Juba in the recent days has witnessed fighting on a scale not seen since the outbreak of a vicious civil war in December 2013. Here is what we gathered so far:
(1) What is the background?
War broke out in December 2013 after months of internal power struggle between President Kiir, Riek, Nyandeng and Pagan Amum over SPLM Chairmanship. December fighting led to a series of targeted killings of innocent civilians. The President accused Riek Machar, whom he fired in July 2013 of attempting a coup. Riek denied and violence escalated to biblical proportions.
A peace agreement was signed almost two years later reluctantly with both sides saying they had serious reservations that were ignored by the brokers. At the time political and conflict analysts warned about the viability of the peace agreement.
Nevertheless, as part of the implementation of the agreement Riek was awarded a newly minted post of First Vice-President, 10 ministries and along with his militia came to Juba.
(2) So?….What happened last week?
By last week animosity between the SPLA and Riek’s militia had risen after a spate of targeted murders of army and militia personnel by euphemistically named “unknown gunmen”. In addition, Riek’s militia complained of harassment by the SPLA. The government charged the militia with being uncooperative and flaunting basic laws especially around security checkpoints.
The checkpoints around Juba had been setup after a cabinet resolution to address the issues around insecurity in Juba. Riek’s number two man Lado Gore was put in charge since he was the Minister of Interior. Then things started to fall apart soon after.
On Thursday the 7th at about 2000hrs, a militia convoy opened fire on a multiagency unit made up of SPLA MP, SPLA MI, SSNP (CID) and NSS manning a checkpoint on Gudele Road – Lou Clinic junction. Two people were wounded and five were killed; a passerby doctor, two SPLA personnel, and two National Security agents, including the brother of the former Government Chief Negotiator and Presidential Advisor Nhial Deng Nhial.
Riek’s militia denied responsibility and blamed the government for attack and provocation. They claimed self-defence.
On Friday the 8th, the President, the vice-presidents Riek Machar and James Wani, Min of Interior Alfred Lado, Min of Info Michael Makuei, Min of Mining Taban Deng Gai and plethora of other senior political and military officials on both sides went to J1 for a security meeting. Their aim was how to reduce tensions between forces because clearly there has not been any coordination between the two sides.
What happened next will be debated for many years to come because many of the participants and instigators died. What is certain though is that around 1715hrs a crescendo of small arms duel erupted outside the gates of J1.
According to the government, a certain Lieutenant Colonel David Rieu, arrived at J1 although he is not part of Presidential Guards of Riek at 1715hrs. Michael Makuei says that, Rieu caused a scene and then shot one President Kiir’s guards and from there fighting ensued and escalated to the other parts of the town. He added that this Rieu was the same man responsible for Thursday night incident.
On its part Riek’s spokesman, James Gatdet who has been in Nairobi for the past month, issued a statement on his Facebook account that Riek had been lured to J1 and that President Kiir had ordered his assassination. The rumour spread fast like a savannah grassfire and made all evening news headlines in the region.
By the time Gatdet retracted his statement and deleted it from his Facebook account, and the fighting stopped, 271 were dead and 32 wounded according to the Ministry of Health. 44 soldiers belonged to the SPLA, 5 to the National Police Service, 32 were civilians and 190 were militiamen.
The President and the vice-presidents looking genuinely shocked held a joint press conference in J1 expressing their dismay. They said that they did not know what was going on. They agreed for a committee to be formed headed by Riek’s deputy Lado Gore to investigate the two incidents.
(4) What of the Independence Day anniversary?
Well…the 9th was South Sudan’s Fifth birthday. Other than in the states e.g. Jonglei and Greater Bahr el Ghazal Region there was no celebratory appetite in Juba. The army and the militia spent the day doing PR. The Minister of Defence Kuol Manyang Juuk and the militia D/CoGS James Koang Chuol Ranley hit the airwaves calling for calm and saying that the incident was isolated and not premeditated. GEN Malong the SPLA CoGS issued a statement warning soldier to obey rules of engagement or face consequences.
(5) Ok….so why and how did it fall apart afterwards?
Why it is not exactly clear. But here is how: The tense lull that marked Independence Day was shattered by small arms fire at around 0725hrs on Sunday the 10th in Jebel area. According to Michael Makuei a troop of militiamen attacked a Yei-Juba security/customs checkpoint manned by few police and soldiers. Makuei says the SPLA responded in kind and in full force with ground and air assault. With heavy artillery, small arms and helicopters strafing militia positions fighting escalated to the militia base and other areas throughout the city.
As clashes happened, according to UNMISS, combat around its Jebel base resulted in their compound being pounded by artillery. Two Chinese PLA peacekeepers were killed and 6 Rwandese peacekeepers injured.
In addition to complicate matters, militia Commanders, Dau Aturjong and Makur Mabor defected with 1,000 officers and men followed by another defection of Joseph Clement Wani Konga with his 620 officers and men. In the evening, Michael Makuei and Taban Deng held a joint press conference asking for civilians to stay calm and pledging cessation of hostilities by both sides. However, fighting lasted the whole day until a heavy downpour halted the combat.
The following day, Monday the 11th fighting resumed in earnest around Jebel but by 1100hrs it was quiet on all fronts. By 1700hrs Bilpham issued orders for the SPLA to report back to its barracks. Effective from 1800hrs the President issued a unilateral order for ceasefire. Riek reciprocated and effective from 2000hrs militia ceasefire was in effect.
On their part Riek’s side accused the government of attacking them. Riek would later on tell the BBC Focus on Africa that there was an attempt on his life and the President’s. He said it was planned but he said he could not explain whether there was a third armed group involved.
(6) Yeah… yeah…. What about the civilians? Are they safe?
Yes and no. Ok it is complicated. It depends where they leave. Deaths have been reported among those who live in the areas where heavy combat took place – Jebel, Gudele and Thongpiny etc etc. Several civilians have been killed in crossfire.
The UNMISS’s Ellen Løj said on Sunday that they had received reports that civilians have been prevented from seeking shelter at UNMISS Base. However, some western journalists have accused UN peacekeepers of fleeing and refusing civilians entry on to the UN base.
No targeted killings like that which occurred in 2013 took place. No house to house searches happened but looting did occur in some areas.
(7) What is next?
It remains to be seen if the agreement can be salvaged. Both sides seemed to have pulled out from the brink of all out war, so may be. But it remains to be seen, there have been reports of shelling and gunfire in Wau this morning. Yesterday fighting was contained in Torit, Yei etc.
(8) And so far…?
UNSC has issued a statement, IGAD has issued a statement, with the usual stuff “stop fighting or we will hit you with a big stick…” but the highly regarded ICG analyst Casie Copeland wrote that the pace of events in South Sudan are faster than the pace of international community engagement. (She has been proven right by the latest developments).
So far the airport is opened and Juba is slowly coming back to life. Shops are opened and people are moving about. There have been no gunshots or any reports of violence since combat ended yesterday.
(9) So where is Riek?
We don’t know….but he said he was in Juba. His base and house were overrun and ransacked by the SPLA. So he is definitely not in his house but somewhere.
(10) What of Simon Gatwech and James Koang Chol?
We don’t know….but James Gatdet in Nairobi said they are safe. Riek said he spoke to them and asked them to implement his ceasefire order. So we won’t dwell on Facebook yarns too much.
(11) Where is Salva?
In his house J1.
(12) Where can I find more info?
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