The Conflict in Upper Nile State
Describing events through 8 March 2016
On 2 October 2015, the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, issued an administrative
decree that divided South Sudan’s ten states into 28, plunging the country’s
precarious peace process into chaos. While negotiations between the Sudan People’s
Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the SPLM/A-in-Opposition (SPLM/A–
IO) are ongoing, Kiir’s new map of South Sudan threatens to be an unsurpassable
obstacle to achieving sustainable peace in the country.
Nowhere is the tension over Kiir’s decree more apparent than in Upper Nile. Shilluk
anger at the proposed division of the state has already led to increased support for
Johnson Olonyi and the unseating of Kwongo Dak Padiet, the Shilluk reth (king),
who was perceived as being aligned with the Government of the Republic of South
Sudan (GRSS). An increasingly ethnicized conflict between the Shilluk and the
Padang Dinka is now unfolding in Upper Nile.
On 16–18 February 2016, Padang Dinka militia fighters and members of the SPLA
attacked the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) protection of
civilians (PoC) site in Malakal, with the assistance of some of its Dinka inhabitants.
The fighting claimed the lives of at least 40 Shilluk and Nuer internally displaced
persons (IDPs) and injured at least 90. Many of the camp’s 15,000 dwellings were
razed, although the Dinka and Darfuri areas were left undamaged. This attack was not
an isolated event, but part of a concerted campaign by the Padang Dinka military and
political elite of Upper Nile to push the Shilluk off the east bank of the White Nile,
which is contested by both groups, and to cement control of an area that is to be called
Eastern Nile state, in line with Kiir’s decree.
A military overview
Militarily, SPLA and SPLA–IO positions in Upper Nile have remained relatively
stable since August 2015. The largely Nuer south is still under rebel control, aside
from government forces in Nasir town, Longochuk county, and in northern Ulang,
close to the border with Nasir. In southern Upper Nile, the SPLA remains entrenched
in several of the region’s towns, while the SPLA–IO controls the rural areas. As the
region has not been of strategic military importance over the last year, it remained
quiet until 7–8 March 2016, when SPLA–IO forces clashed with the SPLA around
their base at Nasir. Further information was not available at the time of writing.
Forces aligned with the GRSS control the east bank of the White Nile—including
Akoka, Baliet, Malakal, Melut, and Renk counties—and thus have control of both
Malakal, the state capital, and Paloich, the sole productive oil field in South Sudan
and the country’s financial lifeblood. Maban county, in the east of the state, largely
remains under the control of local Mabanese militias and the SPLA, although
September–December 2015 saw intermittent altercations as SPLA–IO forces moved
through the area. According to Small Army Survey