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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.

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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.

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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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