Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 12 May 2014

Cease-fire in South Sudan falters

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By Eric Reeves,

May 11, 2014 — There are many threats to the cease-fire signed on Friday, May 9, 2014 by Salva Kiir, President of the Republic of South Sudan, and Riek Machar, former Vice President and nominal "leader" of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/In Opposition (SPLA/IO). Not least among them is the woeful inadequacy of command-and-control by the SPLA/IO. Much of this stems from a continuous misreporting about Riek Machar and his "leadership" within the rebel movement. He is not the leader of the political opposition, and indeed is the only major figure pushing for military rebellion; the title of "opposition leader" probably belongs to Rebecca Garang or Pagan Amum, and both have publicly declared the urgent need for substantial reform, but also that this cannot be achieved by military means.

But nor is Riek a true leader of the forces in the field, increasingly divided along ethnic lines and divided by a vast geography with almost no communications or transport infrastructure (and the seasonal rains have already begun). For example, his control of the White Army (Nuer youth militia) is highly doubtful, and he simply doesn’t have the ability to communicate with the widespread military forces that are much more heterogeneous than the title "SPLA/In Opposition" would suggest.

There are authoritative reports of fighting in and around Bentiu (Unity State) this morning (May 11, 2014 EST). One reason may be suggested by this extraordinary quote obtained by Radio Tamazuj (May 11, 2014):

Lul Ruai, spokesman of the SPLA-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO), said their forces on the ground still did not receive any directives from the opposition leadership on Saturday [May 10].

If this is true—that a day after the "landmark" cease-fire agreement, SPLA/IO forces in the field had still not received any directives from the military "leadership"—we catch a glimpse of the immense obstacles to an effective cease-fire. Individual fighting units will likely be making critical decisions on the basis of woefully inadequate information. An accidental shot might turn into a full-scale battle. Rumors will spread like wildfire if there is no authoritative communication-and-command system in place to control actions by opposition forces. Only widespread, credible monitoring can forestall dangerous rumors, deliberate misinformation, and propaganda.

Remarkably, this same SPLA/IO spokesman (Lul Ruai) declared today in the midst of the fighting:

"The violations of the Agreement to Resolve the Crisis in South Sudan shows that (President Salva) Kiir is either insincere or not in control of his forces," rebel military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said in a statement. (Middle East On-Line, May 11, 2014)

There are certainly real command and control issues for the SPLA; but this is the same spokesman who declared that SPLA/IO forces hadn’t even received any "directives" proceeding from the cease-fire agreement—the day after it was signed.

We must also wonder where UNMISS and the IGAD Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (MVM) are: to this point they have not been able to confirm publicly the nature of the fighting that has occurred today (Reuters reports today an anonymous "UN official" as confirming the heavy fighting around Bentiu). It was clear to all who would only look that the first day or two would be the most dangerous for the cease-fire: why were urgent deployment preparations not made even before the signing of the cease-fire? Why was the MVM not fully ready to begin actual deployment the moment the agreement was signed, or first thing Saturday (May 10) morning?

And where is Secretary of John Kerry now? Apparently South Sudan received its one and a half days of attention, and now—after a week in Africa—Kerry is home. Perhaps he is sailing today. He does appear to be following, and indulging in unctuous condemnations of, the agonizing tragedy of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of some 300 Nigerian girls; but this must be put in the balance with hundreds of thousands of lives at acute risk in South Sudan. Clearly kidnappings have touched an emotional nerve, and American diplomacy seems to be prepared to respond to this atrocity as an extraordinary priority. But here we might ask why Kerry has expressed so little explicit concern for the thousands of girls—some as young as eight and even younger—who have been brutally raped, often gang-raped, in Darfur? Hundreds have died or suffered grave physical injury from the consequences of these horrific crimes, and all will be traumatized for life. And the rapes continue on a daily basis.

Do you have an eye for anything that is not in the "diplomatic limelight," Mr. Kerry?

And where are the militarily capable nations of Europe, which might have provided critical transport, communications, and logistical assistance? We have heard much from these nations about the urgent need for fighting to be stopped in South Sudan, and for accountability, even sanctions. But at the moment of true need, when there was a cease-fire in the making that required careful observation and monitoring, especially in its critical opening hours, the Europeans have been caught flat-footed. They have done nothing to speed the IGAD Monitoring and Verification Mechanism into the areas most prone to violence and cease-fire violations. The world is flying blind, with the exception of what UNMISS can report—which to date, is nothing about the cease-fire violations they are well aware are occurring.

It may already be too late for any vestige of the cease-fire to be saved: news of the fighting in and around Bentiu is being reported in ways that are dangerously vague; it is already being used for propaganda purposes. All that can give this acutely vulnerable cease-fire a chance is urgent international commitment to rapid and effective monitoring. IGAD’s MVM is not up to the task; only nations with an urgent response capability can assist MVM and UNMISS in ways that provide true monitoring. For one thing should have been clear to all: that without effective, timely monitoring, this cease-fire never had a chance.

Eric Reeves US-based researcher on Sudan and South Sudan.



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