Who's behind South Sudan's return to fighting, if it isn't Kiir or Machar?

Heavy fighting in the South Sudanese capital of Juba over the past few days has led to hundreds of deaths and the suggestion that the country is “back to war”. The question on everyone’s lips has been: who is behind the violence?

This question is all the more curious given that President Salva Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar have both seemed incapable of explaining what’s happening. In fact, the leaders of the main rival factions in the recent civil war were together for a meeting when one of the episodes of gunfire occurred.

Missing from the meeting, however, was the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) chief of general staff. The former governor of Northern Bahr El Ghazal state, Paul Malong, is a figure who many see as the true power behind the Salva Kiir’s presidential throne.

The power behind the throne

I have written about Malong and Kiir’s relationship before. And I have come to the unsurprising conclusion, as have many South Sudanese, that Malong is the one who holds the real power.

Malong established his authority over Northern Bahr El Ghazal and the SPLA during the civil war that spanned from 1983 to 2005. In this period, Malong dominated the local war economy and used its proceeds to cement strategic allegiances. He did this through the practice of large-scale polygamy and by godfathering his supporters’ marriages, a practice shared by other Nuer commanders in Unity state, for example.

One of Malong’s supporters was Salva Kiir. Malong provided financial support after Kiir fell out with then SPLA leader John Garang in 2004. One illustration of Malong’s influence is that he recently offered to pay for the bride wealth for Kiir’s new wife. That role is traditionally taken up by a groom’s father and his close and extended kin. In 2005, after Garang’s death, Kiir took over as vice-president of Sudan. And in 2008, Malong was appointed state governor of his home area of Northern Bahr El Ghazal.

In the following few years, as episodes of fighting with Sudanese forces continued, Malong managed to convince Kiir of the need to create a militia that would be loyal to them both. He began recruiting and training men from Kiir’s home state of Warrap, but the majority were from Northern Bahr El Ghazal.

Malong was trying to position himself as the first leader from Northern Bahr El Ghazal with national stature. The militia he led came to be known as Mathiang Anyoor, meaning “brown caterpillar” in Dinka. But it was also known as Dot ku Beny or Gel-Beny or “rescue the president”.

Lethal power and lame ducks

In December 2013, war broke out in now-independent South Sudan. It began as a political battle between President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Vice-President Machar, an ethnic Nuer. Much of the violence soon became codified along these ethnic lines despite the fact that military alliances did not always follow strict lines.

As the fighting progressed, Malong – with the help of the Mathiang Anyoor – organised the massacre of thousands of ethnic Nuer in Juba. Soon after, he was promoted to chief of general staff of the SPLA and he came to dominate the entire SPLA system of corruption. The proceeds were invested strategically to sustain military allegiances, both within and outside the SPLA.

Since then, Malong has continued to recruit young men in what has become known as the “new” Mathiang Anyoor. And both “new” and “old” Mathiang Anyoor have been used to reinforce the SPLA in Upper Nile, Unity and Jonglei states. But Malong’s influence goes even further. The Dinka commando units that have wrought havoc on Western and Central Equatoria states since October 2015 – despite the signing of a peace agreement between Kiir and Machar in August 2015 – also reportedly answer to Malong.

It is understood that the power he commands has led to rifts with Minister of Defence Kuol Manyang. In contrast to Malong, the influence of South Sudan’s official main leaders appears to be weak. The recent fighting in Juba and Kiir’s apparent ignorance of what was happening reveals his lack of control over the SPLA. And it is increasingly clear that the president has lost a great deal of credibility and power amidst rumours of alcoholism and health issues.

If Kiir is a lame duck, the same might be said – albeit to a lesser extent – of Riek Machar. The first vice-president never seemed to control his troops and never had as much military gravitas as his peers in the so-called SPLM-In-Opposition (IO). Furthermore, he has made the grave mistake of dismissing IO’s most experienced generals in the past year.

International powers to blame, too

With fighting returning to South Sudan despite an internationally brokered peace agreement less than a year ago, the international community must also take some responsibility:

Juba’s demilitarisation took the form of a 25km radius around the city. Why was the SPLA allowed to encircle the capital while blocking possible escape routes for IO?

And why was a stronger stance not taken regarding the fact that SPLA soldiers had clearly removed their uniforms but remained inside Juba?

Why was the national security body allowed to expand exponentially over the past few months without action?

If anything, the recent violence in Juba has shown how easy it is for the SPLA to breach security arrangements. The heavy fighting on July 10 and 11 suggest that the situation might become even worse than when civil war began in December 2013. Fighting engulfed different parts of the city. Rocket-propelled grenades were fired. Civilian houses were shelled. Government helicopter gunships circled Juba’s skies. And United Nations (UN) premises were hit.

The Juba bridge was also closed off and Machar’s troops were unlikely to back down since they knew there was no way out, especially with Malong’s commando units able to attack them easily from their bases in Central Equatoria. Machar’s troops and SPLA forces were fighting right outside UN premises and reports emerged that Nuer generals, who had remained allied to the SPLA but were now being targeted by SPLA soldiers, were asking for shelter inside the UN compound.

Real threat for unarmed civilians

Reports also emerged that both sides had started inflicting reprisals on civilians. On the evening of July 11, Kiir and Machar declared a ceasefire. The question throughout the fighting – still valid should the war in Juba resume – has been: who will protect the civilians?

Many believe that Malong is the one behind the recent events and point to the fact that on July 8, SPLA troops around J1, the presidential palace, were reinforced from both the area surrounding Juba and from Luri, a cattle camp where Mathiang Anyoor recruits stayed before the 2013 Juba massacre.

Malong did make a statement on July 9 saying the situation in Juba was under control. But this was done through an intermediary and it was not clear where the man himself was. At any rate, it is difficult to imagine the SPLA could have decimated Machar’s bodyguards on July 8 without the top orders coming from its chief of general staff.

There are rumours that Malong intended to wreak havoc and maybe even take control of Juba. He may also split from Kiir, but either way he would retain control over his Dinka militias, who are spread all over the Equatorias, as well as over some of the Bul Nuer fighters, who are based in Unity state and have close ties with Khartoum.

Malong will also continue cultivating his popularity with Dinka communities who do not want to relinquish their desire for their own state, especially after Kiir opened a Pandora’s box with his unilateral decree in October 2015 to replace South Sudan’s ten states with 28.

Depending on whether or not the ceasefire holds, and on who is officially blamed for the recent fighting, Malong may open up a new front, most likely from Northern Bahr El Ghazal. If such a war were to begin, Kiir might break with Malong to save himself and be forced to mend fences with Machar’s IO as well as other victimised ethnic groups.

Much remains uncertain. But the future of South Sudan looks grim – and not just in Juba. Other state capitals have seen troop movements and even some fighting.

Just five years after independence, and less than one year after a peace agreement was signed, a new phase of South Sudan’s civil war seems to have begun.
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