Ahead of peace talks, a who’s who in South Sudan’s civil war
JUBA, 12 April 2018
When the third round of talks aimed at revitalising the chances of peace in South Sudan gets underway in Addis Ababa on 26 April, the
country’s influential former military chief wants to be at the table.
Paul Malong’s announcement on Tuesday, 10 April, that he was launching a new opposition party added an extra element of uncertainty into the mix ahead of potentially pivotal talks aimed at restoring a permanent ceasefire and reviving a collapsed 2015 peace agreement.
More than four million people, one third of the population, have fled
their homes since South Sudan’s brutal war began in December 2013,
creating the largest refugee crisis in Africa since the 1994 Rwandan
genocide, and parts of the country have plunged towards famine.
Accused of human rights atrocities against civilians, Malong was
sanctioned last year by the United States for obstructing peace talks,
international peacekeeping efforts, and humanitarian missions.
Malong’s group, the South Sudan-United Front, is one of as many as 14
opposition groups seeking to join the discussions in the Ethiopian
capital on 26 April, many of which already see the Intergovernmental
Authority on Development (IGAD) process as discredited.
Announcing the formation of his new group from exile in Kenya, Malong
said he wanted to “arrest the carnage” of South Sudan’s ongoing war,
stating that President Salva Kiir “has concentrated all his efforts,
with the help of a small clique around him, to quite literally loot
the coffers of our great nation to total bankruptcy.”
Malong’s new grouping is being portrayed both as a political party and
as a form of rebellion, but experts say any large-scale military
ambitions he may harbour are likely in their infancy.
“Malong has yet to show the capability to launch a potent rebellion,”
explained Alan Boswell, conflict analyst and Sudan expert for Small
Arms Survey, a Geneva-based group focusing on armed violence. “The
declaration of his rebel movement is a political move, not a military
one. He is seeking to legitimise and protect his interests during the
political process in Addis Ababa.”
South Sudan’s war began after Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his
former deputy Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of attempting a coup.
Fighting has since killed more than 50,000 people, with the Sudan
People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO)
the main parties to the conflict.
A peace agreement was signed in August 2015, during Malong’s time as
army chief, but the war has since splintered into myriad inter- and
intra-communal conflicts, incorporating previously localised disputes
over land, resources, and power. Observers say the dynamics change
Peace talks have continuously failed and the security situation is
unpredictable at best in many parts of the country. The nation is
largely divided along ethnic lines – especially since the creation of
new states, now a total of 32 – and traditional front lines are
changing into widespread guerrilla warfare, with numerous militias
also involved in the fighting.
The IGAD-led peace process has proven difficult to resurrect.
Opposition groups say IGAD partner states Uganda and Kenya (accused by
the UN of fuelling the conflict by supplying weapons) are on Kiir’s
side. Some are arguing for the African Union and the UN to take over.
While some observers still back the IGAD process and think it’s
important to give it the best chance possible, others see it is an
outside intervention that has already failed and blame it for helping
to further fragment the conflict.
The mandate for Kiir’s transitional government is due to run out in
July and a government spokesman warned on Friday, 6 April, that any
foot-dragging during negotiations by the opposition could lead to
The UN has warned that any attempt to hold elections before the
country is in a more stable environment only risks deepening and
extending the conflict.
With time running out, achieving some progress in the next round of
talks is paramount. But the omens for steps towards peace aren’t
looking great. “It’s the national dialogue that will move this country
forward,” First Vice President Taban Deng Gai said last month during a
speech in Yambio. “It needs to happen in South Sudan; it can’t happen
The main groups
As the picture is muddied ahead of the peace talks in Addis Ababa,
here’s a quick look at Malong’s new group and some of the other main
The South Sudan-United Front
The jury may still be out on whether Malong’s primary intentions are
political or military, but his new SS-UF group could become a major
factor on the front line as the former army chief likely still enjoys
considerable support in his hometown of Aweil and the surrounding
The main opposition group, the SPLA-IO, is already actively
encouraging Malong’s military ambitions. “His movement is a big threat
to the government, because he will fight in areas that we have never
reached, like the Bhar-el-Ghazal region,” SPLA-IO spokesman Lam Paul
Gabriel said, adding, “Malong will expose a lot in the peace
negotiations, making it difficult for the government to handle the
Malong has announced his intention to join the talks in Addis Ababa,
but it’s not yet clear if he will be permitted to participate in the
“Malong is a hardline defector from within Kiir’s Dinka power base,”
explained Boswell. “The main threat he poses is from within Kiir’s
coalition rather than from outside. If Malong is invited to join the
peace process, then the government will protest and could use it as a
pretext to roadblock the process.”
Serving as governor of Northern Bhar-el-Ghazal between 2008 and 2014,
Malong was made chief of the army in January 2014. In May 2017, he was
sacked and placed under house arrest in South Sudan’s capital, Juba,
until he fled while supposedly seeking medical treatment. He now lives
exiled in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)
South Sudan’s government-controlled army was founded in 1983 by
‘father of the nation’ John Garang. A collection of smaller militias
such as the Mathiang Anyoor, which Malong was accused of controlling
and which are accused of human rights atrocities, normally support the
Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO)
Loyal to Machar, the SPLA-IO is the SPLA’s main opponent. It usually
has the support of some smaller youth militias such as the White Army
in Northern Jonglei. Government accusations that Machar and the
SPLA-IO were planning a coup resulted in the start of the civil war on
15 December 2013.
After new fighting erupted in the capital Juba in July 2016 and Machar
fled the country, Taban Deng Gai was instated as the new first vice
president. Some members of the SPLA-IO were loyal to Taban Deng and
now still support Kiir’s government. This nominally opposition faction
loyal to Taban Deng remains a separate entity from both the SPLA and
the SPLA-IO in most parts of the country, but is pro-government. Most
of the opposition forces across the country are an array of local,
non-Dinka ethnic groups.
The Shilluk Agwelek militia
The Agwelek forces have fought both alongside the SPLA and the SPLA-IO
(those loyal to Machar). Primarily focused on defending Shilluk land
in South Sudan’s Upper Nile, the group is predominantly loyal to
Johnson Olony, believed to side with the opposition.
National Salvation Front (NAS)
Most of the NAS rebels are from the country’s Equatoria region and
were previously with the opposition loyal to Machar but later joined
Thomas Cirillo Swaka, Kiir’s former deputy head of logistics who
resigned in February 2017 and accused the president of turning South
Sudan into a “tribal army”.
Murle and Bul Nuer Communities
These ethnic groups are currently pro-government.
Western Equatoria has several armed groups, some of which recently
signed amnesty agreements with the government, such as the South Sudan
People’s Patriotic Front and the South Sudan National Liberation
Movement (SSNLM). Many of the child soldiers released in Yambio in
February were previously captured by the SSNLM.
Groups like the Gelweng (armed cattle keepers from Lakes State), the
Mathiang Anyoor, and the White Army rely on local community
structures. It is estimated that South Sudan has at least 40 different
armed groups. New ones continue to emerge, particularly due to the
conflict spreading to the Equatoria and Northern Upper Nile regions.