South Sudan’s Minister of Information Michael Makuei and Cabinet Affairs Minister Martin Elia Lomuro have hinted at objectives for potential next military offensives in the country’s ongoing nearly three year civil war, according to remarks Monday after a visit by the UN Security Council.
The information minister speaking to media referred to the July fighting outside of the J1 presidential palace as a watershed moment toward ‘progress’ in implementation of the peace deal. The fighting marked the end of cooperation between President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar and ultimately led to the replacement of the latter by Taban Deng.
“You have seen after the J1 failed coup how we have progressed in the implementation of the agreement. We are now moving and I’m sure as you must have heard from the statement of the president – his address to the nation through the parliament – he stated that by May next year we will have one unified army,” Makuei explained.
He continued saying that the ‘main objective’ of the government now will be to end the existence of SPLA-IO as a separate military entity. Lomuro echoed this position saying that SPLA-IO troops must now be integrated or ‘eliminated’.
“One of the major problems which was responsible for and which continues to be for the insecurity in South Sudan is the presence of the two armed forces. So our main objective is to ensure that we unify — these forces are assembled, the IO forces are assembled, the forces are unified and thereafter we move into other issues. Anybody who will be found outside the assembly area definitely is a rebel of his own and will be addressed accordingly,” Makuei said.
“So that is the situation in which we are, we are in the process of implementing the agreement.”
Makuei’s remarks hint at some of the government’s main political and military objectives as the war situation in the country continues to evolve. One of these is to eliminate the SPLA-IO as a military threat to the government, in part by encouraging assembly of their forces into cantonment sites, as envisioned by the peace deal, either through incentives or coercion.
Another means of achieving this objective will be through military force. Cabinet Minister Martin Elia Lomuro’s remarks highlight this possibility as well. He says that SPLM/A-IO troops that refuse integration ‘will have to be eliminated’.
A second and related objective for the government is to take SPLM/A-IO territory and to elevate the new first vice president Taban Deng as the new figurehead over these areas. High-level officials in recent remarks have emphasized that Deng commands a good number of troops, deflecting questions that he does not represent the SPLM/A-IO and cannot manage to take leadership over the IO-controlled territories and bring them into the government fold.
Lomoru explained, “Today as we speak Upper Nile is calm. There are [rebel] activities in various places — very minor and very ineffective, in Upper Nile as well as in Equatoria — that should prove to you in terms of security if we have 80% of what was going on now calm, then the 20% is a matter of time before it can be addressed. So that shows us that Taban Deng has great control over the forces of Riek, of SPLM-IO, and we will support and work with him to make sure that these forces are brought back and become part and parcel of the establishment of a national army.”
“Because as my colleague [Makuei] said, if they don’t become part of the army, this national army — which will include this SPLM/A-IO which they think they belong to — then they will be elements which are against the constitution of this country and by responsibility of government they will have to be eliminated. How and when, that is nothing to do with me, I am not a military person,” said the cabinet affairs minister.
“But that is a responsibility which must be undertaken. We are here to support Taban. He has got a lot of support on the ground.”
Presidential Press Secretary Ateny Wek made similar remarks in an interview with Radio Tamazuj on Monday, emphasizing Taban Deng’s influence over large numbers of SPLM/A-IO troops. This too points to plans for a concerted government effort to encourage or force defections from the opposition forces still loyal to Riek Machar to Taban Deng.
Taban Deng and Riek Machar now both claim the chairmanship of the SPLM/A-IO. The former has the backing of the South Sudanese government but he has not ventured to travel to any territory controlled by SPLM/A-IO troops since claiming the position. Both of the two claimants are natives of Unity State, and both are influential and long-standing Nuer politicians.
On another note, in later remarks, Makuei also referred to the likelihood of military operations in the Equatoria region. He referred to the armed groups in Equatoria as distinct from SPLA-IO.