South Sudan's army contributes to violence, confusion on the ground

The Sudan People's Liberation Army, a guerilla movement turned future national army, is struggling to make the transition and bring troops under control of the central command.

Stuart Price/UNMIS/AP
In this photo released by the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), a Zambian UN peacekeeping soldier sits atop an armored personnel carrier as he patrols the area in the contested border town of Abyei, Sudan, on Monday, May 30. The South Sudanese army has been at the verge of war with the north's Sudanese Armed Forces since the north invaded a contested border zone two weeks ago.

The South Sudanese army has been at the verge of war with the north's Sudan's Sudanese Armed Forces since the north invaded a contested border zone two weeks ago. Though independence looks set to become official in July, the picture on the ground here in the south is increasingly messy.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is a former guerilla movement that fought a liberation struggle and civil war against the northern Sudanese government for more than two decades before signing an internationally-brokered peace deal in 2005. The deal granted the South the right to decide whether to break away from the north and form a new state.

The SPLA is not only overwhelmed by the internal and external challenges to stability within its territory, but it is also accused of violating human rights and harassing United Nations agencies and international aid groups attempting to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the fallout of northern Sudan's invasion of the border region of Abyei. The rumors are making aid groups fearful of sending convoys of fuel and food stocks to frontline areas where wounded, hungry, and generally vulnerable populations need the assistance.

The South's army officials have been frank in my recent discussions with them over the allegations against the Army here in the South.

“[Orders] reach the ground. But as anywhere in the world you will not have 100 percent discipline,” Col. Philip Aguer, the SPLA spokesman, told me today in South Sudan's capital of Juba. He said that the process of both transforming a guerilla army into a conventional one and the intense challenges of integrating rebel militia forces into the army are daunting, especially at a moment when the northern army is aggressively flexing its muscles in Abyei, a territory of great strategic, historical, and emotional importance to southerners.

Based on United Nations internal reports I obtained while looking into allegations made by local government officials in remote, often inaccessible reaches of the oil-producing Greater Upper Nile region, it is fair to say that the SPLA stands accused of egregious violations of human rights including killing of civilians and destruction of their homes and properties (excerpts of these reports are available in my AP story here).

There are clearly a range of urgently needed responses to these serious allegations.

But in the time I spent reporting this story, I came to the view that the answer is clearly not to suspend internationally-funded training and support to the SPLA. If anything, the army needs more support: more training to professionalize its current rank-and-file, more efforts to effectively downsize this force without leaving tens of thousands of men jobless and without prospects for future employment, well-considered and context-specific human rights training, and a real plan for either reintegrating or disarming the militia forces that the SPLA is currently attempting to defeat (after its failed attempts at political reconciliation with these forces over the past year).

The to-do list is obviously very long for this army, and no one expects it to transform itself overnight. Indeed, that has not happened in the past six years since the civil war ended and this current period of fragile peace began.

Western officials and high-ranking SPLA officers in Juba have repeatedly told me that the current problem of abuses occurring in the context of military campaigns against the rebel forces is directly related to the severe lack of command-and-control among far-flung forces fighting these battles. This is not an excuse, of course, for these gross violations.

The question now is what will be done to address them.

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