The mysterious, vanishing SPLA-IO


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The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is publicly unwilling to mention the name of the largest rebel group in South Sudan, it appears from a speech made by the mission chief Ellen Loej at UN headquarters this week.

Judging by Loej’s speech on Thursday to the UN Security Council, no such thing as the SPLA-IO exists any longer in South Sudan.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (in Opposition), also called SPLA-IO, has split into two factions since July this year, one loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar and the other loyal to the new Vice President Taban Deng. Each man claims to be the legitimate chairman of SPLA-IO.

Most of the SPLA-IO troops and almost all of its territory have remained loyal to the Machar faction, including in Jonglei and Upper Nile States, while Taban has begun mobilizing loyalists in parts of Unity State, with government backing.

A number of insurgent groups operating in the Equatoria region are also associated with SPLA-IO and are at least nominally loyal to the rebel group, but are not necessarily directly commanded by SPLA-IO headquarters or fully accountable to the political leadership in exile.

The Machar-Taban split took place in July when Taban and some other SPLA-IO members in the cabinet opted to stay in government after Machar and some of his other loyalists were attacked and driven from Juba. Backed by Presiden Kiir, Taban then moved to claim the leadership of the movement. Some observers believe that this move was planned since before the July clashes.

Dhieu Mathok, a cabinet minister formerly loyal to Riek Machar who has opted to stay in government under the new SPLA-IO under Taban Deng, has dubbed his own faction the SPLA-IO “Peace Wing.” As to the other faction, some have called it the “IO-ITB,” an abbreviation for “SPLA-In-Opposition-in-the-Bush.”

Leaving aside questions of legitimacy and naming, it is clear that one SPLA-IO faction is still part of the government whereas the other faction has gone back to war.

Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ellen Loej

Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ellen Loej

Perhaps to avoid confusion, Loej or her speech-writer opted to avoid the term SPLA-IO. She instead referred to rebel fighters around Raja and Wau as “armed groups,” even though some commanders in this area explicitly identify themselves as SPLA-IO.

Similarly, she said that the upsurge in violence in the Equatoria region involves “sporadic clashes between the SPLA and other armed groups,” even though some (but not all) of the insurgents in Equatoria identify themselves explicitly as SPLA-IO.

Loej’s decision to avoid naming the SPLA-IO makes for a simpler speech but it also causes her to miss a key aspect of the ongoing conflict in South Suday, namely, that the Taban-Riek split is a major conflict driver in itself. The government-aligned faction has been receiving support to recruit its own new troops at newly designated ‘cantonment sites’ that were meant for demobilizing existing forces but instead are now slated as training grounds.

Loej alluded to this conflict dynamic without addressing the leadership dispute itself, saying, “In Unity, we are currently seeing significant mobilization and violent confrontations between Opposition forces allied to Riek Machar and elements affiliated with First Vice-President Taban Deng, which have allied themselves with the SPLA. Fighting between the SPLA and pro-Machar Opposition forces in late October resulted in an influx of hundreds of IDPs to the UNMISS temporary operating base in Leer.”

Loej’s speech touches on some of the major conflict trends in South Sudan but it avoids addressing the messy politics of defection and re-defection in the ongoing civil war. It is indicative of a broader trend within the international community of backers of the August 2015 peace deal – a reluctance to acknowledge that the two main signatories to the peace deal are once again at war with each other.

In her concluding remarks, the UN peacekeeping chief suggested that it is too early to tell whether that peace deal should be pronounced a success or failure. She said, “The difference between success and failure of the Peace Agreement – and for peace in South Sudan – will rest in the Parties’ commitment to pursuing its comprehensive and inclusive implementation, with the firm backing and support of regional and international partners.”

Photo credit (top): Soldiers celebrate after SPLA recaptured Malakal on March 19, 2014 (AFP/Ivan Lieman)

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