Earlier this week, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir reshuffled officers within the SPLA. According to some of the people I spoke with when I was in Juba in August, this has been in the works for several months and was actually expected since last fall. They suspected that the next round of retirements and promotions would be postponed so as not to create discord within the SPLA while negotiations with Sudan over oil transport fees and security arrangements were still at a delicate stage. That said, even though officer reshuffling is a “normal” process, it’s still a potential trigger for armed group violence. Here’s why:
Those familiar with South Sudan’s civil war era and post-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) challenges know that the present-day SPLA is comprised of a mix of longtime SPLA loyalists as well as soldiers who fought the SPLA during the civil war and/or during the 2010-2011 rebellions. The significance of the SPLA’s makeup is that rank harmonization tends to be a contentious issue when non-SPLA forces are being integrated into the SPLA. In instances of post-conflict military integration, you usually end up with a top-heavy force, which means you have too many (expensive) generals, too many people in decision-making positions, and not enough positions to go around. This is a problem not only for efforts to “right-size” the SPLA by reducing its parade from 210K+ to 120K by 2017 per Objective Force 2017, but also for South Sudan to be able to spend its military budget on training and equipment, for example, rather than on officer salaries. Where this process of retirements and promotions gets contentions depends on which SPLA officers were affected by this round of reshuffling and how they’ve fared. (For greater detail on the names of officers affected and what positions they’ve been moved to/from, see this article in New Sudan Vision, courtesy of Sahel Blog’s post).
Specifically, in order to determine what the promotions and retirements mean, one would need to examine the following factors:
- What’s the ethnic background of the officers who were retired / promoted?
- What’s their professional background?
- Are they longtime SPLA loyalists?
- Did they fight against the SPLA during the war and integrate into the SPLA after the Juba Declaration?
- Did they participate in the 2010-2011 rebellions and subsequently (re)integrate into the SPLA?
- Who has gained or lost decision-making authority in their new positions?
These issues are important to watch because they demonstrate the balance of power within the SPLA and give us a sense of what grievances might cause officers to defect from the SPLA and start their own armed group movements in the future. To better understand how these factors could make armed group violence more likely, let’s take a closer look at our favorite repeat defector Peter Gadet. Peter Gadet was a member of several Khartoum-supported anti-SPLA militias during the civil war, but integrated into the SPLA as a Major General following the 2006 Juba Declaration. Gadet was Commander of Air Defense at SPLA General Headquarters in Juba, but during the October 2010 officer reshuffling, Gadet was assigned to be Deputy Commander of the 3rd Division in Northern Bahr al-Ghazal. According to a Sudan HSBA report, “When it became clear that powerful former militia leaders had been overlooked for promotion while lower-ranking, mainly Dinka, officers were given higher ranks, Gadet (a Bul Nuer) and others became concerned… (Gadet) reportedly viewed this position as below his station and resented serving as deputy to a Dinka division commander. While George Athor used what he claimed was his unfair defeat in the polls as a pretext for rebellion, Gadet’s motivation (to defect from the SPLA in the spring of 2011) thus likely stemmed from frustration with his position within the SPLA.”
Fortunately (or unfortunately?) Gadet has not been affected by this round of reshuffling, and his most recent rebellion is has been on hiatus for over a year since his fall 2011 reintegration into the SPLA. But you see my point – that in some cases, reshuffling can be a trigger for violence depending on who it affects and how it affects them.
So in closing, I don’t know the backgrounds of the officers affected by this week’s round of retirements and promotions or how they perceive these changes. But at least we know what to look out for as we learn more about them.