South Sudan oil town changes hands for fourth time. Why?

Ethnic politics and shifting loyalties around Bentiu, an oil-gateway town, make it difficult for either the government or rebels to hold. Meanwhile, as war continues, previous peace agreement seems worthless. 

Toby Lanzer, United Nations/AP
In this image taken from video, people travel on the road near Bentiu, South Sudan, on Sunday, April 20, 2014.

A version of this post appeared on the Lesley on Africa blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Yesterday, the city of Bentiu, capital of (formerly) oil-producing Unity State in South Sudan once again changed hands, falling from the control of rebel forces, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), back into the hands of the government of South Sudan.

These developments mark the fourth time since the outset of conflict in December 2013 that Bentiu has changed hands between the government and the opposition SPLM-IO.The SPLM-IO first seized the town the week the conflict broke out around Dec. 20 and held it until it was retaken by the government on Jan. 10. 

Bentiu again fell to the opposition on April 15, but was retaken by the government on May 4.

Both times the SPLM-IO has taken Bentiu, they have only been able to hold it for a maximum of three weeks. Why has that been the case?

For the answers to that question, I turn to the Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment recently released briefs - particularly The SPLM-in-Opposition and The Conflict in Unity which were on the money about the relative weakness of the rebellion in Unity, when compared with its relative strength in Upper Nile State to the east.

One reason it’s been difficult for the SPLM-IO to hold Bentiu is that Unity State is exposed to President Salva Kiir’s homeland region on Bahr el Ghazal, from which the SPLA 3rd Division (Northern Bahr el Ghazal) and SPLA 5th Division (Western Bahr el Ghazal) can reinforce the SPLA.

Second, the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), a mainly Nuer former rebel group which had accepted the government’s amnesty prior to the outbreak of conflict and had been awaiting integration into the SPLA, sided with the government, which not only provided the government with additional manpower, but also forced the Nuer soldiers in Unity to decide between remaining with the government and the SSLA or defecting to the SPLM-IO.

Despite the signing of the cessation of hostilities in January, which was never honored and, quite frankly, isn’t worth the paper it was printed on, we will continue to see the government of South Sudan and the SPLM-IO strengthen their positions before the imminent onset of the rainy season, and before peace talks gain any real traction.

Meanwhile, Toby Lanzer, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan estimated via Twitter that approximately 6 million people (2/3 the population of South Sudan) will be at severe risk of starvation or will have fled their homes by the end of 2014.

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