The Unity State Factor and the South Sudan Peace Agreement By: Brian Adeba | South Sudan | Sep 14, 2015

On August 26th, President Salva Kiir of South Sudan reluctantly signed a peace deal that would end nearly 20 months of fighting between government troops and rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – in-opposition (SPLM-IO). Nine days earlier on August 17th, at a ceremony in Ethiopia, Kiir had refused to sign the agreement, citing serious reservations and requesting more time to consult with his base. However, Riek Machar, head of the SPLM-IO and other political entities signed the deal.

Despite signing the agreement in South Sudan’s capital Juba, Kiir predicted a precarious future for the pact when he told mediators from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) that “I want you regional leaders to stand with us in the implementation otherwise we will spoil it if it is left to us.”

Meanwhile on the rebel side, a breakaway faction of hardliners led by General Peter Gadet, who is currently facing sanctions from the U.S and the European Union, denounced the agreement and vowed to continue fighting, casting additional doubt on the future of the deal.

Going forward, there is concern about whether the deal will succeed or not. Although the government and the SPLM-IO have both signed a permanent ceasefire, they have accused each other of violating it.

To date, the primary focus on the fate of the deal has centered on the anticipated actions of the principle signatories – the government and the SPLM-IO. However, little light has been shed on Gadet’s breakaway faction and how this split might impact the deal in the long term.

Prior to IGAD’s projected deadline for a peace agreement on August 17th, an anonymous letter purportedly written by disgruntled generals in the rebel ranks started circulating on the Internet. The unsigned letter accused Machar of dictatorship and capitulating to Kiir in the impending peace deal. Shortly after, rumours about a “coup” against Machar surfaced on South Sudanese social media forums. Finally in late July, in a move that was interpreted as a preemptive strike, Machar “relieved” Gadet of his duties, stressing that this was a “normal” administrative procedure.

The immediate question in the aftermath of Gadet’s defection was how much control did he have over the rebels?

But the locale from which Gadet issued the press statement on his defection spoke volumes about the clout – or lack of therein – that he held on the ground.

The press release was issued in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. This is indicative of a number of factors; first, it could possibly show that Gadet does not control significant territory within the large swathe of area that the SPLM-IO controls in the states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jongolei. Secondly, this fact may also indicate that he did not have the troop numbers to oust Machar from the SPLM-IO leadership. Thirdly, this may also be a sign that Gadet’s sponsors (suspicion falls on the Sudan government) may not want any activity that will jeopardize the peace agreement and thus held him in check. Sudan currently supports the SPLM-IO and favors a peace deal because the pact calls on Juba to cease support for Sudanese rebels. Khartoum may therefore use the threat of supporting Gadet as a bargaining chip to ensure South Sudan’s compliance with this stipulation.

However, the reason why Gadet’s defection may potentially affect the implementation of the peace deal is encapsulated in the dynamics of oil, sectionalism and political patronage in South Sudan and in particular in the oil-rich Unity State in the north, the battleground on which the fate of this deal will be fought.

In a country where 98 percent of revenues are derived from oil, Unity State is the engine that keeps South Sudan running. But Unity State is a tumultuous region, rife with sectionalism and intense rivalry between the Nuer, the dominant ethnic group in the state. And in South Sudan’s fractured politics, decision makers in Juba compete to install loyalist governors and lawmakers in the state, for whoever controls Unity State controls the purse strings of South Sudan.

Although the prelude to the current war is rooted in a power struggle between Kiir and Machar that emerged in the run-up to the country’s secession from Sudan in 2011 in the capital Juba, this struggle extended to Unity State. Here, Kiir and his allies in the ruling SPLM ensured that Taban Deng, a political rival of Machar’s, was installed as governor in a move that was in flagrant violation of the party’s guidelines. Deng’s rival for the post of governor was Joseph Monytuil, a close ally of Machar. As chair of the SPLM in Unity State, the rules stipulated that he automatically becomes the party’s candidate for governor in the 2010 elections. However, the party prevailed on him to step aside in favor of Kiir’s ally, Deng. In response, Machar fronted his wife, Angelina Teny, to contest the governor’s position as an independent candidate.

To comprehend the significance of this move, it is important to understand the dynamics of sectionalism between the Nuer in Unity State. During the latter stages of Sudan’s civil war, Machar, who hails from the Dok section of the Nuer, was the most influential Nuer politician in the states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jongolei. However, Paulino Matip, a now deceased warlord from the Bul Nuer, challenged him. The oil wells and Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, are located in Bul Nuer land. Following Machar’s split from the SPLM in 1991, both men’s armies fought each other with devastating consequences. Gadet, also a Bul Nuer general also fought Machar.

In the current conflict, the dynamics have changed considerably. Taban Deng, a Jikany Nuer is now Machar’s right hand man in the rebel ranks, serving as head of the negotiating team. Monytuil, a Bul Nuer, has replaced Deng as governor of Unity State, albeit on a caretaker basis and is now allied to Kiir.

According to the agreement, the SPLM-IO gets to nominate the governor of Unity State. In addition, the pact only gives the government 46 percent of power in the state, while allocating 40 percent to Machar’s SPLM-IO and the remaining 20 percent to other political parties. In essence, the deal gives Machar some considerable political clout in the state.

In this conflict, the Bul Nuer have largely sided with the government in Juba and have considerable political power under Monytuil. Bul Nuer generals in the South Sudan army such as Bapiny Monytuil, brother to Joseph Monytuil and Matthew Puljang are leading government offensives against the SPLM-IO in Unity State. Since 1991, political power in Unity has eluded the Bul Nuer in favor of other Nuer sections in the state. It is only now that the Bul Nuer wield control on the state under Monytuil. Given the fact that security sector reforms in South Sudan have largely been ineffective, the Bul Nuer, like most ethnicities in the region, are armed. The peace agreement risks unraveling the Bul Nuer power base in the state and this could potentially be problematic if disgruntled leaders like Gadet and others exploit this grievance to garner armed opposition to the deal.

In this new context, Machar and the new transitional government have to win over the Bul Nuer. How this aspect is handled will determine whether there will be another conflict in South Sudan or not.


Brian Adeba is an Associate with the Security Governance Group in Canada.


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