A Fractious Rebellion: Inside the SPLM-IO
This paper describes the establishment, evolution, and internal dynamics of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO) following the events of December 2013; the distinct motivations and objectives of its political and military leaderships; and the state of the organization immediately prior to the signing of the compromise peace agreement brokered by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in August 2015.
The author also casts a critical eye on the peace process, and suggests that the tenuousness of the SPLM-IO coalition, the importance within the military leadership of former South Sudan Defence Forces commanders, and Nuer calls for accountability for the December 2013 killings, have not been fully appreciated or addressed by peace-makers.
Note: Research for this paper was completed before the conflict between some of the SPLM-IO generals and Riek Machar led to their dismissal and the peace agreement was signed. These topics are addressed briefly in a postscript to this paper.
Among the report’s key findings:
There is no evidence that Dr. Riek Machar attempted a coup, as alleged by Salva Kiir and the Government of the Republic of South Sudan. The immediate cause of the civil war was the killing of Nuer in the SPLA and among the civilian population of Juba in mid-December 2013 by a Dinka component of the Presidential Guard. As a result of these killings, the motivation of most Nuer supporters of the insurgency is anger, a desire for revenge, and a demand that the perpetuators be prosecuted, President Salva Kiir foremost.
The military wing of the SPLM-IO largely took form spontaneously in the wake of the Juba killings at a number of locations in Greater Upper Nile and is made up of defectors from the SPLA and locally formed ‘white armies’. Only much later did a formal command structure take form.
Through the founding conference in Nasir and two in Pagak, the SPLM-IO formulated its political positions and attempted to maintain a tenuous unity among its fractious components. Particularly contentious issues included prioritizing a negotiated peace agreement or the pursuit of war, the failure of the IGAD peace process to address the killing of the Nuer in Juba in December 2013, whether the insurgents should remain part of the SPLM, and efforts to reconcile the SPLM components.
After a rapidly changing battlefield situation in the first months of the war there were few significant changes on the ground until April–June 2015 when the breakdown of the peace process led to an upsurge in fighting in the three states of Greater Upper Nile. Despite some SPLM-IO advances in Upper Nile made possible by the defection of Shilluk militia leader Johnson Olony, the support provided by the Ugandan army and rebel groups from Sudan to the government and an important minority of Nuer who remained loyal to the government enabled it to largely contain the war to GUN, where both belligerents share territory.
Foreign support for the GRSS has been crucial to its survival, but has also led Sudan to provide a limited supply of weapons, training, and rear bases for the SPLM-IO. This internationalization of the conflict has added to the difficulty in resolving it and increased tensions between Sudan and Uganda.
The institutional base of the SPLM-IO is weak, political control of the civilian leadership over the senior military commander is less than complete, and there is no consensus on military and political objectives, negotiating positions, and the structure of the organization. These problems are exacerbated by differences between the IO’s armed forces, which are dominated by former senior officers of the South Sudan Defence Forces and the political wing led by former leaders in the SPLM government.
Dr. Riek Macher is endeavouring to transform the SPLM-IO from a Nuer organization into a national party and to that end people from outside the Nuer core have been appointed to leading positions, there was representation from all of South Sudan’s communities at the conferences, and military campaigns have been launched in Bahr el Ghazal and Equatoria. However, to date, most of the fighters, casualties, and controlled territory is in Greater Upper Nile and the IO remains dominated by Nuer.
The IGAD mediation focus on power-sharing has the potential of gaining acceptance of the SPLM factions, but it is opposed by most senior IO military commanders who see little in it for them and who, like many Nuer, are motivated by anger and revenge. Nuer IO supporters oppose efforts by the international community through the Arusha process to reconcile the SPLM factions and have them return to power because they hold the party responsible for the Juba killings, while many among the IO military have spent much of their careers fighting the SPLA and assume they would be marginalized if reconciliation is achieved. As a result, instead of bringing people together, the mediation has exacerbated tensions within the SPLM-IO and is making the achievement of a sustainable peace more difficult.
Individual sanctions on members of the SPLM-IO have had no discernible impact on their behaviour or that of their colleagues. IGAD is divided on their application, some generals think that they are being targeted for offences of the politicians, and the repeated failure to carry out threats of sanctions has meant that they are not taken seriously by the generals.
The additional members and supporters of IGAD Plus are unlikely to bring more pressure on the IO because its military is largely immune to pressures and in any case the initially proposed agreement was quickly rejected by the parties. What is novel about the IGAD Plus proposed agreement is that both IGAD and Professor Mahmood Mamdani—who authored a leaked submission to the AU Commission of Inquiry—conclude that the SPLM is not competent to rule the country. While Mamdani proposed an AU trusteeship for South Sudan to address the problem, IGAD has specified what the SPLM must do and is proposing various bodies to ensure that its stipulations are carried out.