s long match on capital Juba. For such a line is an echo of a position already adopted by United States President Barack Obama terming any takeover of power from an elected government in South Sudan as illegal.
However, is unlikely the whole East African region will throw its weight behind Kiir given the strategic and economic interests of its respctive member states. Sudan can rub shoulders with whoever has the control of oilfields to protect further damage in her fledgling economy which can in turn strengthen opposition groups’ resolve to oust President Al-bashir from power. Most of these groups stand accused by Al-bashir many years on end of being supported by Kiir government. Eritrea doesn’t always support any side her arch rival Ethiopia supports. She already has a couple of grievances towards Juba such as an endemic corruption and failure to reward her with peace dividends despite huge military assistance she offered SPLM/A during the liberation war.
Even still, Ethiopia is not wholly behind Kenya and Uganda as her support to Kiir will be restrained by a myriad of economic interests back at home. The West that gives huge financial aid to her doesn’t approve of IGGAD military intervention in what it may regard as interference in South Sudan internal affairs if statement from French Ambassador to the UN and several analyses from former United States envoys to Sudan and South Sudan supportive of Machar are anything to take seriously. In the light of such stand the west will therefore warn Ethiopia of withdrawal of aid if she intervenes in the war on Kiir side. And should Machar take over militarily without her, Ethiopia risks losing her nearly idolized immense influence and investments in South Sudan if she continues to stick to someone with nothing to offer in return. This can leave Kenya whose President’s fate hangs in the balance in the International Criminal Court, ICC and Uganda facing a possible resurgence of Lord Resistance Army dangerously isolated in a region that is entirely supportive of Machar’s future government.
Deng Vanang is a journalist and executive member of South Sudan leading opposition party, SPLM-DC. He can be reached at:[email protected]