Llyr Attala

The Causes of the 1991 Split

Academics frequently identify the 1991 split in the SPLA as a major turning point in the militarization of South Sudanese societies. While major cultural changes are a gradual process, the 1991 divide, and consequent violence, marked a significant period in the militarization of South Sudan that must be understood to comprehend modern violence. The first civil war in Sudan had been racked by internal fissions among the rebels and the SPLA wanted to ensure that did not happen again. As a result, they relied on tactics used by many other independence movements- the repression of dissent and internal disagreements with brutal tactics. The military style leadership was successful in expanding control and successes against the north, but it meant it relied on force to create cohesion, not discussion or dialogue. The civil administrative side of the movement, and the political, was minimized as a result and was far weaker than the military side, the repercussions which still reverberate today (Johnson 2003:91).

Since the early 1980’s the primary backer of the SPLA was the regime in Ethiopia led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. His support for Garang meant that he was able to carry out his style of leadership. Civilian figures in the movement, such as veteran politicians and respected judges, were sidelined in favor of Garang’s military leadership. There was no national convention of the SPLM until 1994, years after the split (Johnson 2003:91). Leaders who opposed Garang’s leadership, or attempted to find support with Mengistu, were arrested and some even executed (ibid). A lack of centralized coordination was a problem that had always existed in South Sudan, partially due to mobility issues in the terrain. However, it was finally realized in 1987 that a new policy was needed for civil and administrative matters (ibid:93). This led to reconciliation efforts and peace deals with other rebel factions and ethnic militias, as well as attempts to resolve ethnic tensions such as a truce between the Murle, Nuer and Anuak in 1990. However, the military goals of the movement and military leaders were always the priority (ibid).

Frustrations began to increase as leaders questioned if the war was being extended to support Mengistu’s need to undermine the Sudanese government (the Sudanese government was supporting Ethiopian rebels at the time) (Johnson 2003:93). In addition many people in Bahr al Ghazal and Upper Nile began to wonder why Garang and Kuol Manyang had a significant portion of the equipment and troops for their Equatorian fronts. However, there was no established means of dialogue within the party to discuss these issues. The two leaders who did push for more democratic leadership and accountability were two top Upper Nile commanders: Riek Machar and Lam Akol . Both had been appointed by Garang and were non-voting members of the High Command (ibid). Initially both were used as representatives of the SPLA in external meetings and Lam Akol was highly involved in the negotiations to create the UN OLS (Operation Lifeline Sudan) (ibid). By 1990 both men had been sent to field posts and perceived that they were being excluded from the leadership and decisions. The shift in military prioritization from Machar and Akol’s area of Upper Nile to the Equatorias also meant they felt at increased risk militarily. Lam Akol led the initiative to remove Garang from his position of leadership within the party (ibid). It was recommended that any internal reform include Riek Machar as he had proved popular among the Nuer population as well as a commander within the SPLA. Many who were responsive to the two commanders ideas did not fully support a change in leadership, but did want internal reform within the party (ibid:94).

The fall of the SPLA’s primary benefactor, the Ethiopian Mengistu regime, to Ethiopian rebels in May 1991 had major repercussions for the SPLA. The loss of supply lines, military bases, and refugee camps in Ethiopia saw 350,000 people flee back across the border (HRW 1994). The Upper Nile command now had hundreds of thousands of people, while at the same time many weapons and supplies had been sent to the Equatorian front, as Garang intended on taking Juba before the Mengistu regime fell. This did not happen and it left the Upper Nile commanders of the SPLA increasingly vulnerable with the oncoming rainy season (Johnson 2003:94). The Khartoum government restricted the amount of humanitarian aid that could reach Nasir and put further pressure on the two commanders. U.S. frustration with Garang’s alliance with Mengistu’s regime (an ally of the Soviets) and the reports of thousands of boys being recruited and trained for the SPLA was perceived by both Machar and Akol as an opportunity to challenge his leadership (ibid:95).

However, by August 1991 many of the leaders were not supporting their move to reform the party. The weak position the SPLA found themselves in after the fall of Mengistu meant that many did not want to risk weakening the movement even further at that time (Johnson 2003:96). This led Lam Akol and Riek Machar to push to remove Garang as leader, rather than carry out internal reform. After announcing the coup in August over the radio the two leaders played to the gallery by calling for a more democratic movement, criticizing Garang’s use of child soldiers and pushing for an independent nation, rather than a unified secular state (which Garang advocated)(ibid:97). However, only one commander joined them immediately- Gordon Kong Chuol, the former head of Anyanya II, which also shared the goal of independence. The two commanders had spent time securing external support but had not been able to do the same within South Sudan. It was hoped the Equatorians would join due to their desire for independence and historic anti-Dinka sentiment. Bahr al Ghazal had been excluded relative to other parts of the country in strategy and relief support, and it was thought they might also join (ibid). However, only those already under their command in Upper Nile rallied behind them and their new SPLM/A-Nasir faction. The SPLA under Garang came to be called SPLM/A-Torit, or SPLM/A-Mainstream. The split saw minor skirmishes between groups of soldiers who declared loyalty to the different factions. This was particularly intense among the Shilluk community as many refused to support Lam Akol’s leadership and a serious encounter between the two groups turned bloody, even though the reth (king) Ayang Kur Nyidhok attempted to calm down the situation (ibid) .

As Machar realized his SPLA-Nasir movement did not have widespread support after his coup with Lam Akol, he needed to gain the upper hand militarily. Much of the SPLA manpower and equipment was in the Equatorias preparing for an assault on Juba. If Garang was able to take and control the regional capital of Juba, he would solidify his position as the head of the movement. Machar received guns from the Khartoum government and relied on the fastest method of recruitment he had- the mobilization of young men from the Nuer cattle camps (better known as the White Army). Anyanya II fighters also joined his movement and members of both SPLA-Nasir and Anyanya II along with Nuer youth were all sent to Bor to carry out an attack on Garang’s homeland (Johnson 2003:98).

Garang promptly directed a Nuer commander, William Nyuon, to advance with his troops to Ayod. The SPLA-Nasir faction in Ayod fought off the advance and pursued the SPLA-Torit soldiers into Kongor (near Bor), Jonglei in Dinka territory (Johnson 2003:97). There was little control and the Nasir faction soldiers targeted civilians, likely due to the fact that Kongor was Garang’s homeland. Garang retaliated by sending more troops to Kongor to retake it and others to Leer and Adok as the troops there had aligned with SPLA-Nasir (Machar being from Adok). These advances were repulsed and Machar launched a larger attack against Kongor and Bor with support from old members of Anyanya II and armed civilians (ibid:98). It is assumed that Machar believed that if he could defeat Garang in his own territory it would give him the upper hand and other commanders would switch to his Nasir faction. However, many would later claim to also have warned him to get the troops under better control or send a senior commander who could control discipline (ibid). Either way, the following attack at the end of 1991 by SPLA-Nasir and their allies in Kongor and Bor is now better known as the “Bor Massacre”, where at least two thousand Dinka civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced (HRW 1994). The plan backfired on Machar completely as the targets were primarily civilians including women, children and the elderly. Machar lost both international and domestic support for his faction due to this targeting of civilians. To this day his involvement with the Bor Massacre still defines him among much of the population. It also was the catalyst for the cycle of retaliatory attacks by both sides against civilians, and is perceived as the start of the legitimisation of civilians as targets of war.

Due to lack of resources to finance the warfare it was recognized that the Nasir faction were receiving weapons from the Khartoum regime. The Nasir faction lost significant support from the international community as a result of the targeting of civilians, and the faction’s support and contacts with the Khartoum regime directly led to a loss in support with the wider South Sudanese community as it stood in stark contrast to their stated aims of South Sudanese independence (Johnson 2003:98-99). Lam Akol had met with Khartoum representatives in Nairobi in September 1991 while he was there for reconciliation talks with Garang. The contacts from that meeting sent money via Nairobi and Taban Deng Gai was sent as the Nasir faction representative to Khartoum where he supervised airdrops of supplies and met with the top Sudanese leadership (ibid). Garang and his SPLM/A Torit supporters believed that the support from Sudan was proof that the regime had orchestrated the split for their own benefit and it was not actually due to internal reform as Lam Akol and Riek Machar had claimed. According to Johnson, Machar had relied on Khartoum as a means of removing Garang from power, but as the rest of the movement had not supported him he ended up relying on them for survival, which meant Khartoum ended up directing much of his movement’s military strategy (ibid).

Collins, Robert O. 2008. A History of Modern Sudan. Cambridge University Press.

Holt, P.M. & Daly, M.W. 2011. A History of the Sudan: From the Coming of Islam to the Present Day. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group. London and New York.

Human Rights Watch. 1994. Sudan: Civilian Devastation- Abuses by all parties in the war in Southern Sudan. New York.

Johnson, Douglas. 2003. Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars. Oxford: Currey.

Jok, M.J. and S. Hutchinson. 1999. “Sudan’s Prolonged Second Civil War and the Militarization of Nuer and Dinka Ethnic Identities.” African Studies Review 42(2): 125-45. (https://db.tt/nkMlG74a)

Nyaba, Peter. 2001. “The Disarmamament of the Gelweng of Bahr el Ghazal and The consolidation of the Nuer-Dinka Peace Agreement 1999.” (https://db.tt/umNSgolg)

Nyaba, Peter. 1996. The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View. Fountain Publishing.

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