Monthly Archives: December, 2013

Don’t read too much into U.S. evacuating AmCits from South Sudan (w/correction note)

Correction: After I posted this, a colleague corrected my references below to a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) from South Sudan. Apparently, what happened was not technically classified as a NEO, since ALL personnel depart  in a NEO (as opposed to South Sudan where the Embassy still has essential staff), and it usually has more military involvement.
Yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan started evacuating American citizens from South Sudan.The Juba airport had been closed on Monday after fighting broke out in the capital city on Sunday night, so evacuation by air was not possible until the government of South Sudan announced that the airport would reopen by Wednesday. Since the Embassy announced an ordered departure of non-emergency U.S. Embassy personnel from Juba and that it would assist other U.S. citizens in their evacuation, I’ve been asked several times what I think this indicates. And let me clarify here: what I’m about to write is my own opinion on what did – or did not – influence this decision.
I believe the decision to order the evacuation of non-essential personnel from South Sudan needs to be disaggregated from what’s actually going on in South Sudan. It should be understood purely as the United States trying to get AmCits out of harm’s way, and not an indication that the situation is necessarily going to get worse. There are other operational – and political – issues at play in making a decision like this.
Operational Variables
On the African continent, South Sudan is probably one of the toughest Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) to pull off. It’s landlocked, has poor infrastructure, and hundreds of AmCits are scattered throughout the country. On top of a crisis on steroids that deteriorated rather quickly, there were firefights near the (closed) airport for much of Monday and Tuesday, raising serious force protection concerns for anyone trying to access that area. Once the decision was announced to open the airport, it only made sense for a NEO to be ordered then because of how near-impossible flying AmCits out would be without a significant risk of casualties. And since there was a window of opportunity in which the airport was open and violence subsided, it only made sense to seize that window before it closed again.
To put things in perspective, since the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, there has been much debate in the U.S. about why the military was unable to respond in time. Benghazi is a coastal city and is proximate to Europe, from which U.S. military assets and personnel would most likely deploy. If somewhere as proximate as Libya would have been a tough operation to pull off, imagine South Sudan.
A related, and very important issue is that U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has very few, if any, assigned assets. The NEO that occurred in South Sudan involved two C-130s and a chartered aircraft. (See a Flikr photostream of the U.S. military forces involved in this operation, brought to my attention by @RomanDeckert.) The team that supported this mission was the East Africa Response Force (EARF) based at Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa in Djibouti. But while this joint team was based on the continent, the C-130s were probably chopped from other Combatant Commands (COCOMs). Yes, the U.S. military has various levels of presence on the African continent, but I doubt they just have 2 C-130s sitting around in Africa. So the point is, on top of South Sudan being a tough NEO and an impermanent window of opportunity that opened up, it takes significant time and planning to get the personnel and the assets to get in and out of these situations.

Political Variables

I hate to say it, but Benghazi may have been a political variable that the U.S. considered. As a frame of reference, there were 25 NEOs on the African continent between 1990 and 2011, but I don’t think there were any from 2003 to 2012. In 2013 alone, there have been four situations (Algeria, Mali, Central African Republic, and now South Sudan) in which there’s either been a NEO or ordered departure of some sort. (I’ll admit I haven’t determined if Algeria and Mali were actually NEOs, but it appears that CAR and South Sudan were.) In particular, the case of the Central African Republic – another challenging NEO – was telling. The U.S. Embassy in Bangui ordered the departure of Embassy personnel in December 2012 – three months before Bangui fell to the seleka rebels, and while the rebels were still hundreds of miles from the capital. I saw that decision the same way I see the decision to evacuate South Sudan – it’s a hard operation, and we’re not going to wait around to see if it gets harder. And considering the political wrangling that has gone on in the United States after the unfortunate events in Benghazi, you can see why the government would want to be proactive in getting its citizens out of harm’s way.
So that, in a nutshell, is how you should understand the U.S. decision to evacuate its citizens from South Sudan.

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.

Day Two of #JubaCrisis: Still Many “Known Unknowns”

As I wrote yesterday, something is going down in South Sudan. Here’s a few updates:

  • Former VP Riek Machar is still missing. (My #WhereIsRiek hashtag still needs some love). His home has been raided and much of the property destroyed. In his press conference yesterday, President Salva Kiir referred to Riek as a “Prophet of Doom” and alluded to the events of 1991 in which Riek, Lam Akol, and Gordon Kong defected from the SPLA. Note that the events of 1991 unleashed a “civil war within a civil war” in South Sudan, and the fact that Salva is pushing this narrative and we have no response from Riek is potentially problematic. If this crisis continues to escalate, South Sudan runs the risk of this very political crisis crossing the ethnic conflict line – a line that will be difficult to uncross.
  • Salva Kiir has been meeting with top Nuer leaders, such as Minister of Education John Gai Yoh, Speaker of the Assembly Magok Rundial, Unity State Caretaker Governor Joseph Nguen Monytuel, and Upper Nile State Governor Simon Kun Puoch. At the same time, the presidential spokesman is downplaying the ethnic/tribal conflict narrative, saying that Dinka et al were involved in the (alleged) coup attempt. Indeed, the presidency confirmed that Oyai Deng Ajak, Gier Chuang, Majak d’Agoot,  Madut Bair, Deng Alor, Kosti Manibe, Cirino Hiteng, John Luk, and Chol Tong Mayay are being held at the house of Inspector-General of Police Pieng Deng Kuol. (In fact, the Government of South Sudan released a list of names of those arrested and sought in this ‘foiled coup attempt’.) But note that while the government downplays the ethnic narrative, there have been unconfirmed reports on Twitter that door-to-door searches of Nuer and Dinka are taking place in Juba. I’m hoping that this can be attributed to poor command and control of the security forces rather than to a concerted government policy. Meanwhile, the blog PaanLuel Wël discourages the “two-tribalization” of what’s going on in South Sudan. Surely, the #JubaCrisis cannot be reduced to this. Regardless of what may or may not be going on, I’m starting to wonder if the government’s roundup of multiethnic “Machar co-plotters” is partly to show that this dispute is not ethnic – even while they continue to peddle the 1991 narrative.
  • @Nation_Courier reports fighting outside Juba, at SPLA divisions in Bor, Jonglei State and Mapel, Western Bahr al Ghazal State. (This is a new source to me, and I haven’t seen SPLA Division fighting outside Juba, in particular, reported elsewhere, so take this with a grain of salt.) Just for reference, Jonglei state has long been unstable, so reports of violence there – whether related to events in Juba – is generally to be expected. Also for reference, Mapel is the location of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) facilities to deal with ex-combatants from the civil war.
  • Rebecca Garang, widow of John Garang, gave an interview to BBC News, stating that the Nuer who are moving around “are being killed” and that the government would like to arrest her, but “know there would be repercussions.” As a result, they are allowing her to stay in her home. In the interview, she alludes to the coup narrative being used to crack down on SPLM dissidents, and says the president won’t see her, even though she lives close to his residence.

Since I’m not in Juba, I continue to get my news from Twitter, so here’s a list of people you should be following:

So to wrap up, the situation is still very much unfolding in South Sudan and we have many “known unknowns.”

*Something* is going down in South Sudan, but it’s unclear what

Since yesterday around 6:30pm (local time), a series of events have been unfolding in Juba, South Sudan that are being characterized as either a mutiny of certain elements of the SPLA or a coup attempt. It’s still unclear what exactly is going on, and the news media has not been the best source of breaking news, perhaps due in part to the media that flocked to South Africa to cover Nelson Mandela’s funeral. For the moment, the best coverage I’ve found is on Twitter using the hashtags #JubaCrisis, #SouthSudanCoupAttempt, and of course #SouthSudan and #Juba. Hundreds of civilians have taken refuge at the UNMISS compound near the airport, the airport has been closed and flights have been cancelled, and I saw reports that some of South Sudan’s land borders had also been closed. Meanwhile, former government officials Majak D’Agoot, Gier Chuang Aluong, Oyai Deng, and Cirino Iteng have been arrested for their alleged roles in the alleged coup attempt.

Political tensions had been on the rise since President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet in July, especially his VP Riek Machar, whose location at the moment, is unconfirmed. (I’m trying to get the #WhereIsRiek hashtag started, but sadly it hasn’t gained traction.) Salva was quick to point the finger at Riek to blame him for the recent unrest, but my initial sense is that Riek has spent years trying to rehabilitate his reputation from the 1991 Nasir coup attempt and would be more likely to exhaust his options in the political sphere before resorting to armed violence. The key issue to consider is who stands to gain from casting Riek in a negative light and reminding South Sudan, and the international community, of his past? The answer is, President Kiir, who needs to bolster his own image as South Sudan’s leader in light of the cabinet reshuffle, and in the run-up to elections in 2015. Notice how President Kiir has donned his military apparel, which he hasn’t worn in years for the press conference he gave on yesterday’s events instead of his trademark cowboy hat. Regardless, until we know exactly what’s going on in Juba and who’s involved, it will be difficult to ascertain whether this has been a mutiny or an actual coup attempt.

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