South Sudan's rebel movements and their leaders

Rebel movements in South Sudan that have clashed with the South Sudanese army pose a greater threat to the fledgling state than even aggression from northern Sudan.

By , Guest blogger

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    A survivor of a massacre by rebel forces on the town of Fangak displays a bullet in front of burnt houses in Fangak, South Sudan on April 7. The attack by rebel leader George Athor happened in February, and officials said 241 people died, most of them civilians. Athor, a former high-ranking officer in the southern army, launched an insurrection after losing his bid for governor of Jonglei state last April.
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The world’s soon-to-be newest country, South Sudan, faces a number of challenges, including severe under-development and tensions with North Sudan on border demarcation, oil revenue-sharing, and others issues. But it is the growing challenge from rebel groups that most threatens the political stability of the new state. Several rebel movements have clashed with the troops of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM, and the army is called SPLA). It does not seem likely that these rebel groups can topple the SPLM, but they are making life difficult for the leadership in Juba.

Here is an overview of two important leaders, George Athor and Peter Gatdet, and their forces. I refer to various states in South Sudan: see this map for help in visualizing the geography. At the end, I offer a few thoughts on what these rebellions mean for South Sudan.

George Athor and the South Sudan Democratic Movement

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South Sudan has never been completely united under the SPLM, and the SPLM has faced rifts before, but the defection of George Athor from the SPLA in April 2010 has proven to be a serious headache for the SPLM. Athor, a former Lieutenant General within the SPLA, was angered by the SPLM’s decision to nominate another man for the 2010 gubernatorial election in Jonglei State. He stood as an independent and lost. Shortly afterwards, his forces began to attack SPLA outposts in the area.

In January 2011, shortly before the referendum on Southern Sudanese independence, Athor signed a cease-fire with the SPLA. But it did not last. Since February, Athor’s men have perpetrated several attacks on the SPLA. Athor expressed willingness to make peace earlier this month, but the SPLM leadership doubts his sincerity. In March, the SPLA began moving to retake territory from Athor. Some reports have identified Athor as the leader, or at least the center, of a network of rebel groups (see below).

Peter Gatdet and the South Sudan Liberation Army

Peter Gatdet held the rank of Major General until his defection from the SPLA in March. The Sudan Tribune describes his chaotic career:

Peter Gatdet was the deputy SPLA divisional commander in Northern Bahr el Ghazal [State] before his defection but has a long history of switching sides.

During the Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005), he became militia leader under Paulino Matip’s top commander in the battles for Unity state and its oilfields. Nonetheless in 1999, he then returned to the SPLA before defecting back to the Khartoum government’s side in 2002.

His defections during the war always drastically shifted the balance of power over who controlled Unity state. Since 2005, he was used by the SPLA as a field commander both in Abyei clashes in 2008 and the clashes in Malakal with forces loyal to Gabriel Tanginye in 2009.

Gatdet’s forces are based in Unity State, which borders Jonglei State. Dissidents in Unity State object, like Athor’s men in Jonglei, to the current state governor. Gatdet’s soldiers are now attacking the SPLA:

Twenty southern army soldiers were killed on Tuesday in a clash in the oil-producing Unity state with fighters loyal to Peter Gadet, a former senior southern army (SPLA) officer who rebelled this month, the military said.

“They (the rebels) overran a village in Mayom county. They burnt it to the ground before the SPLA chased them off,” said southern army spokesman Philip Aguer.

Gatdet’s South Sudan Liberation Army is distinct from Athor’s South Sudan Democratic Movement, but the two groups share common goals and a spokesman for Gatdet says that the two rebel armies are coordinating. For more on Gatdet and the latest attack, see here.

Conclusion

Reading the reports I’ve linked to above, three themes have leaped out at me. First, Athor and Gatdet both have formidable reputations as battlefield commanders, and both have decades of fighting experience. Defeating them will be difficult for the SPLA. Losing senior commanders, moreover, seems to indicate that major sections of the SPLA’s officer corps are politically frustrated.

That leads to a second theme – the political disputes that lie behind these conflicts. All rebellions have something to do with politics, of course, but in South Sudan’s case there are widespread grievances concerning how the SPLM apportions power and handles dissent. The multiplication of rebel movements, and the persistent violence, says to me that the SPLM must address those grievances before there can be peace. That in turn will likely necessitate a greater opening of the political system.

The third conclusion is that North-South tensions cast a heavy shadow over the conflicts in South Sudan. The SPLM accuses Athor and Gatdet of receiving support from the North, and both deny it. The Southern leadership certainly has reason to distrust Khartoum, and conflicts in the South and in border regions could draw the North and the South into direct conflict. However, I hope distrust of the North does not prevent the Government of South Sudan from addressing the local grievances I mentioned. With serious rebellions and violent battles happening in multiple states, much is at risk in South Sudan.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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