For the next two months, ReadCONTRA founder Rajiv Golla will be living in Juba, South Sudan, working with the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, local journalists, and a number of local politicians, professors, and community leaders to paint a picture of the Third South Sudanese Civil War. This is the seventh in a series of articles about his travels.
Nichola arrived this morning in a white pickup truck piloted by James, the fasting Muslim Internews driver. We sped through morning Juba traffic as best we could to make our appointment with Dr. Lam Akol.
Dr. Lam, whose doctorate was in chemical engineering, served as the first South Sudanese Secretary of Foreign Affairs under a pre-referendum Sudan. He was also one of the integral members of the SPLA in its early days. A colleague of Dr. John Garang’s, he fought alongside the Big Man himself, as well as Dr. Riek Machar and Lt. Gen. Salva Kiir, the current rebel and government leaders of South Sudan. Disenchanted with the leadership of Dr. Garang, his outdated policy goal of a united Sudan, and increasing human rights abuses within the SPLA, Dr. Lam along with Dr. Riek conspired to splinter from the SPLA and form their own military. Spurred along by Dr. Riek’s wife, a British aid worker named Emma McClune, they finally split in 1991 with the Nasir agreement which cited reasons for their betrayal of the SPLA and announced the formation of the SPLA-Unity. South Sudanese parties have since always had difficulty divorcing themselves from the SPLA name and as such all parties, despite their political alignment are preceded with the SPLA (The SPLA-N in the North fighting against Sudanese forces in the Nuba and Kordofan regions, the SPLM-DC under Dr. Lam’s current leadership and the only opposition party within the congress, the SPLA-IO (in opposition) led by Dr. Riek currently fighting SPLA-Juba led by Kiir’s forces in the north of South Sudan).d
Dr. Riek represented the Nuer ethnicity, which was the second largest group in the south after the Dinka who were represented by Dr. Garang. Dr. Lam came from the Shilluk ethnicity, the third largest in South Sudan but about 10 times smaller than either the Dinka or Nuer. He recognized the need for Shilluk representation in government and the threat posed by an ethnically dominated government and rallied Shilluk civilians and military leaders to stand behind Riek, who gave the Shilluk leverage in the political climate of South Sudan. The SPLA-Unity represented at once the hope South Sudan showed in reform and the despair it exhibited in seemingly endless infighting. Rather than fight against the common enemy of the Sudanese north, the two SPLA parties fought each other with an increasingly bitter Garang refusing to give an inch of ground to the rebel faction. This struggle finally lost out to the same mindless ethnic violence that drove Dr. Riek from the SPLA. In 1991, a massacre was carried out by SPLA-Unity that saw the slaughter of thousands of Dinka civilians in a political maneuver meant to undermine Garang’s leadership. But in reality, this planted the seeds—and the bone of South Sudanese tradition that lay between warring families— for the current ethnic strife today.
When talking to pro-government actors and supporters, 1991 is the most often cited reason for the Nuer targeting. When talking to pro-rebel/opposition supporters, many deny the events of 1991 or shift the blame back to Dr. Garang’s camp. Regardless, 1991 was a watershed of South Sudanese politics and spelled the end of South Sudanese support for the Unity movement. Riek was forced to go to Khartoum, the enemy of the South, to seek funds and was given a deal with Omar al-Bashir in 1997 for the self determination of South Sudan, one of Unity’s founding principles and the antithesis of what John Garang was trying to accomplish. Once the deal was signed, Riek reached out to Garang to achieve peace and unify the groups but Garang refused. The animosity did not last long however and when al-Bashir violated the terms of his agreement, as he is wont to do with most of his peace deals, Riek went back to Garang’s SPLA, earning the distrust of the SPLA’s second in command, Salva Kiir.
The issue festered for years and despite Dr. Riek’s teary public apology in the inaugural year South Sudanese state, 1991 remained unresolved and served as the launching pad for the ethnic mobilization of troops when war broke out in 2013. President Kiir and his Minister of Defense, Paul Malong Awan, began recruiting and training 15,000 Dinka youth near his farmland in Leer, in the state of Western Bahr Al-Ghazal, months prior as a preemptive offense against possible aggression that began to boil with Dr. Riek’s announcement that he would run for president in 2015 and his subsequent dismissal by President Kiir.
And it was through this lens that Dr. Lam Akol saw the current conflict. When I asked about the ethnic component and the sort of solution he saw to the conflict, he shared the level-headed view of most his colleagues in academia: the conflict was nothing more than power struggle and political battle fought along ethnic lines.
The seemingly unending peace talks in Addis Ababa between the opposition and government are based around the power allocated to their respective leaders rather than ending the needless bloodshed and humanitarian strife.
“It would not take 18 months to stop the conflict otherwise.”
And to seek a military solution seems just as pointless. Neither military is well equipped enough to make effective gains and consolidate military success. The central city of Malakal has changed hands 10 times since the beginning of the conflict a year and a half ago. Malakal is one of the few urban centers in South Sudan and houses one of three government hospitals in the country. As it stands today, Malakal is no more developed than the bush its surrounded by. All infrastructures have been completely destroyed by constant bombardment. South Sudan showed incredible promise as an investment site and most of the high rises and sophisticated structures in Juba rose up in just three years, from 2010 to 2013. The outbreak of violence essentially ended all forms of development in the city and the country will regress and increase dependency on foreign aid and economies until a strong peace is established. The entire country’s future seems to be hinged on the power struggle of just two men, each pulling a fragile nation in different direction and fraying its fabric. As Dr. Lam Akol put it, “We have been conscious of our common enemy, but we have never been conscious of our common destiny.”