South Sudan’s Militia Melodrama

Yesterday, Al-Jazeera reported a “mass defection” of Sudanese troops to South Sudan after their refusal to attack the Kadar oilfield in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state over the weekend. According to Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) spokesperson Colonel Philip Aguer Panyang, they defected with “full equipment, ten vehicles, seven mounted with heavy machine guns including 14 heavy machines guns.” Aside from pointing out that 200 soldiers does not a mass defection make, I thought I’d speculate on who these guys might be and what the implications of this development are.

Who are they?

Based on the scarce media reports I’ve been able to find, these 200 soldiers were southerners under the command of Major General James Duit Yiech that crossed into Upper Nile State from Sudan over the weekend. Al-Jazeera reports that they defected from the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), while Sudan Tribune and Radio Miraya report that they were militia members sent by Khartoum to attack South Sudan. There has also been a Joint Statement released by the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF), National Democratic Front (NDF), South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) and the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) stating that these forces were southern militia members that defected to the SPLA due to a disagreement over MG Yiech’s forced retirement and replacement by a younger officer. The statement also accused the SPLA of manipulating the circumstances of his defection and spreading lies about these militias receiving support from Khartoum.

If these forces were indeed anti-Government of South Sudan militias, then their defection this weekend is a slight departure from the norm. Based on my understanding of South Sudan’s approach to militias, militia leaders will come in from the field if they fall out with other field commanders (which may have happened with MG Yiech) to see if they can negotiate beneficial integration deals, including money, promotions, food for the men under their command, and positions in the government and military. Militia leaders also tend to spend months negotiating the terms of amnesty and integration into the SPLA – especially when it comes to issues of promotions and salaries. They normally reach an agreement on these issues well before they bring their men and arms in from the field. This case, however, seemed to be an impromptu defection, which leads me to suspect that video footage of the forces crossing over the border from Sudan into South Sudan and the SPLA’s subsequent statements on the matter are being used to turn this seemingly trivial defection into propaganda that gives the impression of Khartoum’s weakness.

What does this mean?

Regardless of who these forces actually are, the injection of these forces into Upper Nile state could exacerbate instability in that region. Whether or not they were SAF or southern militia members, they were accustomed to receiving arms, food, and other supplies from somewhere and will be seeking out ways to sustain themselves. This means that the SPLA will have to rapidly integrate them (doubtful, given budget constraints and the various other militias that have been waiting in the integration queue for months) or these forces will have to live off the land – by which I mean prey on the local population. Alternatively, if these forces are not integrated, but allowed to act as southern proxies in the cross-border region, can they be trusted to fight on behalf of Juba and fall under SPLA command and control?

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