Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 18 December 2013

The “Coup” Attempt in South Sudan: What we know


By Eric Reeves

December 17, 2013 - It must be said first that there is a great deal that we don’t know about events that began in Juba Saturday, December 14. Indeed, it appears that there is more of importance that we don’t know than we do. But reports are coming from the ground in Juba and from a range of Sudan observers. Other sources with close contacts with the government and the military have also conveyed substantial information.

It is certainly clear that substantial military violence began the night of Sudan, Sunday, December 15 and continued into Monday, December 16. News reports today from various quarters, with a range of sources, suggest that heavy fighting resumed last night and continued into this morning (Tuesday, December 17); however, a report from someone traveling by car to different sections of Juba indicated (Tuesday, 6pm GMT) that fighting had died down since noon. But scores have been killed in the fighting, hundreds hospitalized, and ethnic tensions between Nuer and Dinka have been badly exacerbated. Many thousands of primarily Nuer have fled for the safety of the two UN compounds (the compounds are part of the UN Mission for South Sudan, UNMISS), to churches, or left Juba altogether. The United States is sufficiently concerned that it is evacuating its non-essential staff from Juba and advising U.S. citizens to leave; various humanitarian organizations are seeking to extract their personnel as well, a deeply ominous sign.

What follows is not so much a narrative as a chronology with commentary and assessments of plausibility. Much has been confidentially conveyed, though much is also sourced. Inevitably there is a lag-time between completion of writing and the events that are occurring in that moment. Even so, public news reporting has been sufficiently ragged, inconsistent, or incomplete that some attempt at broader clarification seems warranted.

If there was a genuine attempt at a military coup d’état, we need a full account. It may be as characterized by Magdi el-Gizouli of the Rift Valley Institute: “‘It doesn’t seem to be a full-fledged coup attempt in the sense that there’s an organized attempt by Machar to seize power. It appears a bit disorganized” (Wall Street Journal [Kampala], December 16, 2013). Others in Juba also find the nature of the coup puzzling—its apparently ad hoc quality hardly signifying a well-planned action. It may be, as one highly informed observer with numerous contacts in Juba has said, a “coup” that began by accident but took on a predictable political and ethnic character, of a sort that could be expected in the event of a fully developed coup plan:

“On Sunday evening shooting began in a former Joint Integrated Unit camp [stipulated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement]. We are not yet sure about what triggered the fighting, but those who began shooting are members of the Presidential Guard allied with Riek Machar. Some of his guards and those of Paulino Matip’s [a notorious defector, and re-defector, died 2012] forces were absorbed into the Guard.” (email received 5pm GMT December 16) (all highlighting within quotations is mine)

Yet another source, cited by Hannah McNeish writing for Al Jazeera, also has a good deal of plausibility:

A security expert close to the army—who asked not to be named because his access to the military depends on his anonymity—brushed off any ideas that the initial fighting was a coup attempt. He said it was sparked by rumours of arrests following a series of public statements criticizing Kiir’s increasingly dictatorial style, saying it was “an accident centred around paranoia and rumour.”

But he said the factional fighting within an army that is “a reflection of politics”—in a nation where many complain of the major tribe’s influence as a “Dinkocracy”—had the potential to ignite serious ethnic fighting nationwide. “It’s the real lack of control that anyone has that’s the dangerous thing, and especially if fighting spreads to the peripheries,” he said.

What we know is that ten former senior officials have been arrested as of 3pm GMT (Tuesday), including former Finance Minister Kosti Manibe. Just what their role is in the violence that broke out Sunday night needs to be assessed fully and with as much detail as can be established. Any judicial process must be scrupulously fair and transparent. The events of the past few days have been an immense shock to the political system in South Sudan, and pose deep and likely ongoing threats. We may be sure that the Khartoum regime, which has long waged a deliberate war of economic attrition against Juba in the hopes of its collapse, will take every opportunity to exploit present political instability.

A brief and highly selective historical chronology:

1991: Riek Machar, the focus of so much attention currently, defected from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army led by John Garang; he was joined by Lam Akol (Shilluk) and others, and the defection of troops proved a disaster for the SPLA. Ethnic tensions between the Nuer (the tribal group to which Machar belongs) and Dinka (the tribal group to which Garang and the majority of the SPLA leadership belong) were greatly exacerbated. The infamous “Bor Massacre” (of Dinka in the Bor area) for which Machar was responsible stands as an enduring historical symbol of civilian slaughter. Turning Southerner against Southerner on the basis of ethnicity was Khartoum’s most potent weapon in the long civil war.

Though these events occurred more than twenty years ago, they live on in the minds of many in their assessment of Machar.

1997: Riek Machar and Lam Akol signed the absurdly futile “Khartoum Peace Agreement.” Far from working to end the civil war, it removes Nuer and Shilluk forces from the opposition to Khartoum’s military forces and militias, setting the stage for large-scale oil development in what was at the time known as Western Upper Nile. The years from 1998 – 2002 are among the most violent and destructive of the entire civil war, with mass civilian clearances of areas in all directions around Bentiu, currently capital of Unity State and at the time epicenter for oil development activities by Canadian, Chinese, and Malaysian oil companies.

January 2005: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is signed, guaranteeing South Sudan the right to a self-determination referendum in six and a half years. John Garang remains as leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A)—effectively the interim government of South Sudan.

July 2005: Garang is killed in a helicopter crash, and Salva Kiir Mayardit is named his successor. Although also a Dinka (from a different region of the South), Salva is widely credited as being a conciliator, and this was demonstrated in his choice of Riek Machar as Vice President.

July 2011: South Sudan gained its independence, but extreme tensions remained with the Khartoum regime, which in May 2011 had ordered the military seizure of the Abyei region; Abyei was to have had its own self-determination referendum in January 2011. The results of such a referendum would certainly have seen the “residents” of Abyei vote to join the South. In March/April 2012 fighting broke out in the area south of and in Heglig, a contested border area near Abyei and in the center of oil production. The approach to resumed war was far too close.

2011 – present: It becomes increasingly clear that the South has squandered many opportunities for economic development, and that neither executive nor cabinet powers have been creatively or productively deployed, leaving the South without a single means of exporting its oil except via the pipeline through Sudan (to Port Sudan). As of December 2013 there is not a single operational refinery in South Sudan, although construction has belatedly begun in earnest. Any overland export of oil to the south or east remains years away, certainly if the commitment to an oil pipeline for transport remains primary.

Capacity within South Sudan—in all forms—remains dangerously weak, as suggested in a recent characterization of current dysfunction by Jok Madut Jok, one of the most talented men to have served in the GOSS:

“The first leg for any government is a disciplined military. We have problems with the way our military functions today. That’s a broken leg. We have civil society; right now it is very weak. The third leg is delivery of services. It is hard to deliver security … The fourth leg is political unity. We had political unity in the days leading up to the referendum [which led to independence]. Since the referendum, we have been having difficulties uniting our ranks. So right now the animal is standing on four crooked legs. If we do not fix these legs, the future is going to be very, very difficult.” (Al Jazeera, December 17, 2013)

By 2011 it had also become clear that massive corruption has seen billions of oil revenues siphoned off by a number of Southern officials. The figure is a matter of controversy, as is the question of who is responsible; but the amount is staggering and accounts for much of the lack of economic development. There has still been no adequate account of the failures in oversight of these revenues.

Spring/Summer 2013: Vice President Riek Machar and his followers engage in increasingly sharp sniping at Salva Kiir, until in July President Kiir decides that such criticism could no longer be leveled at him from within his own government, and relieves Machar of his post as Vice President. A more comprehensive cabinet shake-up occurs subsequently in July 2013, leaving many disgruntled former minister and cabinet members feeling aggrieved. Pagan Amum, a powerful figure in the SPLM/A for many years, was relieved of his role as Secretary-General of the SPLM/A in late July 2013, putting him in the camp of those critical of Salva Kiir.

Notably the charges against Salva, for the most part, are not of corruption but of wielding power “dictatorially.” Tensions have continued to build until the events of this Sunday, December 15, and exploded out of what appears to be an unplanned military confrontation that nonetheless is framed by the ethnic and political vision of Riek Machar and those disgruntled former officials who have sided with him. Since the army remains multi-ethnic, the role of Nuer-Dinka tensions—while still unclear—is almost certain to have been significant, since Machar’s personal security is almost exclusively Nuer.


Events since Saturday, December 14: (sources of information are often confidential)

Figures of note (a very partial list; those with asterisks [*] have reportedly been detained):

Salva Kiir Mayardiit: President of the Republic of South Sudan

Marial Barnaba Benjamin: current Foreign Minister, former government spokesman

Riek Machar: former Vice President of the Republic of South Sudan; dismissed July 2013; apparently in Juba, but whereabouts unknown

*John Luk: former Justice Minister

*Kosti Manibe: former Finance Minister

*Majak d’Agoot: former deputy Defense Minister

Pagan Amum: suspended Secretary-General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and a chief negotiator with Khartoum; he remains in Juba but his whereabouts are unknown

*Deng Alor: former Foreign Minister and Minister of Cabinet Affairs

Rebecca Garang: widow of John Garang, and former minister

Taban Deng, former governor of Unity State; apparently in Juba, but whereabouts unknown

*Oyay Deng Ajak, former head of national security

*Madut Biar, one-time telecommunications minister

*Cirino Hteng, former minister of sports

Saturday, December 14:

The opening of the National Liberation Council was attended by all who were politically opposed to Salva, with the exception of Deng Alor (who had left for Ethiopia several days earlier) and Pagan Amum, because he had been suspended from his position within the SPLM.

Riek, Rebecca Garang, Kosti, Gier, and several others proposed that they vote by a secret ballot instead of a show of hands; but the rules require that a third of those voting support such a motion and in the event it was defeated. There was another motion challenging the appointment of staff by the President to the National Liberation Council; again the motion was defeated.

Sunday, December 15:

Riek leaves his home, apparently to go into hiding, taking with him his personal security force.

Other members of the opposition group were not present on the Sunday session of the National Liberation Council.

Pagan Amum is reported not to have been seen since Sunday.

The most plausible account of how the fighting began is that offered above:

“On Sunday evening shooting began in a former Joint Integrated Unit camp [stipulated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement]. We are not yet sure about what triggered the fighting, but those who began shooting are members of the Presidential Guard allied with Riek Machar. Some of his guards and those of Paulino Matip’s [a notorious defector, and re-defector, died 2012] forces were absorbed into the Guard.” (email received 5pm GMT December 16)

Monday, December 16:

Fighting continued into Monday morning, when government forces gained control of Juba, and President Salva Kiir held a press conference, announcing inter alia that there would be curfew from 6pm to 6am. As widely expected, although there was relative quiet during daylight hours, fighting began again Monday night and has spilled into today (Tuesday). It is difficult to gauge how significant the fighting was, but reports received from Juba and in wire reports suggest it was substantial.

Tuesday, December 17:

There have been many reports of heavy fighting overnight from Monday to Tuesday, continuing well into Tuesday morning. The most recent reports suggest fighting is much diminished, and sporadic. The GOSS announced its detention of ten figures implicated in one way or another in the “coup.” There is still no word on the whereabouts of either Riek Machar or Pagan Amum.

Again, the United States is sufficiently concerned that it is evacuating non-essential staff from Juba, suspending normal embassy operations, even as various humanitarian organizations are seeking to extract their personnel as well.

The Future

As noted above, Salva Kiir has been celebrated in the past as having a conciliatory manner, in sharp contrast to the often autocratic style of John Garang, who was leading a rebel movement, not governing a country. That reputation has served Salva well, but many argue—including those in the opposition group—that he has become increasingly “dictatorial.” Indeed, the word is a virtual mantra in criticism of Salva. It is here that judgments will vary most. What it is important to say of Salva is that he has not taken action against those who have opposed him politically outside the government. At the same time, government security forces have often trampled badly on press freedoms, especially when news reporting is critical of the government Salva heads. (A lengthy recent conversation with a senior GOSS official convinces me that the problem is certainly recognized, and that greater efforts are being made to halt these threats to a basic freedom.) There have been severe human rights abuses in Jonglei, both in disarmament efforts and in the ongoing effort to defeat the Khartoum-backed rebel forces of David Yau Yau of the Murle tribe. Atrocities have been committed again Murle civilians, although Salva’s government has recently moved against these abuses and there have been a number of arrests.

But events have forced on Kiir the most difficult challenge of his presidency, and have called into serious question his viability as a candidate in the 2015 presidential election as the SPLM candidate. There are a number of urgent steps he must take to secure the confidence of the international community, and to put the Nuer community at ease in the Juba area and elsewhere. Critically, he must ensure that fighting does not spread, and he must do whatever is necessary to forestall this most dangerous of possibilities. A South divided against itself will be largely helpless to resist military incursions by Khartoum’s forces, either in the oil regions (Upper Nile and Unity states), in Kafia Kingi and other areas in Western Bahr el-Ghazal that clearly are in the South according to all maps of 1956, and in the contested areas of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, especially those around Kiir Adem. Abyei, seized in May 2011, will become fully part of northern Sudan.

There are no simple answers here. Salva must recognize that the charge of his being “dictatorial” has taken deep hold, and he must do what is necessary to shed the label as much as possible. There are a number of possibilities. He must also do more to enlist the “best and the brightest” of South Sudanese—whatever ethnicity or political disposition—in the critical tasks of building a South that functions effectively in utilizing its many resources: human, agricultural, minerals and oil, timber, eco-tourism, and others. But others must put aside their personal agendas and work shoulder to shoulder with Salva. The task of building South Sudan is one for many hands, and if those hands are carrying guns, they cannot possibly do the work that is essential.

Eric Reeves can be reached at: ereeves@smith.edu

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  • 18 December 2013 08:45, by Mr Point

    A clear and concise account that falls short of drawing the obvious conclusion.
    Kiir has used the accidental conflict to fabricate a coup attempt. He has swiftly rounded up his main critics for summary trial. He has given up the role of conciliator for that of dictator.
    A few days ago Machar spoke of his fears that free fair elections would not be allowed in 2015.
    Now we know.

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    • 18 December 2013 10:18, by Dinka Nhialic

      Mr Point
      We know u so far of being an origin of malitia group in South Sudan, if u can ask u, what democratic process are u talking about? Are we in 2015 election? let us accept the truths this defetor Dr Riek is the useless person completely, the person who can never ever never be a president of this Republic of South Sudan due to his acts, he betray the entire Nuer cos of his stupidity.

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      • 18 December 2013 12:18, by Mr Point

        This paranoid President has dissolved the SPLM structures over the past months. His dictatorial rendencies are out.
        He has failed to remove the divisions in civil society. He has destroyed democratic argument. He uses the nation’s army to solve his own political weakness. It will result in civil war.
        The SPLM is dead because he can’t face the ballot. He wants to be President for life.

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  • 18 December 2013 11:18, by Mohammed Ali 2

    It is just funny that all your concern is about Khartoum to exploit, incursion....What is your problem with Khartoum?You are not worried about the hundreds or thousands who already died" minister of defence as reported in Aljazeera yesterday 500 already died"If this situation is not contained in 5 days it will be open ended war.Khartoum will be the 1st to suffer!Nobody in Sudan wants this war.

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    • 18 December 2013 11:54, by sudani ana

      Mohammad Ali 2:
      You took the words right out of my mouth. This idiot Reeves seems to have an irrational obsession with Sudan, I’d not be surprised if we learn that he believed Sudan was responsible for the hole in the Ozone layer. Sudan now has a good and strategic relationship with the South, why should we desire the unknown?? Reeves,you need mental health treatment.

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      • 18 December 2013 13:25, by Akook

        Sudani & Mohamed, leave Mr Eric alone. We in the South are aware how North Sudan is shedding crocodile tears when it comes to South turning against itself. No doubt you really worked hard for this before. North will and had already exploited this SITUATION since they have been engaging with faction within the SPLM at a time no much had been resolved yet including contentious border issues

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        • 18 December 2013 14:31, by Mohammed Ali 2

          Akook, it is always easy to blame the jalabba!This didn’t solve your problems in the past & wont now or in the future!It is so stupid to think Sudan will benefit from the situation.People & nations thrives in peace not in death,or war.Look at this site & count how many time the word " kill" or "death" comes from you & then blame the jalabba!It is amazingly easy or should I say frighteningly easy!

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          • 19 December 2013 09:26, by EES Kingmaker

            Mohammed Ali 2,
            Reeves is not accusing Khartoum in any way. He is an analyst who has ‘no stake’ with both nations. Many Sudanese politicians made it clear some time back that they wanted unity of the Sudan because South Sudanese couldn’t manage themselves. This statement was repeated, exaggerated and given the flavor it does not deserve to extent that even British Government and other foreign

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            • 19 December 2013 09:28, by EES Kingmaker

              Governments in Africa were reluctant to let South Sudan go as a separate nation. What do you call this? Is it not ill intention on Sudan’s political establishment since it started flexing its muscles and hegemony on the South in 1956? By the way Bashir was the second neighboring leader after Uhuru Kenyatta to have called President Kiir to express their sympathy.

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              • 19 December 2013 09:29, by EES Kingmaker

                Accordingly he said he did for solidarity purpose but ostensibly he actually did shed crocodile tears__a known willful posture for Sudanese politicians and extremist intellectuals for over fifty years when country came under bad, forced unity. Take it from me that no any political confusion in South Sudan with hidden or direct hands of Khartoum. This is a fact proven for the last six or so years.

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                • 19 December 2013 09:32, by EES Kingmaker

                  Take it from me that no any political confusion in South Sudan without hidden or direct hands of Khartoum. This is a fact proven for the last six or so years.

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        • 18 December 2013 14:52, by sudani ana

          "We may be sure that the Khartoum regime, which has long waged a deliberate war of economic attrition against Juba in the hopes of its collapse, will take every opportunity to exploit present political instability."
          Can you believe this man? He would use anything to blame/attack Sudan. If he gets constipated tomorrow that would be Sudan’s fault!!!! You need urgent psychiatric help.

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          • 18 December 2013 22:16, by Akol Liai Mager

            Yes I can believe Eric for telling the truth. Not-Sudani-Inta what else was the reason for the North Sudan racist Arabs have to wage a scorched earth based war against innocent and peaceful African people in S South Nuba Mts and Darfur if not the truth Eric has revealed? South Sudan will just be fine as its people have started now realising how dangerous corporation with NIF’ Fugitive leaders is.

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  • 18 December 2013 19:30, by Joseph Canada

    Blaming Khartoum for this manufactured and planned disruption by the uneducated President who don’t know how to keep the civility and maintain peace in the country. Don’t blame him either because the only education he knew is guns and blood that he’s used to with his Bloody tribe. He can’t debate, he can’t even say Jokes. This is Sad. Also most of people claim that he was elected . He was not.

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    • 18 December 2013 19:37, by Joseph Canada

      He came to presidency because of referendum. You all forgot quirky when he asked his now enemy to be on the ballot when he wins then he can take over as president?. What apathetic tribal man and his tribe. The born to rule culture need to seize then peace will prevail in South Sudan.

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  • 21 December 2013 14:25, by Whortti Bor Manza

    Eric Reeves, you may be partly right. The following characterize Kiir: tribalist of the first order, tyrant and dictator, a great liar, incompetent, an alcoholic and a great womanizer. proof; Wau incidence of 2012. Kiir said if he were the governor of WBGS he would have commanded the fight against the fertits. All the security forces and key positions are dominated by Dinkas from Warrap. There was

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    • 21 December 2013 14:37, by Whortti Bor Manza

      was no coup whatsoever. These were pure lies, distortion and propaganda designed and orchestrated by Kiir to discredit Riek. The brutal killings of Nuer by Dinka SPLA was evidently clear. Up to this date, bloating corpses could still be found in the areas of 107, Mangaat, Gudelle etc. Kiir will never listen unless the muzzle of smoking guns tell him. This is a deaf eared man blinded by dinkocracy.

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      • 21 December 2013 14:46, by Whortti Bor Manza

        The SPLA is a tribally based army with hyper degree of indiscipline. A Dinka SPLA soldier will only salute a Dinka superior. SPLA are good at unleashing brutality and utmost violence against civilians. The SPLA will never sustain any conventional battle. There is need for a true organized rebellion to get rid of Kiir. The more Kiir stays in power, the more sufferings for South Sudanese.

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        • 22 December 2013 12:02, by Mohammed Ali 2

          Manza: A true organized rebillion ?! Are you cray,insane?!To be honest to be honest all SPLA soldier will never abide by any law.To be honest, all SPLA members follow their tribe and the state or nation means nothing to them.They all feel above the law.This is why they kill indiscrimintly, they loot, rape indiscrimintly.To blame Dinka only is unfair and not constructive.....con

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          • 22 December 2013 12:10, by Mohammed Ali 2

            Manza, Con: Your call for a rebillion is quite irresponsible!Any rebillion will mean mass slaughter for so many poor, innocent pple. I don’t care whether they are Dinka, Neuer, Arabs, Americans or whatever, these are human beings who deserve to live the same way you or me do.You know it, as I do, SS is still " very" tribal.In most of Sudan tribe has been reduced to a joke;in SS, not yet...con

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            • 22 December 2013 12:18, by Mohammed Ali 2

              Manza, CON: Any call of war will mean death of huge number of pple.For God sake, be honest with yourself.The number of those who died already much higher than what is reported by the failed state lobby " Luka said the 500 could be 1000 in Juba only, more than 300 in Bor" Do you want more; does that make you happy.PEACE is easy, simple & very beautiful.Peace is hope.

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  • 22 December 2013 12:54, by Mohammed Ali 2

    When will prof. Doom stop lying? When the Enough propogandists say Enough lying.They are the cause of death of so many pple in SS & Sudan.With their greed and love of easy money, they were the cause of misery for so many innocent pple.The"Failed state lobby" is cause of all the plight of SS & Sudan.http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/09/the_failed_state_lobby#sthash.n7wFLIkV.dpbs

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  • 22 December 2013 20:42, by SouthSudaneseviews

    Eric Reeves, you are misleading people about the event of the 1991. Please is not Bor Massacre it is Eastern Dinka massacre, Jonglei Dinka massacre, Southeastern Dinka massacre, Upper Nile Dinka massacre, etc. Next times don’t mislead public, you have to make your about tribes or sub-tribes of South Sudan properly. If you want "Bor Massacre" the event of 2013 is the really one and not the 1991.

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  • 22 December 2013 20:42, by SouthSudaneseviews

    Eric Reeves, you are misleading people about the event of the 1991. Please is not Bor Massacre it is Eastern Dinka massacre, Jonglei Dinka massacre, Southeastern Dinka massacre, Upper Nile Dinka massacre, etc. Next times don’t mislead public, you have to make your about tribes or sub-tribes of South Sudan properly. If you want "Bor Massacre" the event of 2013 is the really one and not the 1991.

    repondre message

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