By Will Davison and Jason Patinkin
January 23, 2014 (Christian Science Monitor) – The month-old civil conflict in South Sudan has
claimed some 10,000 lives, with major towns razed to the ground and
half a million people displaced. Amid the fighting, negotiators have
been holding peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia.
In recent days government forces, supported byUgandan troops,
apparently wrested two key towns, Bor and Malakal (both important to
the oil industry) from the control of rebels. Yet despite initial hopes,
there are signs that a quick peace may be further away, not closer, in
the world’s newest nation. One reason is a lack of command and control
over an ill-disciplined military that may be reverting to its roots as a
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA),
the core military force, is a sprawling patchwork of local commanders
who at times fought each other, as well as the government of Khartoum,
during decades of insurgency. South Sudan’s leadership rivalry has led
commanders and their patronage networks into shifting alliances between President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and former vice-president Riek Machar, according to analysts.
Even if Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar agree to a ceasefire – and so far Machar has not even shown up at talks in Addis Ababa –
they may struggle to enforce it. The risk is that unit commanders will
form and disband alliances as the opportunity dictates, underlining the
failure of politicians like Kiir to forge a unified army.
Diplomats in Addis Ababa are still worried about a full-blown,
prolonged civil war as the SPLA and rebels strive for a clear
battlefield victory at the expense of the peace talks here.
Harry Verhoeven, an expert in African Politics from Oxford University
says that both leaders “continue to believe in all-out military
victory,” and that Kiir, with Uganda’s support, has an advantage and can
“go for broke … a move that risks starting a wider regional escalation
of the conflict.”
The conflict research group Small Arms Survey warns that if South
Sudan’s government controls major towns while opposition forces roam the
countryside, fighting could prove to be “interminable.”
The current crisis began last month as a power struggle between Kiir
and Machar, but quickly took on a brutal ethnic or tribal character,
dividing neighbors and friends across the country’s north and east.
The deep-seated rivalry between the two rebels-turned-politicians
stems partly from their presidential ambitions – an election is due in
2015 – and the determination to control the movement that liberated the
new nation. Both men are more accustomed to leading troops than
To get the peace talks in Addis Ababa started, Machar called on Kiir
to release 11 prisoners accused of helping to plot a coup in December,
and he faces Western pressure to release them as well. During the peace
talks, Kiir has also turned to Uganda for military support that would
allow him to prolong a fight for territory and leverage.
Despite the SPLA’s retaking of Bor and Malakal this week, the rebels
vow to continue. “We are still in control of rural areas,” Brig.Gen. Lul
Ruai Koang of the rebels said Monday. “These [government] people are
more or less surrounded. They are trapped.”