Llyr Attala

Major armed groups in South Sudan

SPLM/A- Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army

The SPLM/A, formed in 1983 after the Bor mutiny, was engaged in more than two decades of civil war against the Khartoum regime. John Garang was the leader of the movement, until he was killed in a helicopter clash in July 2005. As part of its official rhetoric of the “New Sudan”, the SPLM/A called for a secular and democratically reformed state. It initially received support from the Ethiopian Mengistu regime until its collapse in 1991. The same year tensions in the leadership saw the creation of the breakaway SPLA-Nasir faction led by Riek Machar, Lam Akol and Gordon Kong (Machar re-joined the SPLM/A in 2002). Tensions within the SPLM leadership in 2013 prompted President Kiir to dismiss Riek Machar from his position of Vice President, and later Pagan Amum was removed from his post of SPLM Secretary General. These tensions came to a boil in late 2013 after top politicians walked out of a SPLM meeting, after which violence broke out within the Presidential guards in Juba, escalating into a nation wide conflict.

Anyanya and Anyanya II

Anyanya was the name of the Southern rebel movement involved in the first civil war between 1955 and 1972.

The Anyanya II uprising started in the late 1970s, and was initially made up of a number of independent Nuer groups pushing for independence from Sudan. Support from the Mengistu regime (Ethiopia) in 1982 helped organize the movement, but Mengistu later decided to support Garang and the newly formed SPLA in 1983. Clashes occurred between the SPLA and Anyanya II in the years that followed. The Anyanya II forces were largely integrated into the SPLA between 1988 and 1990, although not all- the most significant exception being Paulino Matiep. Despite joining forces with the SPLA, many of the Nuer Anyanya II stayed in their areas of origin, and then joined the side of the SPLA-Nasir faction after the 1991 split.

SSDF- South Sudan Defense Force

The South Sudan Defense Force was the name given to the southern rebel groups who signed the 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement with the government in Khartoum. These groups included Riek Machar’s forces (SSIM) and other independent commanders. Machar left in 2000 to form the SPDF and the SSDF was then led by Gatluak Deng until late 2002 and afterwards Paulino Matiep.

SSDM/A- South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army

Former SPLA General George Athor began SSDM/A after losing the election for governor of Upper Nile in 2010. See the post-2005 insurgency section for more.

SSLM/A- South Sudan Liberation Movement/Army

Peter Gadet began the SSLM/A in 2011 when he defected from the SPLA. After a few attacks he signed a ceasefire later that year, but other splinter factions who disagreed with his decision to sign a ceasefire continued to use the name.The SSDM/A and SSLM/A later joined into one movement around 2012, which can lead to confusion as the acronyms are often interchanged when speaking of movements such as Yau Yau’s.

SSIM/A- South Sudan Independence Movement

The South Sudan Independence Movement was the name taken by Machar’s faction in late 1994 (the earlier names being SPLA-Nasir and SPLA-United). The name was taken to highlight the group’s political goal of southern independence from Sudan, which was different from the official rhetoric of the SPLA. SSIM/A was a signatory to the Khartoum Peace Agreement in 1997 and it became part of the newly formed SSDF. Machar later left in 2000 to form the anti-government SPDF.


The name SPLA-United has been used by two different groups, neither which exists today, which leads to confusion. Initially it was the new name for Riek Machar’s SPLA-Nasir faction between March 1993 and 1994. The addition of new individuals in the leadership led to a name change, and SPLA-United was selected to replace SPLA-Nasir. However, in 1994 the name changed again to SSIM/A.

The second usage of SPLA-United was for the Shilluk movement of Lam Akol. Akol was expelled from the original SPLA-United by Machar in February 1994. When Machar changed the name of his movement to SSIM/A, Lam Akol took on the SPLA-United moniker for his own movement. The Lam Akol SPLA-United later joined the government in 1997 as part of the Khartoum Peace Agreement.

SPDF- Sudan People’s Democratic Front/Defense Forces

The Sudan People’s Democratic Front or Sudan People’s Defense Forces (the political branch and the military branch) were a rebel movement formed by Riek Machar in 2000. It later merged with the SPLM/A in January 2002.


The faction that split from the SPLA, led by Riek Machar, Gordon Kong and Lam Akol, in 1991 was initially called SPLA-Nasir, from the town in Upper Nile where they had their main base. This group later changed its name to SPLA-United in 1993, and then Riek Machar changed it to SSIM/A in 1994.


After the 1991 split, those who remained loyal to John Garang came to be called SPLA Mainstream, to differentiate them from those who were loyal to the new faction(s). They were also called SPLA-Torit, as the town of Torit in Eastern Equatoria was the main base of Garang´s faction at the time.

Red Army

The Red Army, or Jesh Amer, was part of a military unit within SPLA, consisting of boys from many parts of the country. The boys received military training by the SPLA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This occurred in refugee camps in Ethiopia, where only boys were placed, as well as schools within South Sudan - both of which were administered by the SPLA. (see Child Soldiers section for more details)

White Army

The White Army, or dec bor in Nuer (alternatively dech bor or dech en bor), is the term used to describe armed Nuer civilians who mobilize for defense and aggression. The White Army is primarily made up of untrained fighters, and is led and coordinated by youth leaders from within the community structures. The White Army first gained notoriety as a proxy militia in the wars within the SPLA in the 1990s on the side of the SPLA Nasir faction. In recent years it has been used as a means of defense and aggression in inter-ethnic clashes between the Nuer and Murle ethnic groups in Jonglei. Currently it has sided with Riek Machar’s SPLA-in-Opposition due to the perceived threat towards Nuer, but once again it is largely independent and has its own parallel leadership structures.


The titweng, or gelweng, literally translate as “cattle guards” in Dinka. After SPLA-Nasir raids into Dinka territory in the early 1990s the community demanded protection or weapons for self-protection. They received the weapons and training in how to use them. What began as a community defense structure turned into a proxy militia for SPLA-Torit/Mainstream. The group fought alongside the SPLA in 1997 in its push to capture Bahr al Ghazal. After the Wunlit Peace agreement between the Nuer and Dinka in 1999, the gelweng began to use the guns to fight amongst themselves, which led to a consequent SPLA disarmament in 2000.

SSUM/A- South Sudan Unity Movement/Army

The South Sudan Unity Movement/Army was started by Paulino Matiep in 1998. It included his earlier Anyanya II and SSDF forces and was supported by the Sudanese government. It was based in Mayom and was primarily made up of Bul Nuer.

Smaller militia groups:

Gabriel Tanginya, Gordon Kong and Simon Gatwich all had individual armed movements. They were supported by Khartoum and were made up of different Nuer sections. Tanginya’s militia was primarily Lak Nuer and was based in Fangak, Kong’s was primarily Jikany Nuer and was based in Nasir, and Gatwich’s was primarily Lou Nuer and was based in Waat.

Johnson, Douglas. 2003. Root Causes of Sudans Civil Wars. Oxford: Currey.

Human Rights Watch. 2003. Sudan, Oil and Human Rights. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/6wctp9hmacqksq1/Sudan%20Oil%20and%20Human%20Rights.pdf?dl=0)

Small Arms Survey (www.smallarmssurvey.org)

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