It’s Wednesday, so naturally Peter Gadet has defected from the SPLA

As the title of this posts suggests, it’s Wednesday (click here for a laugh), so naturally Peter Gadet has defected from the SPLA. I continue to reiterate here and here that there’s a lot we still don’t know about what’s going on in South Sudan and former VP Riek Machar is still on the run. But there’s been reports describing Gadet’s forces as “Machar loyalists,” which I’m finding problematic for 2 reasons:

  • First, Machar and Gadet were competitors for influence and control of lucrative oilfields in the Greater Upper Nile region during Sudan’s Second Civil War (1983-2005). I’ve mentioned the “civil war within a civil war” between the Dinka and the Nuer that emerged after Machar split from the SPLA in 1991. There was also a “civil war within a civil war within a civil war” – an intra-Nuer conflict in which these men were on opposing sides. Gadet was working for the late Paulino Matiep at the time, but I’ll get to that in a moment. (For more background on this time period and these conflict dynamics, read Human Rights Watch’s Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights.) I don’t know if they reconciled when Gadet came into the SPLA fold, or if they’ve even reconciled as of this writing. That’s something we would need to know before proclaiming that Gadet’s forces in Jonglei are “Machar loyalists.”
  • Second, I think Machar has referred to the existence of Gadet’s forces in Jonglei, but I don’t think he’s stated his affiliation with them or his command over people who may refer to themselves as “Machar loyalists.” (If this is incorrect, please comment below so I can correct this point.) The fact that the government is referring to armed groups that Machar may not have control over or affiliation with as “Machar loyalists” could escalate side-picking in this conflict and really push Machar into a corner that I think is his last resort – actually launching armed conflict. A colleague of mine argued a valid point to the contrary – that Machar hasn’t disowned these forces, so he’s also contributing to the escalation of conflict in that sense.

Therefore, the question of whether Machar and Gadet are actually in cahoots still needs to be confirmed – but by a source outside the government of South Sudan.

Gadet is what I like to call a “serial defector,” so here’s some background on the guy:

During the civil war, Gadet served as one of the main deputies to Paulino Matiep, who led the Khartoum-backed South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF). (The government in Khartoum had been trying to divide the southern resistance since the mid-1980s, so this was one manifestation of efforts to weaken the SPLA.) Gadet and Matiep were both Bul Nuer from Mayom County in Unity State, and that area near the current border with Sudan was their main stomping ground during the civil war.

Gadet and Matiep had a violent falling out (Gadet mutinied against Matiep in September 1999) prior to Matiep and President Salva Kiir signing the 2006 Juba Declaration, which brought Matiep’s SSDF and other armed movements into the SPLA and largely accounted for the absence of civil war in southern Sudan between 2006 and 2010. Gadet sat out the integration process that followed the Juba Declaration, but became the SPLA’s Chief of Air Defense in 2007. However, he subsequently was appointed deputy commander of SPLA Division 3 in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Warrap area – a position he viewed as a demotion and outside his area of influence. As a result, he defected from the SPLA to start the South Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SSLM/A) in March 2011 and issued the Mayom Declaration the following month, accusing the GoSS of corruption and nepotism and calling for its overthrow. In August 2011, he signed a ceasefire with the government and his forces were  fully integrated into SPLA. Gadet was then appointed deputy commander of the civilian disarmament in Jonglei, “Operation Restore Peace” which commenced in March 2012. There, he was commander of SPLA Division 8 in Jonglei State – a good move because it kept him out of his home turf in Unity, but a bad move since he was essentially rewarded for his defection with a command post. (On a related note, there is an excellent article on the ‘open door’ amnesty and integration process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has many similarities with South Sudan’s amnesty and integration approach that Gadet has taken advantage of many, many times. It’s called “The Volatility of a Half-cooked Bouillabaisse: Reflections on Rebel-Military Integration and Conflict Dynamics in Eastern DRC”).

I was in Juba when Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the SPLA Paulino Matiep died in August 2012, and there was speculation at that time that Gadet was angling for this largely symbolic position. (Since then, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and this defection appears to be it.)

Last point: When I was in South Sudan last year doing research for my paper on Armed Group Amnesty and Military Integration in South Sudan, one of the people I interviewed told me that many of the armed movements that proliferated between 2010 and 2011 had very little chance of success because they only had localized support. The late George Athor’s rebellion, however, had posed a growing threat to the government in Juba because while concentrated in Jonglei, the movement was able to transcend geography and ethnic affiliation. Athor, a Dinka, had relationships with other armed group commanders throughout Greater Upper Nile, including Murle and Shilluk commanders such as David Yau Yau (Murle) and Johnson Olony (Shilluk). If there is an emergent armed movement coalescing in Jonglei, it will need to be able to transcend geography and ethnic affiliation to be able to gain enough momentum pose a threat to the government in Juba. Until that time, it’s likely that the civilians in these areas will suffer – not the armed groups or the country’s political leaders.

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