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What the Hell Is Going On in South Sudan?

Has Juba, the country's capital, witnessed a botched coup, or something else?
December 18, 2013, 9:21pm

SPLA soldiers in Juba today

As dusk settled over Juba on Tuesday, citizens of the South Sudanese capital were hoping that the air would not be filled with gunfire for the third night in a row. Violence between rival army factions there is threatening to spread to other parts of the world's newest country.

Months of tension within the country's ruling party – the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM – spilled over into the national army late on Sunday night. The sounds of a serious gun fight rang out from the direction of the main military barracks in Juba and further exchanges first thing on Monday confirmed this wasn't an accidental munitions explosion or another case of drunken soldiers brawling.

As you'd expect, rumours started to fly around town and President Salva Kiir chose to ditch his trademark cowboy hat for full military regalia to give a press conference. Kiir alleged that renegade soldiers were trying to seize power, announcing that there'd been a split in the presidential guard between those loyal to him and others whose allegiances lie with his former deputy, Riek Machar. Key military installations in Jonglei State’s Bor county were attacked, forcing soldiers loyal to the President and his fledgling government to flee.

President Kirr addresses a press conference on Monday (photo via)

An aid worker, who didn't wish to be named, told me by email that though tensions had calmed later on Monday, fighting erupted again early Tuesday morning. With phone lines only working intermittently, those with internet access have relied on social media for information.

Casualty figures, even from the government, vary considerably. The Minister of Information said on Tuesday that 72 soldiers had died, whereas Kiir’s spokesperson put the figure at over 40, denying there had been any civilian casualties. Today the reported death toll rose, with two hospitals counting between 400 and 500 dead and 800 wounded. These figures come from the UN.

The Government of South Sudan took to its official Twitter account today to announce that "ten people have been arrested in connection with failed coup attempt", but that Machar and others are still "at large".

What triggered Sunday’s fighting is still a matter of dispute. Machar, whose compound came under fire from the army on Tuesday, has categorically denied any involvement in the alleged coup, saying it was another undemocratic attempt by Kiir to rid himself of political critics in the party and government. There was no coup, Kirr's critics say, but a spontaneous fight, which broke out when some officers refused orders to arrest the President's political opponents. By Tuesday evening, it seemed as though Kiir had got his wish. More than ten senior SPLM members – including six former ministers and the party’s suspended Secretary General – were in custody.

South Sudan’s army spokesperson, Philip Aguer insisted on Tuesday that the “security services have evidence” that the fighting constituted a coup, adding that “the attempt to occupy the headquarters of the presidential guard” could also be interpreted as such. “This is not a tribal war,” he told me, in response to reports that some of the fighting had split according to whether the soldiers were members of Kiir’s Dinka or Machar’s Nuer ethnic groups.

Frightened civilians flee the fighting

However, by describing Machar as a “prophet of doom” and insisting that he “will not allow the incidents of 1991 to repeat themselves”, Kiir has evocatively reminded South Sudanese people of perhaps the worst violence between the Dinka and the Nuer during the civil war. Eight years into the SPLA’s two-decade conflict with the Sudanese government, Machar attempted to oust Kiir’s predecessor – the late John Garang. But his accession bid failed to gather momentum and he only managed to convince fellow Nuer leaders and some others to join his faction. Although the differences between the two groups were originally political, the fighting on the ground took on an ethnic dimension, most notably with the 1991 "Bor massacre", where Dinka civilians were killed in an attack by Machar’s splinter group.

Machar rejoined the SPLA in 2002 after a dalliance with the Khartoum government – the government that, at the time, ruled all of Sudan – a move that few of his political opponents have forgiven him for. In August 2011, days after South Sudan’s independence, Machar apologised for the now infamous attack on Bor at a private meeting at the house of Garang’s widow, Rebecca.

Over the last two years, Rebecca has become one of Kiir’s fiercest critics, positioning herself with Machar and the SPLM’s other internal discontents, who blame Kiir for taking the young nation in the wrong direction. By Tuesday evening, she was one of the few alleged ringleaders who had not been detained but was effectively under house arrest, with her home in Juba surrounded by soldiers.

Echoing his mother's sentiments, Mabior Garang has taken to Facebook to berate Kiir’s “inside job” which he said was “designed to foment tribal divisions”. The political prisoners are “senior SPLM members that represent all the regions of the republic of South Sudan. They are not Nuer politicians as Salva Kiir’s propaganda is trying to depict,” he wrote.

President Kiir in his non-military clothes while meeting a Kuwaiti dignitary last month (photo via)

Sudan expert Sara Pantuliano assured me that Machar instigating the current crisis would be “very uncharacteristic of how he operates”, especially given his focus on acquiring the SPLM chairmanship in the hope that he may be the party’s preferred candidate for the 2015 elections. “Salva Kiir benefits from calling this a coup but it looks more like spontaneous skirmishes within the presidential guard which were not brought under control and then escalated,” Pantuliano said. Any type of antagonism on the President's part would be a disappointment to those South Sudanese who had hoped that Kiir could reconcile South Sudan's political and ethnic groups. Pantuliano notes that Kiir has become "a very different political leader" in the last year, suggesting that this could be because his advisors have “isolated him from the reality of the country”.

While Kiir was in South Africa attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral last week, the security services confiscated copies of a critical newspaper and arrested its editor. As well as attacks on the press, Kiir’s opponents say he has failed to adequately address corruption, insecurity, human rights abuses and other issues of discontent.

The human cost of this crisis is already high, with 16,000 people seeking shelter in UN compounds in Juba. Pantuliano, who heads the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group, told me that the she was very concerned the situation could deteriorate further. Countries with longstanding engagement in South Sudan now need to help initiate a dialogue, she argued, as it is unclear whether national forces are in a position to do so. She also questioned why – considering the UN's strong chapter VII mandate to protect civilians in South Sudan – peacekeepers were not being deployed on the streets of Juba to maintain order. The head of the UN mission, Hilde Johnson, has called for restraint and asked for all parties to the dispute to work for unity.

The URL of this article was changed at 9PM on 18/12/13 due to an inaccuracy.

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Previously from South Sudan:

It Was an Unhappy Second Birthday for the Youngest Country on Earth