Comment on South Sudan Other War: Resolving the Insurgency in Equatoria Crisis Group Africa Briefing No 169, 25 February 2021.
By Dr Lam Akol
The International Crisis Group Africa Briefing No. 169 deals with the continued fighting in some parts of Central Equatoria and the Western Equatoria States between the government and some armed groups, causing the continuation of the suffering our people are reeling under in Equatoria. However, the paper misdiagnoses the problem by portraying the National Salvation Front (NAS) and its leader, Thomas Cirillo, as the champion of Equatoria’s cause and possibly the person to achieve their demands.
The paper suffers from gross inaccuracies bordering on misrepresentation of facts and conclusions not supported by evidence. For instance, the paper claims that:
Cirillo’s emergence rearranged the conflict map by making Equatorians prime actors in the national war for the first time, yet mediators struggled to adjust accordingly. In 2017, when the regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) tried to resuscitate the 2015 accord between Kiir and Machar, they sidelined Cirillo in the talks though he had become the only significant rebel leader beside Machar. IGAD mediators lumped him together with other groups, known as the South Sudan Opposition Alliance, though none except for Cirillo maintained a major fighting force on the ground nor had much political weight in the conflict. Cirillo was isolated in the Alliance, which consisted mostly of veteran opposition politicians who considered him a soldier and political neophyte with a provincial agenda (pp. 9-10).
In fact, not a single statement in this long quotation is true. Here is why.
First, it will be recalled that the National Salvation Front (NAS) which Thomas Cirillo formed in March 2017, was just 9 months old when the High-Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) peace talks commenced in Addis Ababa in December of the same year. The report itself admits that:
Leaving the army without a cohort of troops in tow, he [Cirillo] instead relied on defections from Machar’s camp to kick-start his insurgency. Bitter infighting ensued, as those who joined him clashed with those still loyal to Machar (p. 9).
Therefore, the emergence of Thomas Cirillo far from rearranging the conflict map in any positive way for Equatoria triggered infighting among the Equatorians and thus weakened the opposition as a whole. Second, IGAD made a lot of mistakes and blunders during the HLRF peace talks but none of them was sideling Cirillo. He was invited to the talks on equal footing with the other political and military organizations that took part in the talks. Third, that Cirillo “had become the only significant rebel leader beside Machar” is a myth without evidence. What was the yardstick for such a sweeping statement? Fourth, IGAD mediators did not lump “him together with other groups, known as South Sudan Opposition Alliance, …” This is a false assertion. For one, IGAD did not lump any negotiating parties at HLRF with any other. Each negotiated as a separate entity on its own. Later on, when the opposition felt that IGAD was sidelining them in favour of what it called the “two giants”- SPLM-IG and SPLM-IO, they came together as the “Opposition Group”1. The NAS of Thomas Cirillo voluntarily joined that group and so did the SPLM/A-IO. The South Sudan Opposition Alliance was not born until February 2018. Actually, the mediation was not favourable to the formation of SSOA as evidenced by their rejection to allow a meeting of SSOA that was to take place in Djibouti in 20182. Fifth, that “none except for Cirillo maintained a major fighting force on the ground nor had much political weight in the conflict” is another empty assertion without basis. He neither did maintain “a major fighting force” nor does he wield “much political weight in the conflict” more than other well-established parties in SSOA with indisputable political record3 and military presence on the ground. Sixth, contrary to the wild claim that “Cirillo was isolated in the Alliance”, he was playing an effective role in it. In fact, he was SSOA’s focal point on Security Arrangements and signed in that capacity the protocol on Security Arrangements in Khartoum on behalf of SSOA in July 2018. Seventh, that the veteran politicians in SSOA “considered him a soldier and political neophyte with a provincial agenda”, is another baseless allegation. As a matter of fact, throughout his time in SSOA, Cirillo did not claim to be espousing a provincial agenda. His Chief of Staff, Gen Faiz Ismail, was from Western Bahr El Ghazal and two Deputies Chief of Staff, Gen Henry Oyay and Gen Khalid Butrus,
from Upper Nile. Only one Deputy Chief of Staff was from Equatoria. One of his top advisers, Gen Khalid Ono, hails from Upper Nile. Was Cirillo planning to achieve an Equatorian agenda without Equatorians? Perhaps.
Even in Equatoria, Cirillo could not at the time of the peace talks claim to maintain a major fighting force more than, for instance, Bakosoro of the South Sudan National Movement for Change (SSNMC) who had forces in Western and Central Equatoria. He lost most of this force including the Chief of Staff, Gen Abraham Wani Yuana, when he signed the 2018 peace agreement. He also lost most of his top leadership of SSNMC including his deputy and secretary-general because they were opposed to signing the peace agreement. Bakasoro lost the rest of the force when he brought his SSNMC under the tutelage of Salva Kiir. True, the sentiment in Equatoria by then was against signing the 2018 agreement. Maybe this was what emboldened Cirillo not to sign it.
Cirillo parted ways with his colleagues in the South Sudan Opposition Alliance when he declined to sign the draft Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS). He justified his position by claiming that the agreement did not address the root causes of the conflict. His political advisor, Dr Lako Jada Kwajok was the first to articulate those claims4. As the SSOA’s focal point on Governance during the talks, this writer responded to Kwajok’s paper showing that his arguments didn’t hold water5. Like he did in establishing his military wing, Thomas Cirillo embarked on collecting individual defectors from the SSOA parties that signed R-ARCSS to form an alliance that first claimed to own the name SSOA6 and later changed its name to South Sudan National Democratic Alliance (SSNDA)7. It is SSNDA that subsequently merged with Paul Malong’s South Sudan United Front (SSUF) and Pagan Amum’s Real- SPLM on 30 August 2019 to form the South Sudan Opposition Movements (SSOM)8. Afterwards, the word “Alliance” was added to become (SSOMA).
The problems within SSOA and its eventual ineffectiveness as an opposition group (footnote 41) started after 31 October 2018 when its leaders went to Juba for the “Peace Celebrations”. There, seven out of the eight SSOA’s constituent organizations were suborned by the SPLM-IG and became its staunchest allies throwing onboard the Charter of SSOA.
The Sant’Egidio Peace Talks
The Community of Sant’Egidio held preliminary discussions with SSOMA, SPLM-IO and the government separately in Rome, Italy, in the course of 2018. However, the formal peace talks commenced in January 2020. These were between SSOMA and the government, with SPLM-IO and NDM as witnesses. IGAD Special Envoy was invited as an observer. All of us in the hall then were expecting SSOMA led by Thomas Cirillo to table his version of the root causes of the problem during these talks. That was not to be, instead, he was more in line with the government to prioritize the ceasefire. This is good in itself but hardly the way guerrillas start their talks with the government. An agreement on ceasefire was easily clinched and it was agreed that the next round would discuss ways and means for the rebels to join CTSAMVM, a mechanism established by R-ARCSS to monitor the permanent ceasefire agreed as part of the security arrangements in the agreement. In that round, SSOMA were pressed to state their political demands. The group split along SSNDA on the one hand and Real- SPLM and SSUF on the other. The SSNDA wing claimed to be the SSOMA and threatened to withdraw from the talks if the other group did not withdraw from the hall. Sant’Egidio mediators gave in to the threat and the other group had to leave the hall. The talks continued between the government and the new SSOMA. The group was pressed to table their political position on the table. Eventually, they produced their version of the Declaration of Principles to guide the talks. The 10-point draft DoP9 was produced on which there was agreement on seven points and disagreement on three only. The three points of disagreement had nothing to do with the root causes of the problem as explained elsewhere10. The agreed points were copied, some verbatim, from R-ARCSS11. The inclusion of root causes, the very reason NAS held out from joining R-ARCSS, evaporated into thin air.
The meeting on joining CTSAMVM followed in December 2020 and it was agreed that the representatives of NAS, the only group that had soldiers on the ground, would join CTSAMVM with headquarters in Juba by January 2021. Therefore, you had a situation where a rebel movement was to send military officers to the capital of the government it was fighting against without a peace agreement between them. Indeed, that timeline passed without event raising doubts, as stated in the paper (p. 11), on Cirillo’s control over the forces on the ground. Cirillo’s claim that “he cannot cement the ceasefire until the declaration of principles is final” (footnote 51), is tantamount to moving the goal post; agreement on ceasefire predates the DoP.
Prospects for the Sant’Egidio Peace Talks
Despite the high hopes being placed by the paper on Cirillo to be able to force a “comprehensive solution that can deal with Equatoria’s historical grievances and sense of political exclusion” (p. 11), the reality on the ground is totally different. Politically, NAS hasn’t established itself as well organized. In fact, it remains without political structures, a situation that prompted resignations by some high-level politicians within its ranks12. The insistence of Cirillo’s group to exclude his former colleagues in SSOMA from negotiations with the government was unfortunate; it weakened their negotiating position as it provided the regime with an opportunity to negotiate with each separately. He should have known better. The IGAD HLRF which he participated in was inclusive of all hues and colours and no group objected to the presence of the other. Militarily, NAS remains a low- level insurgency that hardly causes sleepless nights for the regime in Juba and its claim to represent Equatria is questionable, the fighters on the ground are not all members of NAS. There is simply no political and military stalemate that will force the regime into meeting the kind of demands discussed in the report because of NAS’ pressure. Fundamentally, the regime faced a more serious threat from the SPLM/A-IO and some other opposition groups that signed the R-ARCSS in September 2018. Yet, it is flouting that agreement with impunity 28 months after it was signed. What will make it budge to a low-level insurgency allied to a few Diaspora political bodies?
Judging from the draft Declaration of Principles issued by the two parties in Rome in October 2020, the only possible positive outcome the Sant’Egidio mediation can produce is for SSOMA to join R-ARCSS and become part of the power-sharing arrangements. The sooner he comes down to this reality the better so as to bring our suffering people in Equatoria a respite from the scourge of war.
1- See for instance, the press statement dated 22 December issued by the Opposition groups welcoming the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed a day earlier.
2- SSOA leaders applied for assistance through the British Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan to assist in sponsoring a conference of SSOA to take place in Djibouti. He succeeded to find a source of funding but when he consulted the IGAD mediation he was told that the matter was not part of the HLRF and it was thus dropped.
3- For example, the National Democratic Movement (NDM) was established in 2016. It organized an oppositions’ conference in Nairobi in August 2016 and played a significant role in the conference held in Nyahururu, Kenya, in 2017 the final communique of which formed the basis of the Charter of SSOA adopted in February 2018. By the admission of foe and friend, it dominated the opposition agenda of the peace talks leading to the 2018 peace agreement. It has been engaged in all the issues pertaining to the conflict in South Sudan through discussions, issuing press statements, evaluating the progress of peace agreements, etc. It was the only Party to the peace agreement that issued mid-term reports evaluating the implementation process right from January 2019 to January 2020. It was also the only party that has been putting its position in writing in opposition to the “National Dialogue” in Juba right from December 2016 to November 2020, although ICG tries hard to brush this aside (see their last Report No. 300 dated 10 February 2021). One discerns a consistent position of ICG reporters not to mention the leader of NDM in any positive light (as reflected here, Africa Report No. 300, Africa Report No. 172 dated 4/4/2011, etc.).
4- Dr Lako Jada Kwajok, “Have the Opposition’s ‘Reservations’ been addressed in the revitalized peace agreement?”, South Sudan News, 16 September 2018.
5- Dr Lam Akol, “A sober rebuttal of the claims made by Dr Lako Jada Kwajok”, 18 September 2018.
6- Press statements on 13 September 2018 and 2 October 2018 7- Letter from SSNDA to the IGAD Special Envoy, 14 March 2019. 8- Press Statement, 30 August 2019.
9- Draft Declaration of Principles between RTGoNU and SSOMA, 12 October 2020.
10. Dr Lam Akol, “The Rome Declaration of Principles between the RTGoNU and SSOMA: What value is it adding to R-ARCSS”, 15 October 2020.
12. These included Dr Lako Jada Kwajok, who was in charge of Foreign Relations, Gen Khalid Ono, Murtadha Baballa and others.
The views expressed in the ‘Comment and Analysis‘ section are solely the opinions of the writers. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author not Sudan Tribune.
If you want to submit an opinion piece or an analysis please email it to [email protected]
Sudan Tribune reserves the right to edit articles before publication. Please include your full name, relevant personal information and political affiliations.