The one where the SPLA accidentally downs an UNMISS helicopter…

I have developed a habit for blaming South Sudan for my inability to get anything on my “To Do” list done. That appears to be the case again today.

News broke this morning that the SPLA had allegedly shot down a UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Mi-8 helicopter that had been conducting a reconnaissance mission near Likuangole in Jonglei state. The ensuing crash killed 4 Russian crew on board.

Those who follow security issues in this part of Africa will know that Jonglei is an area of South Sudan that has been afflicted by:

  • violence between the Dinka, Lou Nuer, and Murle, most recently detailed in the June 2012 UNMISS report “Incidents of Inter-Communal Violence in Jonglei State”;
  • proliferation in small arms and light weapons (SALW) due to the porous border with Ethiopia and the inability of the security forces to protect the population from said violence; and
  • a spate of militia violence, most recently perpetrated primarily by David Yau Yau, who has been in a state of off-and-on rebellion since his unsuccessful bid for the Gumuruk-Boma seat in the Jonglei State assembly. (For additional information on Yau Yau’s rebellion, you must read Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment’s brief on him, updated earlier this week).

Initial reports on the helicopter incident were hazy, with people like myself speculating that:

  1. It would be illogical for South Sudan to deliberately target a UN helicopter, given the role the UN tries to play as a security guarantor against South Sudan’s security threats. Yes, relations between the government and the UN mission have been challenging from time to time (i.e., the government’s response to the June 2012 report on Jonglei), but I would not describe relations between them as hostile. Therefore, this must have been an accident. OR
  2. It would be more likely that non-SPLA armed groups – perhaps Yau Yau’s men or local communities resisting the SPLA’s forcible, and often uneven disarmament campaigns – were responsible for shooting down the helicopter. The UN was supporting disarmament in this region, and although they differed with South Sudan’s security forces on the means, both sought to neutralize the threats posed by militias and armed civilians.

It has since been confirmed that the SPLA was indeed responsible for the incident, believing the helicopter was of Sudanese origin and sent to resupply Yau Yau’s forces. According to SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer, the SPLA was not aware that an UNMISS aircraft would be in the area. When they requested information from the mission, the UN was allegedly not forthcoming until it was too late.

While the incident is still under investigation, I would be quite surprised if it was revealed that the SPLA intentionally downed an UNMISS helicopter. Say what you want about the Government of South Sudan’s governance and decision-making, but it’s not a rogue nation. My initial conclusion, therefore, is that this was an unfortunate accident that underscores three things about South Sudan’s security forces:

  1. The SPLA is not known for having good command-and-control – especially when forward deployed. An UNMISS inquiry of the crash may reveal that mid- or low-ranking soldiers fired without receiving an order from their commanding officer. Another possibility is that there may have been too many commanding officers there, and this may have obscured what the appropriate response to seeing the helicopter should have been. I mention the “too many commanding officers” theory because rank harmonization has been one of the challenges that has come with integrating non-statutory groups that were formerly anti-SPLA into the SPLA.
  2. On occasion, the South Sudan’s security forces do not respond to security incidents with appropriate rules of engagement. One only need look across to the police‘s (and possibly the military’s) heavy-handed response to the recent protests in Wau, the capital of Western Bahr al-Ghazal state. Thus, it is not altogether surprising that the SPLA’s response to the UNMISS helicopter was to shoot first and ascertain the threat later.
  3. In addition to flawed C2, and inappropriate ROE, lack of training may have been a factor. On one hand, you could argue that the UN has white helicopters with the letters “UN” clearly marking it, and they have been present in Sudan/South Sudan since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. On the other hand (and I don’t favor this argument, but am just throwing it out there), literacy may have been an issue. According to data compiled by Richard Rands, “up to 90 per cent of the ranks are illiterate, as are at least 70 per cent of the officers.” Again, I would presume most SPLA should be able to ID a UN helicopter, so perhaps the UNMISS investigation will conclude that the helicopter was shot down before the SPLA could properly see it to identify it as friendly and not hostile.

Anyway, that’s what I have so far, but I’m curious to see what the result of the UNMISS investigation will be, and how this incident could impact UNMISS operations in South Sudan.

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