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Urgent that UN in South Sudan Provide More Information to Civilians: Some form of aerial reconnaissance is essential for the Bor-Juba corridor

The Enough Project, January 4, 2013

By Eric Reeves

January 4, 2014 (SSNA) -- As of the evening of January 4 (Juba time) there is growing alarm, even panic among civilians who are receiving conflicting reports from a wide range of sources—some open, some confidential, but all having an impact on those living in or near Juba and Bor, and in towns and villages between these capitals.  The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) must subordinate the deployment of peacekeepers to the urgent need to better inform civilians of what is actually happening.  Those fleeing often confront severe dangers, deprivation, and death; the example of Awerial (Lakes State), some thirty miles west of Bor, offers a terrifying example (see New York Times [dateline: Awerial], January 3, 2014).  Flight should be the last option for civilians, given constraints on humanitarian capacity; and the decision to flee should be as informed as possible.

Toby Lanzer, the chief UN humanitarian official in South Sudan, has warned that the number of displaced is accelerating and could reach 300,000 to 400,000 "in a matter of days" (Voice of America, January 2, 2014). Extrapolating forward even cautiously suggests just how massive the displaced population will soon become, and how difficult it will be to provide them with humanitarian relief.  Flight is inevitable in what increasingly appears to be all-out civil war; but to the extent that people can be informed of what the real dangers and risks are, this is for now the most important humanitarian service that can be rendered.  Riek Machar and one of his senior commanders, Brigadier General Khor Chol, have both declared that Juba will fall soon (see excerpts of news reports).  What can the UN tell us—tell the people of South Sudan—of the validity of this claim?

The Bor-Juba road, some 200 kilometers, is not a great distance by the standards of South Sudan.  Patrol by unarmed drone aircraft, higher-flying fixed-wing aircraft, or satellite surveillance might all be continuously conducted in the near term.  Their sole responsibility would be to ensure that reporting is as accurate as possible in the interest of civilian security and humanitarian decision-making.  All UN reporting must be scrupulously neutral; although some limited military advantage may accrue to one side or the other, it is likely to be very small: both sides know what their own and the opposing positions are.  It is civilians who have been left in the dark, and decisions made without relevant information threaten to exacerbate what is already a catastrophic situation.

To give a sense of how wildly disparate the accounts are at present, a collection reporting is offered here: a very recent AFP dispatch; an UNMISS statement reported in Gurtong.net; a read-out from the NGO perspective in South Sudan (details blurred for security's sake); and two lengthier dispatches from the Sudan TribuneUnless these gross disparities are somehow reconciled, civilians may well assume the worst and act accordingly.  This could lead not only to flight but to violence, including ethnic violence. Juba has variously described as "calm," "relatively normal, and "operating as usual" over the past few days.  But a report from Agence France-Presse this evening ([Juba], January 4, 2014) makes clear how quickly the situation on the ground can change, catching civilians unaware: "Explosions from reported artillery fire as well as the constant rattle of automatic weapons were heard in Juba's key government district, where most ministries, the presidential palace and the parliament are located." Subsequent reports suggest that the firing reflected disorder in the SPLA ranks, but nothing is certain.

UNMISS has not been inactive on this score, as the Sudan Tribune reported today:

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on Friday also confirmed that the fighting was going on towards Juba. Col. Mike Chadrick of UNMISS in Bor told the BBC he independently verified that two armed groups were fighting about 40 miles away on Juba-Bor road.

But there must be more such briefings, and they must have information that at present is likely to come only from aerial reconnaissance in some form.  If civilians are to stay out of the line of fire, which looks to intensify over the next several days according to numerous sources, they need to know more than they do at present.

[Again, all texts referred to are at: http://wp.me/p45rOG-1ae]

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: www.CompromisingWithEvil.org

Has South Sudan Passed the Tipping Point? No Signs of a Ceasefire as Violence Intensifies

BY Eric Reeves

January 3, 2014 (SSNA) -- Reports of violence in South Sudan are increasing dramatically, creating an ever-larger humanitarian crisis, one that already verges on the “catastrophic” according to several relief organizations on the ground.  More than 200,000 civilians have already been driven from their homes, and the chief UN humanitarian official for the region, Toby Lanzer, has declared that this number could reach 300,000 to 400,000 ”in a matter of days” (Voice of America, January 2, 2014).  Many of those who have fled, even if they have reached UN camps, are without clean water or food.  Some 76,000 people, mainly women and children, have fled Bor and its environs for Awerial, thirty miles to the west in neighboring Lakes State.  Conditions are appalling, as reported by Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other aid groups (see below).

Nor is there any reason to think that if violence continues to escalate civilian displacement will not do so as well: in the later years of the long civil war between northern and southern Sudan (1983 – 2005) internal displacement was estimated by the UN High Commission for Refugees and other organizations at between 4 and 5 million civilians.  And the violence that displaced them was for the most part internecine warfare following the split between John Garang and Riek Machar in 1991.  The inter-ethnic violence that followed claimed, directly and indirectly, hundreds of thousands of lives. Riek Machar’s expedient decision in 1997 to make a factitious “peace” with Khartoum (the so-called “Khartoum Peace Agreement”) led subsequently to some of the most violent fighting of the war, concentrated in Riek's Nuer  homeland of Unity State (then Western Upper Nile).

History is repeating itself in ghastly fashion as Bor becomes the epicenter of fighting; for Bor was the site of the infamous Bor massacre of 1991, in which Riek’s Nuer “White Army” killed thousands of ethnic Dinka.  Bor is once again the scene of violence that has a distinctly ethnic character, and many (though far from all) of the “White Army” marching toward Bor have succeeded, along with Riek’s other military forces, in seizing this important town, just 200 kilometers north of the capital Juba (UN observers believe that until recently the notorious Peter Gadet, who has defected to Riek, was just north of Bor). Few have forgotten the events of 1991.  Moreover, there are many reports of brutal retaliatory killings of ethnic Dinkas—this because of the numerous and increasingly well-documented atrocities directed against Nuer in Juba following the evening of December 15.  It would appear that many hundreds of Nuer were slaughtered, most by elements of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).  Failure to control the army adequately must stand as Salva Kiir’s greatest failing in the present crisis.  Even now, Nuer men in the UN camps on the outskirts of Juba dare not leave for fear of being killed.  Elsewhere in South Sudan, Nuer youth overwhelmed a UN protection force in Akobo, killing two UN personnel in order to gain access to Dinka being protected at the site.  All were slaughtered.

Riek Machar claims that “[President Salva] Kiir is the one who wants to provoke a tribal war” (Interview with Asharq Al-Aswat (January 2, 2014).  But it is the continued fighting, the refusal to initiate a military stand-down, that has turned what is essentially a political rivalry into conflict that daily sees more civilian destruction—destruction with an increasingly ethnic character.

The stakes for the country as a whole could not be greater.  If Riek is as good as his word and marches on Juba, then South Sudan will almost certainly disintegrate.  Ethnic violence, already reported in highly alarming terms in various locations besides Bor and Juba, will spread rapidly; insecurity for humanitarians will becoming intolerable in many locations where human need is greatest; and the deterrent effect of the SPLA in keeping Khartoum’s military forces (the Sudan Armed Forces and various militia allies and proxies) in check along the border will disappear.  For the ruthless opportunists in the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime, the time to re-draw the North/South boundary will have arrived, and the oil fields of Unity and Upper Nile states may be seized under color of “protecting” a mutual and shared natural resource.  Without a functioning central government and without oil revenues, it is difficult to imagine anything remaining of a true national state of South Sudan.

Virtually all observers have been taken by surprise at the rapidity with which events have spiraled out of apparent control.  Even if stalled negotiations in Addis Ababa begin rapidly and are fully successful—and there is no evidence of this, three weeks after the precipitating events of December 15—without an immediate cease-fire, fighting will continue to escalate rapidly.  But Riek and his lieutenants continue to speak of detailed monitoring terms and mechanisms before committing to a ceasefire, even as this pushes South Sudan closer to, or further beyond, the point of no return, even as Salva Kiir offered an unconditional cease-fire or cessation of hostilities agreement on December 27—a full week ago and a very long time in present circumstances.  How is it that the demands for negotiation of a cease-fire have been so inexcusably dilatory?  Does Riek really want a cease-fire?  Or does he wish to accrue greater strength on the ground, more military equities with which to leverage other demands in these upcoming negotiations?

In response to a question about whether the two sides were committed to negotiating a cease-fire, British special envoy to South Sudan, Andrew Mace said “more needed to be done to demonstrate that commitment. ‘(It) looks like they’re still moving for a military advantage rather than preparing a ceasefire,’ Mace said” (Reuters [Addis Ababa, January 2, 2014).  But this assessment comes many days after it became clear that it was Riek who was determined to seize Bor and Malakal if possible.  Malakal is temporarily back in the hands of the SPLA, but Bor has changed hands for the third time in this conflict and is now in the hands of Riek's forces.  Salva Kiir and the SPLA several days ago, by way of making clear their commitment to a cease-fire, declared they would not mount an offensive against Bentiu, capital of Unity State and the epicenter of the oil regions.  Perhaps this was done with the expectation that the offer would be rejected by Riek and his forces, as it was.  But the offensive on Bentiu could very easily have been monitored by any number of means; Salva and the SPLA would have squandered whatever position of moral advantage they have by virtue of having offered an unconditional and immediate cease-fire.  For again, it was Salva who such an "unconditional cease-fire" on December 27.

In response to this, Riek's emissary in Addis sketches a future for negotiations that could be made to drag out indefinitely, while evermore destructive fighting continues:

Johannes Musa, a member of the negotiating team for former Vice President Riek Machar, told Al Jazeera that there are significant problems to be overcome, and that the rebels will not lay down their arms unilaterally. "We did not refuse a ceasefire," Musa said. " But we put out some conditions. The government may not commit itself to mutual ceasefire, that will not be monitored." (Al Jazeera [Addis Ababa], January 2, 2014)

This confusing, perhaps disingenuous conflation of issues is the best context for assessing an ominous report that the SPLA says it has evidence of the forced recruitment of civilians into the rebel army in the Bor area:

Rebel militia currently hold Bor, the capital of the key oil-producing state of Jonglei. The military spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer said the government had sent in reinforcements but claimed the rebels were arming reluctant civilians as they focused on their next target—Juba, the seat of the central government. “Juba, that is their intention,” he told the Associated Press. “They are trying to march to Juba. The [military] will return them to where they came from.” (Associated Press [Addis Ababa], January 2, 2014).

If true—and forced recruitment has a long and ugly tradition in the South—this suggests that the drive for Juba is serious and that this most catastrophic of military events could occur soon.  Reports this morning from the BBC (January 3, 2014) indicate that the battle has already begun and involves tanks and heavy artillery.

A week ago I asked a question that has only gained in urgency: “Riek Machar: What is His End-Game?” (December 28, 2013).  Even now it is not at all clear what he hopes to gain from further military activity—only that he intends to keep fighting, thus increasing violence throughout the country, with an intensifying ethnic character.  But what does he want?  Further military gains?  Does he think that he can capture Juba?  Achieve a political weakening of Salva Kiir’s government, thereby improving his chances for political power in South Sudan? Or perhaps what he has in mind is a deal with Khartoum over the oil regions. Again, Riek expediently signed the 1997 “Khartoum Peace Agreement,” which paved the way for ethnic clearances to provide security for oil companies operating in Western Upper Nile.  Those clearances and killings (1997 – 2003) were primarily civilians of Riek’s own Nuer ethnicity.  Riek would later admit that the “agreement” with Khartoum was a bad idea, but by then the civilian clearances and destruction had largely been accomplished.  Is Riek prepared to make another agreement with Khartoum if he is militarily squeezed by the SPLA?

He declares not, even as he suggests an arrangement for oil revenues that would require Khartoum’s agreement and assistance. In an interview with Asharq Al-Aswat (London, 2 January 2014), Riek answered a question about revenues from Southern oil production:

We confirmed that oil production and export would continue and that we would pay Khartoum its dues according to the cooperation agreement between the two countries. We have also arranged for South Sudan’s revenues to be deposited in a special account until the war ends. However, the Khartoum regime does not want to cooperate.

Khartoum “does not want to cooperate,” Riek insists.  But how can he know if he hasn’t reached out to them with just such a proposal?  And on what basis does he arrogate to himself the right to set up “a special account” for the oil revenues that belong to all the people of South Sudan.  And the phrase “until the war ends” is terrifying in what it reveals.  This is not the language of someone interested in a cease-fire to what might still, in some sense, be called a “military flare-up”; it is the language of someone who imagines protracted conflict, with an outcome presumably favorable to him.  But what happens when the full effects of the loss of Unity State oil production, and thus revenues, sinks in for those in charge of managing Sudan’s rapidly imploding economy?  With a large budget gap, accelerating inflation already exceeding 50 percent, and a currency in free fall, the temptation to make a deal with Riek for Unity State revenues might seem irresistible.  Or perhaps Khartoum’s refusal to “cooperate” derives simply from an understanding that once Southerner is fighting Southerner, the regime is prevailing militarily at no cost.  Perhaps a badly divided and weakened SPLA will no longer deter Khartoum from re-drawing the North/South border—a border that remains contested in a number of areas nine years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 9, 2005).

Guided by no evident principles or concern for the life of Sudanese civilians, why should we believe Riek incapable of making another “agreement” with Khartoum? 

The political context—a South Sudanese view

I indicated at the conclusion of my December 28 analysis that I hoped to provide an assessment of the political circumstances that led to the current military situation.  It is a task that must be deferred yet again, but a series of comments and commentaries by Jok Madut Jok, former Under-Secretary for Culture in the Government of South Sudan, represent the sentiments of the vast majority of Sudanese with whom I have communicated over the past several weeks. On December 3, 2014 the Sudd Institute that Jok co-founded began its weekly assessment with a stark assessment of the current state of politics in South Sudan:

Though South Sudanese have been expressing disappointment in the way their young state has been run ever since independence was declared in 2011, they have been more recently appalled by news that has bombarded them about government failures, fiscal misdeeds, unclear policies, uncertainties of what the future holds for them in terms of security, development, livelihoods, basic freedoms, the constitution, reconciliation, census, elections and the balance of powers. More concerning is the fact that the legislative assembly is at the mercy of the president instead of carrying out its constitutional mandate that oversees the actions of the executive. Another subject of heated discussions is the fate of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) the liberation movement turned ruling party, whose structures the president recently dissolved, rendering the party nearly paralyzed. In short, the noose seems to tighten ever more around the neck of the entire nation. (Sudd Institute, Issue of December 3, 2013)

More recently Jok made a key claim to the Wall Street Journal about the misguided nature of so much of the politics of South Sudan (December 29, 2013):

Mr. Jok argued that the country’s backers had spent too much time and money on building political institutions and infrastructure, and not enough on helping factions that had fought each other for years to forge a new national identity.

And indeed this remains the critical task for any Government of South Sudan, if it is to become truly a unified country.

Not all would agree with all elements of this broad assessment, but it certainly represents a view that is widely held in many different quarters of the political world in Juba and elsewhere in South Sudan.  Certainly tensions between President Salva Kiir and leading members of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement have been a constant for many months now.  Assigning blame or responsibility will be the task of those writing the history of the troubled three years since the self-determination referendum; it will not be easy, for there are many who are guilty of corruption, malfeasance, and ruthless self-interest—and others who have indulged in rank mendacity.  But my task here remains to speak to the issue that governs whether or not there will be a South Sudan, in any meaningful sense, a year from now.  And that issue, that urgent necessity, is how to halt the violence and fighting.

Even before Salva’s offer of an “immediate cease-fire” (December 27, 2013), and its rejection by Riek (unless following time-consuming negotiations and preparations), Jok saw with terrible prescience the danger that has largely come to pass, particularly with the alliance between three men:

But Jok says that he is thought to have headed that way, and that an alliance between the two men and the former governor of Unity state, who is also missing, could be catastrophic. “If the SPLA engages [Peter] Gadet and possibly Riek and [former Unity State governor] Taban [Deng], then we have an all-out civil war in South Sudan, a mere two years after independence, and making good all the predictions by outsiders that South Sudanese will have limited capacity to build a peaceful nation.” (Al Jazeera, December 19, 2013) (emphases have been added in all quotes)

He is also quite frank about how appalled he was by the targeting of Nuer in Juba following the events of December 15:

[Jok] warned that the violence could “escalate into tragic acts of ethnic cleansing.” “Some really heart-wrenching acts have already occurred where Nuer soldiers have been attacked and killed, Nuer government officials, even those serving in the offices of Nuer ministers, and ordinary citizens suspected of having participated in the fight against the government,” he said.

And he is frank in his broader political assessment:

“Sounds of gunfight, traversed with heart-shaking mortar and tank blasts, which have continued sporadically well into today Wednesday [December 18] morning, have all spread fear in the population, leaving them hostage to the madness of a few power-hungry men,” Jok said.

Jok also speaks with unsparing honesty about how “‘the fate of political stability in the whole country’ [has entailed paying] off many militias for peace.”  Most of these are now incorporated into the SPLA at enormous cost: the military takes over half the annual budget of South Sudan, and salaries are 80 percent of that massive expenditure. . Ominously, Al Jazeera’s account ends with an interview of a security analyst “who spoke on condition of anonymity [saying] that the worst-case scenario was ethnic violence taking place in South Sudan’s periphery. ‘And we’re at that stage now,’ the analyst said.”  This was almost two weeks ago.

I focus on the views of Jok not because they are exhaustive or fully representative, and because I think they are those of an honest man, a superb scholar of Sudan’s recent history, but also someone who has returned to South Sudan from a comfortable academic position in the United States.  He has founded an impressive school in Warrap State (Marol Academy), and has served in the Government of South Sudan.  If South Sudan is to have a future, it lies in its ability to produce more such people as Jok Madut Jok.

Humanitarian conditions: consequences of a failure to secure a cease-fire

It is important to stress that as was the case during the long North/South civil war, the primary casualties of any new “war” (to use Riek’s revealing choice of words) will be civilians, and among civilians primarily women and children. Conditions are deteriorating at such a rapid rate that news wire services, normally fully current in their background information, are reporting figures and developments that are several days, even a week out of date.  As of January 3, 2014, these are the reports that must be considered most closely in assessing the consequences of continuing violence:

[1]  Reports from MSF are particularly revealing:

On Thursday [January 2, 2014], as the government accused rebel forces of forcibly recruiting civilians for their bid to march on the capital, humanitarian agencies warned that tens of thousands of refugees were without food, water or shelter. Some 75,000 people have fled to the town of Awerial, having escaped clashes between government and rebel troops 30 miles away in Bor, where the fighting has been fiercest. With more people  arriving daily—mostly women and children pouring off boats with only the belongings they could carry—living conditions are near catastrophic, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned. David Nash, head of mission for MSF in South Sudan, had been in Awerial, where he said the situation was chaotic: “Awerial normally has a population of 10,000 – 12,000 with limited facilities anyway. It has a small health centre, which has been totally overwhelmed. (The Guardian [Juba], January 2, 2014)

Speaking to the BBC (January 2, 2014) MSF’s Nash said:

“There is no clean drinking water. Five boreholes—it’s just not enough,” David Nash of the medical charity MSF told the BBC. “People are drinking water straight out of the river Nile. It’s muddy, it’s not good. And there are no latrines, so open defecation is happening. Conditions for an outbreak of watery diarrhoea are perfect.”

MSF itself reports (January 2, 2014):

MSF has indicated that there are more than 70,000 displaced people in Awerial, in Lakes State, describing their condition as a “medical crisis.” The organisation’s medical coordinator, Sewnet Mekonnen said most of the displaced are women and children who fled clashes in Bor. “There are more than 70,000 displaced people from Bor to Awerial. They are in a desperate situation. They are in desperate need of water, food and shelter,” he said. Mekonnen said the displaced people are currently living in unimaginable conditions without shelter, with no health infrastructure and are lacking clean water and food. [Other estimates are yet higher: US AID reports on the basis of an inter-agency assessment mission to Awerial that 76,000  displaced persons are present (South Sudan Fact Sheet #8, January 2, 2014).]

[2]  Displacement is already terrifying large and growing rapidly:

The number of South Sudanese who have been forced to flee their homes as violence continues to rake the young country could double from 200,000 to 400,000 in the space of a few days if the country’s leaders are unable to reach a peace deal, United Nations officials warned Thursday. “We could well have 300,000 or 400,000 people who are displaced in a matter of days” unless the fighting that began in the capital 18 days ago and quickly spread around the country ends, Toby Lanzer, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, told VOA News. (Voice of America, January 2, 2014)

US AID reports that 30 percent of all those displaced are in ten UN compounds in South Sudan, compounds that were not designed in any way for large-scale humanitarian services (South Sudan Fact Sheet #8, January 2, 2014).

[3]  The refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, well over 200,000, are also in desperate need, and have become extremely vulnerable in their camps near the border (Unity and Upper Nile states in the South).  They have been driven from Sudan by the genocidal ambitions of the Khartoum regime in the Nuba Mountains as well as in Blue Nile.  This ambition has taken the form of relentless aerial bombardment of civilians and civilian agriculture, the torching of villages and foodstocks, and the killing of cattle.  Severe malnutrition among the more than 1 million people displaced in these two states, as well as in the general population, has been reported for two years.  But with no humanitarian access granted by Khartoum, no assessments other than “hit-and-run” efforts are possible, and these only by intrepid groups and individuals.  Anecdotally, the reports on conditions are relentlessly grim, and still deteriorating (see www.NubaReports.org).  There is no significant international pressure on the regime to lift its humanitarian embargo, of the same sort used during the 1990s in an effort to annihilate the Nuba people.  Civilians, as a consequence, are forced to flee to South Sudan:

With the crisis continuing to grow, the UN has called for more funding to meet the needs of people displaced by the violence in South Sudan, and the needs of another 210,000 refugees who fled violence in neighboring Sudan and live in UN-run camps, mainly in the north of South Sudan. “These are people who fled from Sudan where there was violence and came to South Sudan to seek safe haven. As a refugee said to me, ‘I left violence, I came here, I found violence. Where do I go?’” (Voice of America, January 2, 2014)

Beyond these 210,000 refugees in South Sudan (likely an understatement of the real figure), tens of thousands have fled from Blue Nile to Ethiopia, as the bombing of civilians continues relentlessly.

[4]  Flight along the (White) Nile River not only creates difficulty in securing clean water, but what for many is an insuperable obstacle in the effort to reach safety:

“The price to cross the river was $30 per person, or 150 South Sudanese pounds. So in some cases, parents just sent their kids across, because they couldn’t afford for the whole family to go.” “People told stories of a lot of drownings at the river,” [Nick] Kulish says.  “When there was shooting, they would rush into the water, and small children and old people drowned. You had people falling off boats. And in at least one instance, I had people say their boat was shot and that several people on board had died.” (Public Radio International, January 2, 2014)

[5]  Health threats are growing at an extremely rapid rate.

The humanitarian situation in South Sudan has further deteriorated in the past two weeks, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the outbreak of violence in South Sudan on December 15, 2013, the humanitarian needs have quickly been growing with a total of 195,416 persons have been displaced from the four states of South Sudan, namely; Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile, and 75,171 of them taking shelter in the UN peace-keeping bases in Juba, Bor, Malakal, Bentiu, while an estimated 5,000 others are displaced in Awerial County Lakes state. As a result of this population displacement, there is a looming risk of disease outbreaks especially for water borne diseases, warns WHO.

“The poor water, sanitation and hygiene conditions in the camps, coupled with a shortage of healthcare providers, poses health risks to thousands of displaced persons in the UN camp bases,” says Dr. Abdi Aden Mohammedthe WHO Country Representative in South Sudan. “Even with the tremendous efforts made by health partners, sanitation conditions are still inadequate largely due to the large number of people sheltering in UN bases which have insufficient space to house these numbers. Coupled with poor water and sanitation conditions, overcrowding in the camps may create conditions ripe for disease outbreaks,” adds Mohammed. (Public Health News, January 2, 2014)

[6]  The lack of food reaching people in Bor will soon have deadly consequences, as The Telegraph reports from Juba (December 30, 2013):

At least 7,000 civilians, including vulnerable orphans, are going without food inside a United Nations camp in South Sudan as they shelter from the country’s civil war.  The refugees at the UN base in the town of Bor receive clean water and protection from peacekeeping troops. But the security situation is so volatile that little food has been distributed—and some inside the camp have eaten nothing for days.

[7]  And finally, the inherent difficulties of conducting humanitarian operations in South Sudan cannot be forgotten, for these difficulties translate into shortages of food and medicine, as well as equipment for water purification and bore-hole digging.  In the presence of ongoing fighting, the challenges are almost overwhelming (the UN has kept in South Sudan only “critical personnel”):

Toby Lanzer, the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, says the recent rainy season has left many roads impassable.  ”We have to conduct many of our operations by air. So running an aid operation in this environment, when you don’t have precise information, is really very, very difficult and very expensive,” he says.  His office has appealed for $166 million just to provide the basics — blankets, water, food and basic medical care — through March. And then there’s the politics.  ”As humanitarian coordinator, I’m dealing with the consequences of a political struggle which has turned particularly violent,” Lanzer says. (National Public Radio, December 27, 2014)

What must be done—now

Political leaders in South Sudan who do not commit to an immediate cessation of  hostilities, without conditions, help ensure that the current catastrophe will intensify with frightening speed.  Modalities and mechanisms for formal cease-fire monitoring can be negotiated at greater leisure; what cannot wait another day is a military stand-down by both sides.  The place to begin is Bor, now under control of Riek’s forces and—according to SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer—fighting has already begun to move southward toward Juba (Washington Post [Nairobi], January 3, 2014).  Other reports from the BBC (January 3) have the SPLA beginning an offensive against Bor involving tanks and artillery.

Why does Riek not declare a cease-fire in light of all this?  His strategy here may be that described by a military analyst speaking to The Economist (January 3, 2014):

Machar may be able to hold the fledgling country’s oil infrastructure to ransom. If he can chalk up some early victories—for instance, by taking and holding Bor—he may be better placed to sue for peace. As things stand, South Sudan may face a long civil war.

It is beyond dispiriting to think of the people of South Sudan once more “facing a long civil war.”  All causes, all personal interests, all quests for seizing or holding power must give way before the desperately urgent need to forestall such a war.

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: www.CompromisingWithEvil.org

Riek Machar's End-Game: What is it?

By Eric Reeves

December 28, 2013 (SSNA) -- Riek Machar, former Vice-President of South Sudan and current leader of rebel forces in the country, knows as well as anyone that every day that passes without a halt to the fighting—every hour—makes more likely the explosive spread of violence that has already taken on a clear ethnic character.  Riek knows as well that as long as this violence continues it will be impossible for most humanitarian organizations to operate outside Juba, putting many hundreds of thousands of civilians at risk—most without any political identity, but inevitably an ethnic identity.  The number of those displaced was put at 121,000 several days ago by the UN, but it was only a mechanical estimate.  Toby Lanzer, head of humanitarian operations in South Sudan, declared on December 22 that, "'As we go to bed tonight, there are hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who've fled into the bush or back to their villages to get out of harm's way'" (BBC, December 22, 2013). There is dismayingly little reporting presence in most of South Sudan, especially in Jonglei, Unity State, and Upper Nile—those areas that have seen the most fighting and in which the forces of Riek Machar are strongest. 

Bor (Jonglei) and Malakal (Upper Nile) have been recaptured by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA, the army of South Sudan); however, these major towns may yet be the sites of more fighting.  Indeed, Associated Press reports today (Nairobi, December 28, 2013) that 25,000 (Lou) Nuer youth are within 30 miles of Bor and that fighting could resume at any time (this figure is likely an overstatement, but perhaps not by much).  This would put a tremendous number of civilians at acute risk.  Of this Lou Nuer "White Army" Associated Press also reports:

The White Army has threatened the central government in recent past. In 2011 the army said that the Nuer youths would fight until all the Murle—another tribe [in Jonglei]—had been killed.

An unconfirmed report from the ground has the forces of Peter Gadet, who defected to Riek, even closer—at only a few kilometers north of Bor, possibly awaiting the arrival of the "White Army."  Gadet has a well-deserved reputation as a fearsome and brutal warrior.

Two of the states involved in recent fighting—Unity and Upper Nile—are the primary oil producing regions of South Sudan.  Machar's allies control Bentiu, capital of Unity State, and defecting SPLA division commander General James Koang Chuol has declared that the oil fields of Unity have been completely shut down.  It is quite unclear whether the shutdown occurred with anything approaching the necessary technical care for such an operation; and given the wholesale exodus of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian oil workers—including those with technical expertise—it is certain that in the relatively near term, in the absence of maintenance, major damage will be done to the oil infrastructure; moreover, re-starting the flow of oil may be an extended operation.  This denies revenues to both Khartoum as well as Juba, given the transit fee arrangements and the significant amount of oil that lies in reserves north of the current North/South border.  Oil from the reserves of both South Sudan and Sudan in the Unity/South Kordofan areas use the same pipeline and infrastructure, and are equally affected by any threat to professional maintenance of this system.  Riek is also well aware of this.

So why has Riek refused to respond to offers from the Government of South Sudan (GOSS)?  These include talks "without preconditions" (December 19), the announced release of most of the detainees Riek has demanded be freed (December 27), and the offer of an "immediate ceasefire" (in a Twitter feed of December 27, the GOSS declared: "We have agreed in principle to a ceasefire to begin immediately, but our forces are prepared to defend themselves if attacked."  Riek's response?  In an interview on December 27, speaking to the BBC by satellite phone, he said "any cease-fire had to be negotiated by delegations from both sides and must be 'credible,' must 'include a way to monitor compliance,' and 'must have [established] mechanisms for monitoring.'" But all this will take a good deal of time at a critical moment; and if these requirements are true for a full and final cease-fire agreement, it is not true for an immediate military stand-down.  The government in Juba has declared that it will hold off on its offensive designed to re-take Bentiu: this halting, easily monitored, will provide a clear measure of whether the GOSS and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) are acting in good faith, provided that Riek responds in kind.  Instead, there are reliable reports of a resumed assault by Riek's forces on Bor, and my contact in Malakal indicates the SPLA there expects renewed attack.

We could have in effect something very much like the "Agreement on the Cessation of Offensive Hostilities" declared by Khartoum and the SPLA in October 2002—the event that marked the rapid de-escalation of fighting in the civil war, then in its twentieth year.  To be sure, fighting continued (as I witnessed myself in January 2003), but the de-escalation continued, leading to a more formalized cease-fire in February 2003.  It was this that enabled progress in negotiating the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

[ Troublingly, it must be said, comments by Juba's military spokesman, Philip Aguer, are indicative of either a lack of communication or confusion on the part of Juba.  Associated Press reports Aguer as saying that, "'We have not seen any sign of a cease-fire. There is no cease-fire agreed by the two sides,' an indication the planned assault on Bentiu could still take place" (Nairobi, December 27, 2013).  This ambiguity or contradiction or lack of internal communication should be addressed immediately. ]

Machar also declared to the BBC on December 27 that conditions for a truce were not yet in place.  But if not now, when?  Fighting, violence, and ethnic animosities increase every day, every hour: how can these facts, these "conditions," not dictate that whatever form of truce or cease-fire is possible be declared now?

What is Riek's "end game"?  How does he see an end to the human destruction that threatens to become utterly catastrophic?  How does he see his own future?

Politically he has no apparent allies in the international community, and it is clear from the language of the recent statement by IGAD (a consortium of East African nations, led in this case by Kenya) that there is strong support for Juba:

Addressing a special summit of the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an  east African regional body, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta urged Kiir and Machar to seize "the small window of opportunity" and start peace talks. "Let it be known that we in IGAD will not accept the unconstitutional overthrow of a duly and democratically elected government in South Sudan.

Kenyatta continued:

"The present crisis, if not contained, will produce millions of internally displaced persons and refugees and set back this region immeasurably," Kenyatta told the regional leaders. (Reuters [Juba/Nairobi], December 27, 2013)

The scenario outlined by Kenyatta is terrifyingly plausible. For its part, the African Union is taking its cues from IGAD and the UN has likely done all it can or will do by sending a very substantial new contingent of peacekeeping forces to South Sudan.  But even after secession, South Sudan remained one of Africa's largest countries—the size of France.  It will be extremely difficult to control even present violence; to respond to the needs of displaced persons and to provide security for the humanitarian organizations that are desperate to get back into the South is beyond daunting.

Mistrust of Riek by a great many Southerners has always been high, and not only because of his role in the slaughter of Dinka in his 1991 rampage toward Bor, where thousands of civilians were killed.  His signing of a wholly unworkable, expedient, and personally enriching peace agreement with the Khartoum regime in 1997 has not been forgotten, and for many that agreement defines him still as a politician.  They regard the "Khartoum Peace Agreement" of 1997 (also signed by Lam Akol) as a touchstone event, especially in light of the ensuing massive assault on civilians in the oil regions of what was then Western Upper Nile (which included what is today Unity State).  Many more, having had personal contact with Riek, have expressed a distinct uneasiness, a lack of confidence in the man's trustworthiness.

And yet in an interview with Al Jazeera (December 24) Riek repeatedly declared that he was speaking "for the people of South Sudan," that he wished for a "palace revolution" that would depose President Salva Kiir, and that his efforts were the start of a "second liberation" of South Sudan.  But what form will this "second liberation" take?  Riek denied in the interview that he was complicit in any of the terrible atrocities that have been committed, but so long as he refuses to accept an immediate cease-fire, this claim will be impossible to credit.  

A Role for Khartoum?

Again, the inevitable question is whether Riek has an "end game" amidst the present violence—or is he simply improvising, counting on a military stand-off that will compel the international community to accord him the place he wants at the negotiating table, and with such military and diplomatic equities as will enable him to strike a deal he finds acceptable?

Unfortunately, the arrangement(s) most recently suggested by Riek (see below) necessarily require Khartoum's assistance; and in rendering such help, by declaring—with Riek—that the Government of South Sudan is illegitimate, Khartoum would make even wider war all too distinct a possibility.  Khartoum's assisting Riek would be a disaster; nothing could be more destructive of the chances for negotiating the critical outstanding issues between Juba and Khartoum, most notably Abyei, which lies adjacent to Unity State (as well as Warrap and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal).  Boundary issues elsewhere would also be impossible to resolve unless Khartoum accepts the GOSS as its sole negotiating partner.  The North/South peace would be in extreme danger if any version of such collusion were to become evident.

There are as yet no clear answers or telling insights here about Riek's intentions; but the march of many thousands of Nuer youth on Bor, in the form of the infamous "White Army," suggests that Riek is willing to let his forces continue to extend the fighting.  Having "let slip the dogs of war," he has no evident intent to leash them—and "havoc" there will be.  Malakal, although retaken by the SPLA, may also be the site of a counter-attack by Riek's forces, many of them former regular members of the SPLA and a formidable military force.

What is most concerning is Riek's extraordinary statement about his sequestering of oil revenues (see below).  For this raises a deeply troubling possibility: that Riek been in serious communication, even negotiations with the regime in Khartoum, which looks with horror at the shutdown of the Unity State oil fields, with critical infrastructure left unattended by professionals in oil extraction and pumping.  The defecting commander of the SPLA 4th Division in Bentiu, General James Koang Chuol, declared on December 26 that "oil production from fields in his [Unity] state had to be halted due to lack of staff remaining at the oil field" (Sudan Tribune).  Several days earlier Malaysian oil workers reported that three well sites had already been closed, even before evacuation of all Chinese, Indian, as well as Malaysian workers.  The prolonged shutdown of Unity State oil production would be yet another severe revenue shock to an economy in the north that is already rapidly imploding.  Last week there were long lines for gasoline in Khartoum, in fear of the oil shutdown.  Two weeks before that there were long lines for bread because of an acute shortage, brought on by the inability of the Khartoum regime to purchase wheat from abroad—this for lack of foreign exchange currency (Forex); indeed, according to IMF predictions of last fall, all Khartoum's Forex reserves will be exhausted by the end of this year.  To the extent that oil and transit fees for oil from the South helped to cushion Khartoum from the full effects of its gross mismanagement of the northern economy, their precipitous loss of such revenues may simply be too much to sustain. 

Understanding this point full well, Riek and his lieutenants have floated the idea of sequestering oil revenues so that they do not reach Juba; in turn, Khartoum would presumably enjoy the same revenues as before under such an arrangement, and would thus make the regime an ally of Riek and his forces, either de facto or by formal agreement. As Riek himself declared in an interview with Sudan Tribune (London, December 23, 2013):

South Sudan's former vice-president, Riek Machar, says forces under his command will divert oil revenues accrued from the country's oil wells, days after his troops seized control of much of the new nation’s oilfields. In an exclusive interview with Sudan Tribune on Monday, Machar revealed a plan to halt oil revenue remittances to Juba. He said no money would go to the government in Juba, explaining that his group plans to divert oil revenues and deal directly with Sudan in implementing the September 2012 cooperation agreements, as they are in control of the concerned states.

In understanding why Khartoum might agree to such a dangerous arrangement we must remember just how desperate the economic situation is in (northern) Sudan, which now rightly fears for its very survival.  With inflation poised to skyrocket even further (the real, as opposed to "official," rate is already well above 50 percent), high unemployment and under-employment, a national currency in free-fall, conspicuous and widespread corruption, and too many sons coming back in body bags, the angry demonstrations of September and October could reappear at any time, as economic hardships only grow.  A "solution"—one that might well appeal to those elements in the regime that continue to think the CPA gave away too much to the South—would be a military intervention on Riek's behalf in Unity State.  The point would be to seize the most productive oil regions in northern Unity, in a military alliance with Riek's forces, and subsequently make a deal on governance and revenue-sharing. 

Riek will certainly feel free to make a better offer than Khartoum now receives from Juba. His forces are probably strongest in Unity, where his own Nuer people are the largest ethnic group.  But Machar clearly includes Upper Nile (as well as Jonglei) in his plans.  And what are the assurances that this revenue will not simply be appropriated by Riek in his return to the existence of a pampered, excessively remunerated warlord?  "'We will establish an extra account to which the oil revenues will be remitted for the economic interest of the people of South Sudan'" (Sudan Tribune, December 23).  This is simply preposterous.

In assessing what Khartoum makes of this overture—and it may be this deliberation that prevents Riek from committing to a ceasefire—it is important to realize that the most militaristic and "anti-South" elements predominate in the regime, especially on decisions about war and peace (it was this security cabal that demanded President Omar al-Bashir renege on the agreement of June 2011 to negotiate a peace in South Kordofan, an agreement signed by senior regime official Nafie Ali Nafie).  Regard for international opinion among these brutal men is minimal.

So even as we may be sure that the international community will vehemently condemn the regime if it should make an arrangement with Riek in order to secure continued oil revenues (under cover of providing "regional protection"), this is not likely to make much difference.  The regime has endured decades of opprobrium without appropriate consequences for its war-making and massive atrocity crimes. These  génocidaires believe there is nothing to worry about so long as they retain a monopoly on national wealth and power, both of which are threatened by an economic collapse whose scale they seem not fully to comprehend. 

Perhaps Riek's confidence that an agreement with Khartoum could somehow be fashioned is wholly factitious.  But such a scheme does represent a way that Riek might survive long enough to watch as fighting continues in South Sudan, weakening the country sufficiently that his political and military equities become adequate to make him a "peace broker," thereby ensuring himself a central role in any new government replacing that of Salva Kiir.

This is all hypothetical at the moment.  What is not hypothetical is that there is no clear reason for Riek's failure to respond to Salva's offer of "unconditional talks" (Riek simply proceeded to declare his own "condition," the release of all political detainees arrested in the wake of events of December 15).  What is not hypothetical is that Riek's explanation of why he won't commit to a truce is expedient, and deliberately ignores the ways in which the first steps towards a cease-fire might be taken immediately.  The consequence of this failure to commit except in the vaguest terms to a cease-fire makes it likely that the SPLA offensive against Bentiu may soon resume—and it will be a terribly bloody confrontation, for both soldiers and civilians (see IRIN assessment of humanitarian prospects for South Sudan, December 27).  Judging by what we have seen of the aftermath of the first round of fighting in Bor, fighting in Bentiu will be even more terribly destructive, and many tens of thousands will be killed or displaced (Agence France-Presse [Juba/Bor], December 25, 2013) (Reuters [Juba], December 28).  Toby Lanzer, the senior UN humanitarian coordinator for South, declared on December 24 that:

"I think it's undeniable at this stage that there must have been thousands of people who have lost their lives. When I've looked at the hospitals in key towns and I've looked at the hospitals in the capital itself, the range of injuries, this is no longer a situation where we can merely say it's hundreds of people who've lost their lives." Mr Lanzer also said that the number of people seeking shelter from the fighting was "tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands." (BBC, December 24, 2013) (all emphases in quotations have been added)

The official UN count of displaced persons—"more than 120,000"—almost certainly understates, quite significantly, the number of people who have been forced from their homes by violence.  Again, on December 22 the UN's Lanzer declared that, "'As we go to bed tonight, there are hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who've fled into the bush or back to their villages to get out of harm's way'" (BBC, December 22, 2013).  Daniel Howden, writing in The Guardian (December 23, 2013) reports:

A veteran aid worker, who has been assessing the scale and nature of the killings from sources nationwide, said the real figure was "in the tens of thousands." On Monday, Machar claimed his forces had gained control of all the major oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile states.

What is all too real is Riek's declaration that he "represents the people of South Sudan," and that they would be best served by a "palace revolution" that removes Salva Kiir. 

But there is no military solution to the rapidly growing human catastrophe in South Sudan; only a military stand-down will create the possibility of halting the spread of ethnic violence, and it may already be too late.  The longer the fighting continues, the more difficult peace becomes and the more catastrophic the consequences for civilians of all ethnicities.  To be sure, we simply don't know enough about conditions in too many locations, especially in Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity—the three states in which Riek's forces are strongest.  But surmising from what has already occurred at Bor, Akobo, and Malakal, we should assume the worst.

What is your "end game," Riek Machar?  How do you plan to stop the military violence?  Why won't you commit to a cessation of offensive hostilities agreement?  Why are you speaking of the sequestering of oil revenues?  And instead of putting a condition on negotiations, with perhaps other to follow, why won't you accept Salva Kiir's offer of immediate and "unconditional" negotiations?  Why won't you acknowledge the significance of the GOSS announcement that it is releasing eight of the eleven detainees?  Why won't you work urgently to halt the advance of the "White Army" on Bor, an advance that promises to issue in extremely bloody fighting and guarantees subsequent fighting in Bentiu?

If there are no answers soon, South Sudan may well disintegrate, humanitarians will be unable to assist civilians in need, and ongoing ethnic violence may define whole regions of what is now South Sudan.

[NB: This analysis does not presume to assess the performance of Salva Kiir as president of the GOSS or the nature of political dissatisfaction within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.  The focus here is squarely on the very recent actions and statements of Riek Machar and their likely consequences for South Sudan.  A subsequent analysis will attempt to move back in time in an attempt to survey political discontent in this very new country.  The Brookings Institution offers a very useful time-line ("A Timeline of Brookings Expert Commentary on South Sudan," December 27, 2013.]

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: www.CompromisingWithEvil.org

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