By Daniel AkechThiong
“The only hope is a peaceful resolution and this is what the international community is supposed to work for rather than lining up behind leaders with the hope, a popular delusion, that their side will triumph and their interests will be well guarded.”
1. Initial weaknesses of the regime
The true numerical strength of the national army of South Sudan, the SPLA, could not be determined as it grew when there was a task demanding boots on the ground. The Commander in Chief had little control over the generals, who in turn had little or no control over their soldiers.
While the insecurity had been a constant fear in the country, there was very little preparation in case of anything. The army had no enough fuel storage facilities and the businessmen awarded food and fuel supply contracts were highly unreliable. Due to lack of fuel and poor maintenance, some of the battle tanks could not be operated in the morning of December 16th at the battle for the control of access to a weaponry store in New Site in Juba, which the soldiers themselves looted after its doors were opened and even some nearby civilian walked off with PKMs (a 7.62 mm general purpose machine gun --- the White Army believes in its capacity more than in that of a T 72 tank).
Some SPLA soldiers lacked some of the basic requirements a soldier must have. Some had AK47s from the mid 1980s and others simply had no guns!
The officers who are supposed to gather information run around in the city bragging about their jobs, which they tell every person they meet on the street. I know it isn’t an intelligent way of conducting oneself if one really seeks to get any information at all. They thought that they are doing a great job. One officer in charge of a certain sensitive location once said they actually do a great job and that their failing results from the government sitting on the information it received.
The popular setting is that security officers are sent to hotels to be given free rooms and they operate there gathering information where everyone knows who they are. If they were really doing their jobs, who would like to stay in a hotel?
When a number of leaders were picked up for arrest following December 15th clashes, a fair minded observer would expect that each of the leaders detained would be presented with a fat folder that the security operatives had of his or her records, which should date back several months or even years. Instead most of the evidences presented dated back only to December 15th – 17th. This was one of the hasty decisions made (to charge any citizen of treason is the heaviest of all charges any citizen could face and this does require carefulness in terms of information obtained).
That little due care was exercised could have been a characteristic of a power surprised and terrified by the nightly revolt whose precise cause remains an open question.
2. Favorable chances for Riek Machar
With all these weaknesses on the government’s side, Riek Machar had favorable chances after successfully escaping from Juba and linking up with the White Army in Jonglei, a force whose awful strength equaled its amazing weaknesses.
The White Army had advantage of being mostly young, numerous as the BBC put their numbers at 25,000 (how this estimate was reached, especially when it was estimated from looking down on them from the sky, I do not know), a really high fighting morale, which was boosted by a spirit of vengeance for their relatives and friends massacred in Juba following December 15th, and the force was also strengthened by new reinforcements from new volunteers (a military win presented an opportunity for looting and other cruel acts such circumstances allow men to perform).
Secretly, there was a religious dimension to the rising war fervor led by a young man called Dak Kueth (he could be a brother to a former SPLA’s commander Manyiel Kueth), who is an interpreter of the Prophet Ngundeng’s songs. Some fighters might have relied on Dak Kueth for information on what is happening far ahead of them or even inside Juba. Also, much of what was circulated through mobile phones was intended mainly to steel the fighters’ conviction to reach Juba or die all on their way there. Reaching Juba, though, ceased to be an option after a fruitless pushing forward on the Bor Juba road!
3. Why did they succumb?
The morale of the white army had been done a serious blow by the poor logistics and poor leadership of the rebels. The rebel leadership had only strategized on winning, but not on what happens to their wounded and other venerable members if they lose; they focus their full energy on capturing a town, but nearly zero effort on sustaining it. For instance, their inability to sustain any major town they had captured is more than obvious. The force was meant for a quick action, but the longer this thing prolongs the weaker it gets (well, that is true of the government too --- the longer this thing goes on the harder it becomes for the government to govern).
The members of the white army who fought along the Bor-Juba road depended on their opponents for ammunitions, weapons and food. A general who was severely wounded in this encounter recorded an incident in Bor in which his bodyguard ran back to him without a gun and with an urgent question: what does dung de mean? Dung de is a Nuer’s word for ‘it is mine.’ Those were the words the white army fighters were telling each other when they fearlessly ran to capture a gun from this soldier, who downed six of them and threw the gun down and ran away.
There was no trace of economization of human resource on the white army side in most of their battles (no burial or a plan for the wounded). At the end, the price paid was astronomical, as most of the 25,000 white army force estimated by various news that was advancing on Bor and then on Juba had tactically withdrawn indefinitely. This was the infamous attack on Jekou of 1980s, in which the SPLA leadership blindly sacrificed thousands of soldiers, emulated. This experience has crushed the morale of these young men. It was the first time in their fighting experience that they discovered that numbers alone cannot substitute for superior organization and leadership.
The SPLA leadership in the Bor Juba front began a strict guarding of its logistics and sustaining any territory captured and the defenses of the white army began to crack leading to the capturing of Bor (with the help of the UPDF), Gadiang (without UPDF, their salaries were not given and so they refused to go anywhere beyond Mathiang) and Ayod (without UPDF, which has limited its operation zone to Bor).
Those who captured Gadiang and sustained it were less than 800, but of superior military quality being among the only 3,500 SPLA Commandos, a special unit consisting of the best of the best. The entire SPLA force that entered Ayod did not amount to anything more than 3000. On the way to Ayod up to the capturing of Ayod and defending of it, the SPLA lost around 228 against over 800 losses on the White Army.
Fighting with human waves belongs in the era of Mengistu and earlier days of the SPLA in the mid 1980s, but this is what the rebel leadership of Riek Machar started with. In the beginning of this war, the rebels had soldiers but no military leadership. A fierce fighter such as Gathoth Gatkuoth or Gatdet is good on one-on-one and fighting by the will and physical strength.
Having being brought together hastily without necessary logistics in place, their move towards Juba was thwarted and from then on things have not been right again for them. There was very little coordination between fighters as the earlier encounters with the army in Bor were even fought on clan’s lines, that is, a youth from a certain section was what a task force meant (so the losses weren’t spread, which made them very heavy).
While they hardly listen to any of the military leaders using their services, the White Army fighters observed one practice almost religiously: no fighting at night and neither did they expect any sane soul to do so; well, unless you are a Ugandan, who is equipped with night vision equipment.
Recent clashes in July 2014 in Nasir and Ayod showed that the tactics of the rebels have not changed much and there is very little hope that it will change much in the next few months. They still use human waves and part of this is due to lack of advanced weaponry and trained personnel. The failing of the rebels in Nasir and Ayod could lead to a weakening of faith in a clear cut military victory over the government forces.
4. Diplomatic Front
On the diplomatic front, the rebel leadership had scored a huge winning (the rebellion will soon have functioning offices in some countries, is that not an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of this rebellion?) This is due not to Riek’s own effort but rather due to the international community’s frustration with the Juba’s government. Another factor is the loyalty of those serving in the embassies. A considerable number of them owed their initial appointments into Foreign Service to Dr. Lam Akol or Deng Alor both of whom had fallen out with President Salva Kiir.
5. Looking homeward for a solution
The international community cares less about South Sudan. There are a lot of people in the USA who do not even know that there is a country called South Sudan that exists. When they ask from where you came originally, you have to just leave it as ‘Sudan’ without having to stress the ‘South’ to escape from suffocating ignorance! So the leaders should look homeward if the crisis were to be ended speedily.
The biggest challenge facing the rebel leadership is to find a goal that is not tribal and that is widely supported. The rebel fighters especially the white army’s initially soaring morale was due to tribal pride and they can fight until the last man as long as the war remains a war between them and Dinka, but the war will never actually decent to that level (some are even hoping that Uganda will go away and then the government will be weak, a demolishing counterexample to this is the rebels’ recent failed attempts to take Nasir and Ayod - where there is no Ugandan forces).
The government has advantage of resources, but even if those resources were to disappear today, new reasons that could cause people to fight could arise because it is not always the case that a war could continue to be waged on the grounds of what started it.
But little can be done about these popular delusions! What is the shape of a war won against the government or against the rebels? A big number of people killed, displaced, their already poor conditions made worse, somebody’s daughter or wife raped, right?
6. Peace is built & war is just started
A violent protest is a failed approach because people tend to be tribal when violence is exercised. A bloody violence against the government unites Dinka and likewise violence against the rebellion unites the Nuer against the government. If the Nuer in the form of White Army is capable of overthrowing the current government, then the Dinka in form of their youth will be more than capable of overthrowing any government to be violently installed.
The only hope is a peaceful resolution and this is what the international community is supposed to work for rather than lining up behind leaders with the hope, a popular delusion, that their side will triumph