ISSN 2330-717X

Bleak As Hell: Political Dynamics Of South Sudan’s Upper Nile State – Analysis


By Andrew Edward Tchie*

The separation of the Upper Nile state into three states has become a contentious issue amongst the three predominant ethnic communities in the Upper Nile state, but in particular, rivalry tensions between the Dinka and Shilluk communities. President Kirr’s creation of 28 states administratively and geographically affects the Shilluk communities because it takes away land that they have historically controlled and places ownership into the hands of the Dinka community.

The presidential decree and creation of 28 states ignores many of the key issues that already existed within the Upper Nile, spanning South Sudan, constructing a new set of dilemmas for the Shilluk communities, and other ethnic groups in South Sudan. In essence, the creation of 28 states should be seen as nothing less than a land-grabbing system intended to reap havoc between the Shilluk communities who are aligned to General Onlony and who defected last year from the SPLA to the SPLA-iO.

This move also heightens the tensions between the Shilluk communities and the government dominated Dinka ethnic group in the Upper Nile. The move also destroys and takes away a traditional heritage and culture sight of Makal from a shared position between all three ethnic groups into the hands of one single dominate group. What makes the move more controversial is that the government is resettling IDP’s from Piji (a Dinka ethnic group) communities from Jonglei state now controlled by the SPLA-iO with the power to control the Upper Nile. This creates a monopoly for the Piji IDP’s who were never part of the Upper Nile. The need for the president and others to ethnically control and dominate particular parts of South Sudan and drain areas of its resources is only a continuation of policy by Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the Sudanese president.

Nationally, the Upper Nile has always been and will continue to be a strategic hotspot by the South Sudanese government and the SPLA-iO, or any other party willing to confront the state of the day. This is partly because the Upper Nile hosts some of the South Sudanese oil fields, which equate to revenue and power for whoever controls these areas. Earlier this month, president Kiir named exiled SPLA-iO leader Riek Machar as vice president as part of the repeatedly broken August peace deal fostered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Although, it is unlikely that reinstated Vice President Riek Machar (who passionately believes in the Nuer prophecies) is likely to support any move to wage a war within the Upper Nile state, as this would be seen as a failure to comply with the peace agreement and put his leadership internationally into question. It is also highly doubtfully that the newly appointed Machar will just sit by and allow the land-grabbing move to continue without instigating the emotions of the Shilluk communities, who are aligned to his party. It is also in the interest of the Machar because he needs the support of the Shilluk communities to be seen to be addressing this issue if he wants to become president in the near future.

The recent appointment of a Dinka county commissioner to the Eastern Nile state was followed by the termination of Shilluk and Nuer employees. This has left a vacuum of employees who are uncertain about their future and how they will provide for their families. Politically, this creates opportunities for the SPLM to potentially win elections and control the newly created Eastern Nile and the national assemble. Ultimately, this gives the SPLM control over the Eastern Nile, which is now composed of eight Dinka counties. This move is unconstitutional and creates a new set of internally displaced people (IDP) with no access to land and no ability to provide food and income for themselves. Inflating this confusion is the dilemma of where this community of people will resettle. Where will these newly created IDP go? Amongst whom will they settle? Moreover, will this cause further friction amongst the host communities in which they settle? Moving a community that was already settled in Malakal before the conflict to the Western Nile will create further disunity, issues for settlement, and will further derail the peace agreement at the domestic level.

One of numerous attacks

It is clear that the above dynamics contributed and amplified tensions within the United Nations Mission to South Sudan’s (UNMISS) protection of civilian site (PoC) on Wednesday 17 February that once housed over 45,000 IDP’s since the civil war began in late 2013. The site last month witnessed the exodus of Dinka’s (from Piji) to Malakal town followed by a premediated SPLA attack on the UNMISS base in Malakal, killing several Nuers and Shilluks. On the night of Tuesday 16 February, a group of men approached one of the gates of the Malakal PoC and tried to sneak in with several loaded clips for automatic rifles. Fighting broke out between the Shilluk and Dinka communities, later leading to the SPLA, who reside outside of the camp, transporting all Dinka ethnic civilians and Darfurians from UNMISS PoC to Malakal town. The following day around three in the afternoon, the SPLA returned with AK-47s, FAL automatic rifles, grenades and other weapons and attacked the UNMISS base, killing and injuring several civilians and leaving many fending for their lives. As night fell on Wednesday, the PoC continued to erupt into intense gun fighting that was brought under control 15 hours later.

Observers say around 60 men, among them uniformed SPLA troops, wearing civilian clothing attacked the site. At least 49 people were killed, scores more injured, and thousands were driven from their temporary homes within the PoC site. This premediated attack did not stop there; the SPLA took extra measures to make sure that nobody and nothing remained and burnt Nuer and Shilluk PoC homes within the PoC, leaving only Dinka areas untouched by the fire. The matter was not helped by the fact that it took peacekeepers almost 16 hours to respond to and bring the situation under control. Considering the creation of 28 states and the fact that simmering tensions within the PoC have been escalating for months, it seems incomprehensible that peacekeepers would idly wait 16 hours to deal with the outbreak of violence.

Sign up for the Eurasia Review newsletter. Click here to have Eurasia Review's newsletter delivered via RSS, as an email newsletter, via mobile or on your personal news page.

Peacekeeping without protection

The peacekeeping troops protect 45,000 civilians in Malakal; while 198,440 civilians are protected at six UNMISS bases throughout South Sudan. This is not the first time UNMISS peacekeepers have come under fire by the SPLA. There have been incidents in the Unity state, Jonglei, and in the Upper Nile state were peacekeepers have just stood by indolently and watched attacks on civilians take place. Meanwhile, criticism lies at the feet of UNMISS and people are questioning whether the UN is playing a useful role. A larger part of criticism is placed at the feet of the military components and personnel running the protection of the civilian element of the peacekeeping mission. It also appears that peacekeepers are either not aware of their mandate or are incapable of doing their jobs. Questions overshadowing UNMISS should be whether the right types of peacekeepers are being deployed? if the current troop-contributing countries providing United Nations peacekeeping missions are equipped and prepared to carry out peacekeeping missions?.

As the investigation into the events in Malakal continue, it will be interesting to see whether the findings draw similar failings to past outcomes and if there is a link to systematic failures by peacekeeper troops tasked and mandated with providing protection to civilians. Considering that when these events occurred in the past, it has often been under the supervision of Indian, Rwandan, Nepalese, and Bangladesh battalions. Thus, questions should be pointed at the peacekeepers and whether these troop-contributing countries have the ability to execute UNMISS’s mandate.

Since South Sudan’s civil war started more than two years ago, the conflict has taken on an overwhelmingly ethnic tone. The incident in Malakal under the nose of the peacekeeping troops, who did little to stop it, raises questions about whether peace is achievable through peacekeeping. Considering the time for peace is not optimal, the parties have been just too dug in and too far apart, and many of the efforts have been too half hearted, the role of the UN has to be systematically be adjusted.

As bleak as hell

The move by the government continues to create disunity and increase tensions between the three dominate ethnic groups, further straining relations and potentially adding to the derailment of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation amongst the people of the Upper Nile state. More pressure and emphasis will need to be placed on the South Sudanese government by IGAD, IGAD plus and the UN to defuse tensions that will divert the peace agreement. Above all, while international pressure is applied, more weight will need to be focused on the local issues if South Sudan is to achieve sustainable and lasting peace. As many of the communities are either forced or pushed to move to new states, the social structures underpinning their current peaceful coexistence will be destroyed. In order for peace to coexist in South Sudan, four basic elements, which have yet to be adhered to, need to be implemented. The first peace agreements are not events or the signing of an agreement, but a process, and the parties involved in this agreement have yet to show genuine commitment to and ownership of peace internally. Secondly, any peace agreement must deal with all the fundamentals of the disputes, all the issues that will have to be resolved if normality is to return. Thirdly, any peace accord must get the balance between peace and justice. Fourth, the terms of the agreement and methods of its enforcement and implementation must be sufficiently resilient to deal with spoiler groups who may seek to undermine or overturn the agreement. Thus, as this newly and highly fragmented nation continues to battle with itself, it is questionable whether peace will come to South Sudan in the next couple of years.

As IDP’s from Piji settle in the newly created Eastern Nile, how will these people be reintegrated, and what will happen if IDP’s (Shilluk and Nuer) return to their homes in Malakal town? How will the government deal with the issue of resettlement and how will they handle the redistribution of land and homes to already registered civilians, many of whom have lost documents during the fighting? For the author, there are concerns about whether the IDP’s in Malakal town are being used for political manoeuvring by the state particularly because there has been no effort to engage with the Shilluk or Nuer community before and after the crisis. The prospect of a low-level retaliation attack in the coming weeks is likely, especially because Dinka civilians from Piji, Bailiet, and Akoka now solely occupy Malakal town. If a retaliation attack by the SPLA-iO or a militia group does occur in the coming weeks, will the government be able to protect many of Dinka Ngok? This raises the question as to whether the Upper Nile is months, if not weeks, away from a potential massacre, given the high levels of tension. Above all, the question remains as to whether peace is achievable at all and whether the UNMISS mandate needs to focus on one or two specific areas. Assurances need to be given that if UNMISS’s mandate is extended, the failings of previous peacekeepers will be addressed and new measures will be put into place to address troop-contributing countries with battalions that have failed to provide adequate protection to civilians.

*Andrew Edward Tchie is a PhD student and associate fellow in Government at the University of Essex and a member of the Research School on Peace and Conflict based at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.