South Sudan : the war spreads as the “peace talks” run around in circles

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While unimaginative foreigners kept lazily repeating “ethnic war ! ethnic war !” , the exact opposite was happening : the ethnic groups were cracking up and taking sides politically . On Friday January 10th Salva’s troops took Bentiu from the rebel 4th division . But what were those troops ? Not SPLA but an assortment of SSLM former rebels and JEM northern rebels , blackmailed by Museveni into joining Salva under the threat of seeing their supply lines to Uganda cut off .

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Since we wrote our last posting after the December 27th IGAD meeting in Nairobi , the Addis Abeba peace talks have started and they have reached a climactic achievement : they finalized their agenda . It was quite a job to do that . But once it was done , it was discovered to be unworkable . Why ? Because the agenda had two basic items : the freeing of the political detainees in Juba and the cessation of hostilities . And Riak Machar insisted that the second item was a prerequisite for the discussion of the first one . And this meant no go because Salva did not want to free the detainees . When the international community (particularly the United States) insisted that this should not stop the discussions on cessation of hostilities , Riak simply dismissed the demand . First through his delegation in Addis and then later (Saturday January 11th) in person when all the envoys came to see him in the bush in the hope that he would prove more amenable face-to-face .

So , if the Addis Ababa talks have proved so far fruitless , what did happen ? War . And more war . At first the fighting centred on Bor and its immediate surroundings . The town changed hands three times and when it finally stayed under the control of Peter Gadiet’s 8th division , the Salva forces launched futile assault after futile assault to take it back. They went at it four times (once with the Ugandans in reinforcement) and they got defeated four times . Total losses are difficult to compute but they should be around three to four thousand men for both sides . The Ugandans tried to use their splendid new Sukhoi Su-30 but these highly sophisticated machines proved unequal to the task (they are too fast and not properly outfitted for attacking ground troops) and their bombing raids did not cause more than a few casualties.

In the meantime , as Salva Kiir was trying to rally troops from the four corners of the country , he brought men from various Equatoria garrisons towards the capital , which he felt could come under attack . These troops were at first unsure of what was expected from them . But when they did find out , many mutinied , in Morobo , in Yeï and on the road coming from Yambio , in Maridi . The mutineers quickly took control of the various Equatorian towns while the veteran politician Alfred Lado Gore went around , recruiting men from various tribes (Bari , Madi , Pojulu) to start a guerrilla group that could help Riak from the South . Slowly these various elements started to move towards Juba . Then on Friday January 10th Salva’s troops took Bentiu from the rebel 4th division . But what were those troops ? Not SPLA but an assortment of SSLM former rebels and JEM northern rebels , blackmailed by Museveni into joining Salva under the threat of seeing their supply lines to Uganda cut off . These developments created in fact  an interesting situation . While unimaginative foreigners kept lazily repeating “ethnic war ! ethnic war !” , the exact opposite was happening : the ethnic groups were cracking up and taking sides politically . Those SSLM who beat back Riak’s troops in Bentiu were Nuer , exactly like Riak’s own .

And in Equatoria while Alfred Lado Gore was recruiting his anti-Salva militia , Central Equatoria Governor Martin Kenyi was recruiting another pro-Salva militia among his Mundari tribesmen . Yes , there are some ethnic cleavages in all this (in Juba , the Dinka are still killing the Nuer on the instalment plan) ; but the Nuer who fought each other in Bentiu not only were all Nuer , they even belonged to the same Nuer sub-group (the Bul) . The personality of commanders and the options of local chiefs played a big role in people taking sides . But then also so did the personal feelings about what had actually gone on politically over not only the last six months , but since the 2005 peace agreement . Primitive tribal fighting ? Yes , in a way . Sharp political choices ? That too , if you want to look for it . Take your pick . Your choice might tell more about who you are and where you think Africa is going than about the South Sudan political situation .

In the meantime , the oil production in the South is shrinking by at least 40% , perhaps more . Bad news for both Khartoum and Juba who are cash strapped . As for Riak who started with very little money , this does not make any difference . He takes all his military supplies from the Juba troops and hopes for the best .

IGAD is still trying to find a leg on which to stand . The Museveni ultimatum of December 27th is now a thing of the past and no clear position has replaced it . Seyoum Mesfin supplies roughly the same type of article that Ambassador Booth has already put on the market : immediate negotiations for the cessation of hostilities without any freedom for the political prisoners . Riak’s answer to both proponents is equally negative . And Salva remains frozen on his position too . Everybody is waiting for the fire next time .

 

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