In the remote regions of South Sudan’s Jonglei state, a failed politician, former theology student and military neophyte has managed to turn his personal dissatisfaction with the administration of the newly created South Sudan into an insurgency that draws on tribal rivalries, external interference and local alienation from the state to mount a powerful threat to stability in a region poised to become an important center for oil production and oil transit.
David Yau Yau
Now leading his second rebellion in three years, David Yau Yau has used the advantage given by local knowledge of the terrain to gain superiority over better-trained and better-armed troops of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the would-be national army which is having difficulty separating itself from its former political wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, now forming the government of South Sudan (GoSS). While Yau Yau’s movement has cloaked itself in a thin ideology espousing equality, government reforms and the observance of human rights, his followers have repeatedly demonstrated a particular ruthlessness in dealing with the civilian population of the region, raising the possibility that David Yau Yau might become a South Sudanese version of Uganda’s David Kony, pursuing a personal and irreconcilable war on his neighbors in a remote and undeveloped region through the use of tactics like murder, rape and the slaughter of livestock.
For some years, David Yau Yau’s Murle tribe has been engaged in a series of cattle raids and counter-attacks with the neighboring Lur Nuer and Dinka Bor tribes, a retributive cycle of violence worsened by the Murle proclivity for child abduction (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 20, 2010). The GoSS has said repeatedly that it would end the Yau Yau rebellion by the beginning of the rainy season (usually in May), but appear to have missed the target, with Yau Yau possibly more powerful now than at any time in the past. The roadless Pibor region where Yau Yau is based is cut off from other points in Jonglei during the rainy season, meaning renewed military operations of any size will have to wait until October or November. Future SPLA operations have been put under the command of a Murle SPLA veteran, Major General Stephen Marshall. 
Pre-civil war resource exploration by French oil giant Total indicated significant oil reserves under Jonglei, but development of the Total concession ended after the company abandoned its operations in 1985 after several deadly rebel attacks. Following several tentative deals and a number of lawsuits, Juba has now decided to divide Total’s original concession into three blocs, with one bloc going to Total. Juba is also exploring the possibility of running a pipeline east through Jonglei and Ethiopia to the port of Djibouti rather than continue using the pipeline to Port Sudan. Such a project would not be in Khartoum’s favor, as it would lose the above-market oil transit fees it has negotiated with Juba for the export of oil from land-locked South Sudan.
Early Years and Political Failure
Though sometimes described as an “ex-cleric,” Yau Yau’s religious career does not appear to extend beyond two years of theological studies at Emmanuel Christian College in Yau (2004-2006). After his theological studies, Yau Yau was briefly employed as a Pibor County official of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.
Yau Yau remained little known in South Sudan until he was decisively defeated in the April, 2010 Jonglei State Assembly election by an SPLM candidate. The defeated Yau Yau began to level charges of election fraud and voter intimidation, though he was unable to provide definitive evidence of such activities in an internationally supervised election dominated by SPLM candidates in most parts of South Sudan.
Taking to the bush to lead a rebellion against the authorities he believed had denied him an Assembly seat was an odd decision for a man with no known military experience, but Yau Yau displayed a certain skill in manipulating currents of discontent within his own community to emerge with a core group of fighters having significant military experience and an intimate knowledge of the remote and often inaccessible terrain of eastern Jonglei.
From May 2010 to June, 2011, Yau Yau led a small-scale insurgency that targeted SPLA troops, wildlife rangers and civilians. Yau Yau alienated many of his supporters when he decided to accept a June, 2011 amnesty from the GoSS that included cash, housing, a new car and an appointment to the rank of Major-General in the SPLA. His militia of roughly 200 men handed over its weapons and was taken to Northern Bahr al-Ghazal for integration into SPLA forces.
Aims and Ideology
The essential document for examining the ideology of Yau Yau’s rebellion is the Jebel Boma Declaration, an April, 2013 statement that calls for the replacement of the GoSS by a Transitional Revolutionary Government and the transformation of the SPLA into a professional national army drawing on all the peoples and religions of South Sudan for its personnel. The declaration maintains that the “SPLM elite… have fused public and private institutions in order to advance and serve their partisan and sectarian interests.” To this end, both the civil service and the military must be de-politicized. Accusing the “ruling elite” (read Dinka and Nuer leaders) of emerging “as a new dominant group by simply stepping into the shoes of the Arabs they replaced,” the Boma Declaration calls for the restructuring of South Sudan into a “multinational federation.” 
Yau Yau is now demanding international mediation, possibly at a neutral venue with the goal of bringing a decentralized administration with a parliamentary form of government (Sudan Tribune, April 11). However, Yau Yau does not speak for the elders of the Murle community, who regard him as a dangerous upstart who did not seek their customary permission before running for political office. The elders have tried to dissuade Murle youth from joining his ranks, but, as in many such societies, the traditional leadership of the Murle has a steadily diminishing influence on young men in the community. The elders are pursuing lesser goals than Yau Yau’s demand for a separate state, calling instead for an end to the disarmament campaign, prosecution of those who abused their power in the process and the replacement of SPLA commanders in Pibor region Development is also a concern – as prominent Murle politician Ismail Konyi puts it, there are Murle tribes “who don’t even know there is a government operating” (Reuters, September 30, 2012).
On May 13, Yau Yau told Voice of America that his movement was seeking a separate state for the Murle: “This time around, we are fighting for the people of South Sudan, the minority communities like the Murle and the others. They don’t have a voice… they don’t have rights to live in the land. We don’t have a voice in the government… We are fighting now to get our own freedom, to be given our own state.”
Both the Lou Nuer and the Dinka Bor communities have complained that a government disarmament campaign in Jonglei has left them at the mercy of the Murle, who have resisted all efforts to disarm them (Roadio Bakhita [Juba], November 16, 2012). The Lou Nuer were especially incensed after a February attack by Yau Yau fighters on a defenseless column of migrating Lou Nuer, killing over 100 people, mostly women and children (Sudan Tribune, February 28).
In an April 10 interview, Yau Yau elaborated on the issue of the disarmament campaign, describing it as a form of ethnic cleansing in disguise:
We told [political leaders] we are not against disarmament but it must be done in a way that does not make others become vulnerable, especially those who have been disarmed in the first instance. Our people accepted to voluntarily surrender their weapons but what happened, they became victim of the project. Their houses were burned, thousands were killed. This shows that the disarmament was a deliberate exercise against our people. It was cleansing. They wanted to wipe out our people from existing (Sudan Tribune, April 11).
As the official name for his group, Yau Yau uses the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (SSDM/A). The name is borrowed from the now largely defunct rebel movement led by Lieutenant General George Athor Deng, who was similarly disappointed as a candidate in the 2010 elections. Deng organized a rebellion and declared his intention of taking the largely Dinka Jonglei capital of Bor before he was killed by South Sudan border guards in December, 2011 (Sudan Tribune, December 21, 2013). There were various signs that Athor had entered into some type of alliance with Yau Yau before Athor’s death. Yau Yau’s movement now appears to be promoting the catchier “Cobra Forces” as a nickname for his armed supporters.
Return to the Bush
After a short time as a major-general in the SPLA, Yau Yau announced he was on his way to Nairobi for medical treatment in April, 2012, but turned up instead back in Khartoum. After collecting a score of loyal supporters, Yau Yau was soon back in the interior of Jonglei, where he scored a success against the SPLA at Likuangole that killed at least 150 SPLA soldiers before enduring a setback in the SPLA’s October offensive. Yau Yau’s activity did, however, force a temporary halt to the ongoing disarmament campaign, Operation Restore Peace, which in the Murle regions of Jonglei had degenerated into a rampage of rape, murder, beatings and torture.
According to Murle politician Ismail Konyi, Yau Yau was only able to attract supporters due to the abusive methods used in the SPLA’s disarmament campaign (Reuters, September 30, 2012). Some 30 members of the SPLA who took part in the disarmament campaign were eventually sacked, but the GoSS said the reasons were unrelated to charges of human rights abuses in Jonglei (Sudan Tribune, September 13, 2012). The Murle, many of whom fought in pro-Khartoum militias (most notably in the Pibor Defense Forces led by Ismail Konyi) throughout the long and bitter civil war (1983 – 2005), are not regarded favorably by SPLA forces that fought for Sudanese independence. There is some suspicion in Jonglei that Konyi is quietly backing Yau Yau as part of an attempt to destabilize the region and obtain the removal of Konyi’s political rival, Pibor County commissioner Akot Maze. 
South Sudan’s information minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, has expressed the government’s frustration with Yau Yau, who is regarded as doing the bidding of Khartoum:
What is Yau Yau fighting for? What can he say is the reason of killing innocent civilians in Jonglei? … He came [to Juba] and was promoted to the rank of general, while in fact he was just a civilian. He was put in a hotel, given a vehicle and some money, but what did he do? He quietly decided to run to Khartoum and came back to destabilize the area (Sudan Tribune, February 19).
In August, 2012, Yau Yau’s men were joined by armed civilians in killing as many as 40 SPLA soldiers looking for the rebel leader in the Likuangole district of Pibor (Miraya FM [Juba], August 27; Upper Nile Times, August 27 ). This was followed by an August 30 attack on the SPLA garrison in Likuangole, which was repeated on September 30, 2012. Through September and October, 2012, Yau Yau’s militia attacked the town of Gumuruk several times.
In October, 2012, Major General Simon Gatwech Dual of the SPLA was arrested on charges of having ties to David Yau Yau and involvement in a planned (but not necessarily related) coup attempt against South Sudan president Salva Kiir Mayardit (Sudan Tribune, October 21, 2012). As a Lou Nuer, it was difficult to believe Gatwech was conspiring with his community’s bitter rivals, but his arrest followed a claim from the Nuer dominated South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA – another ethnic-based anti-Juba militia) that Yau Yau had been seeking support from the Lou Nuer in his anti-government campaign and an internet statement declaring the SSLA had joined forces with Yau Yau (Reuters, September 30, 2012). The SSLA accepted the South Sudan president’s amnesty offer on April 26 and are expected to be integrated into the SPLA, but Gatwech remains under arrest. The tensions between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities were reflected in a UN statement that claimed they were able to deter a column of some 6,000 Nuer fighters heading into Murle territory on January 28 (The Citizen [Khartoum], March 13).
A number of significant actions between the SPLA and Yau Yau’s movement followed, with both sides taking heavy losses:
- On March 6, the SPLA announced the death of 28 of Yau Yau’s rebels after a failed ambush targeting SPLA troops in the Khong-Khong region of Jonglei. Local sources claimed large numbers of SPLA dead, though the army admitted to only 10 wounded (Sudan Tribune, March 6).
- At least 20 SPLA soldiers were killed and 30 wounded when they were ambushed on March 21 by Yau Yau’s troops while crossing a river near Yau Yau’s hideout at Akilo (35 miles from Pibor Post, a local metropolis and county seat of 1,000 people) (The Citizen [Khartoum], March 25).
- SPLA spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer said 143 of Yau Yau’s rebels were killed in a battle in Jonglei on March 26 that led to the government seizure of an airstrip in Okello that was allegedly being used by Sudanese intelligence to resupply the rebels (AP, March 29).
The Rejected Amnesty
Yau Yau’s group was the only one of six mostly ethnic-based rebel movements to reject a pardon offered by South Sudanese president Salva Kiir Mayardit on April 25. The leaders of the other militias, largely Nuer and Shilluk, quickly accepted the generous terms of the amnesty, which covered all officers and men of the rebel groups regardless of the crimes they had committed. .
Though no statement was issued from Yau Yau’s side, the amnesty was loudly rejected with attacks on Pibor and an SPLA base in the Boma region’s remote Muruwa Hills. The SPLA’s Colonel Philip Aguer noted that “the doors of reconciliation remain open,” but “security forces would not allow any gang to risk the lives of innocent civilians” (Gurtong.net [Juba], May 1). With Yau Yau apparently not in the mood to negotiate with South Sudan’s politicians, Vice-President Riek Machar asked local clergy to mediate, with nor greater degree of success (Radio Miraya, May 3). Yau Yau has described the government’s attempts to initiate a peace process as “just a joke” (VOA, March 13).
An SPLA spokesman confirmed on May 10 that Yau Yau’s force had taken the strategic region of Boma, but described the pullout of SPLA troops as a “strategic withdrawal” (Radio Tamazuj, May 10). The withdrawal may have been hastened by complaints from a 500-strong police force in Boma that they had no food supplies (Africa Review [Nairobi], May 9). SPLA spokesmen declared the recapture of Boma on May 20 after a 30-minute battle, though a spokesman for Yau Yau said government troops had succeeded only in taking the village of Iti, nearly 35 kilometers away from Boma (VOA, May 20).
Attack on UN Peacekeepers
When five Indian peacekeepers, two UN civilian employees and five local contractors (including four Kenyans) were murdered in Jonglei on April 9 in an ambush using RPGs and small arms against a small UN convoy, South Sudanese officials were quick to blame Yau Yau, though a South Sudanese cabinet minister remarked “The motives cannot be revealed by anyone but the perpetrator” (The Hindu [Chennai], April 24; APF, April 10). The peacekeeepers were part of a contingent of 2,200 Indian troops deployed to the South Sudan as part of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The mission has a total of 5,000 members, many of whom have been moved into Jonglei in recent weeks.
UNMISS Patrol in Pibor (Radio Tamazuj)
Yau Yau insisted that his movement had no part in the attack, telling a Sudanese daily that the incident took place in an area outside its control: “The United Nations [Mission] in South Sudan is free to conduct [an] investigation into the killings. We will provide support to do their work. Actually we recognize and appreciate the work of the United Nations in protection of the civilians, which is also what our forces do” (Sudan Tribune, April 11). Despite his claims of support for the UN mission, Yau Yau has several times issued warnings to UNMISS troops that they should withdraw from parts of Jonglei or be treated as hostile elements.
Attack on Pibor
On May 11- 12, armed and sometimes uniformed gunmen ran riot through Pibor. The attackers’ primary interest seemed to be looting food stocks from UN stores and the compounds of aid organizations like the World Food Program (WFP), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Italian organization INTERSOS (Africa Review [Nairobi], May 14). Rather than being a simple case of looting, elements of the attack such as the destruction of pharmaceuticals and hospital infrastructure appeared designed to inflict suffering on the local community, which has no other recourse to medical facilities.
UN forces reported that uniformed SPLA troops were among the attackers, though some members of Yau Yau’s militia have been seen in SPLA-style uniforms and other members of the militia are SPLA deserters (AFP, May 12; May 17). While SPLA officials issued the expected denials, it is worth recalling that government security forces in the region had been complaining of food shortages only days earlier.
While conceding the presence of some SPLA units in the town, the SSDA declared the “liberation” of Pibor on May 15 and warned inhabitants of the state capital of Bor to evacuate their town before the arrival of “two battalions” of SSDA fighters. The rebel group also declared it was blockading the roads between Juba and Jonglei. 
SSDA Arms Supply
South Sudanese officials maintain that most or even all the weapons used by Yau Yau’s group have been supplied by Khartoum (Radio Tamazuj, May 10; Sudan Radio Service, August 31, 2012). The belief that helicopters were being used to supply Yau Yau’s militia led to the SPLA mistakenly shooting down a Russian MI-8 helicopter on loan to UNMISS in the Likuangole region of Jonglei last December, killing all four Russian crew members (Sudan Tribune, December 22, 2012).
According to information provided by a group of 100 defectors from Yau Yau’s militia led by Captain James Kubrin, Khartoum supplied Yau Yau’s movement with arms and munitions delivered by parachute from fixed wing aircraft from August to December 2012 in an operation managed by Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).  UNMISS has reported observing an unmarked fixed-wing aircraft dropping cargo near Likuangole. 
David Yau Yau has been able to harness tribal antagonism, ethnic differences and local distrust of the state as the drivers of a campaign to establish himself as a political authority in South Sudan. However, a rebellion so closely tied to the Murle and their specific issues is unlikely to gain much of a following outside of eastern Jonglei and it is doubtful that Yau Yau’s fighters would have similar success once they begin operations outside their home region. Because of the Murle’s reputation for cattle-raiding and child abduction (activities by no means restricted in South Sudan to the Murle), any armed formation of Murle would be unwelcome in most of the areas surrounding the Murle homeland. The movement’s light ideological framework suggests that many Murle youth in the SSDA ranks are simply using the movement as a source of weapons for the purposes of community defense, banditry or revenge on the executors of the government’s disarmament campaign.
So where does Yau Yau go with his insurrection? A Murle state would be economically unviable and viewed as politically undesirable nearly everywhere except Khartoum. Yau Yau’s 2011 change of allegiance to the GoSS demonstrates a certain pliability in his commitment to the Murle cause despite posing as their champion and it is possible that this improbable rebel is merely seeking a better deal than the one accepted by the rest of his rebel colleagues in South Sudan in April. Unfortunately, South Sudan’s system of amnesties, reconciliation and integration has produced a number of repeat offenders, like Yau Yau, who accept a deal and then return to the bush (often with Khartoum’s support and material gratitude) in the knowledge that personal consequences are likely to be minimal and new amnesties will bring further gifts and concessions.
- “David Yauyau’s Rebellion, Jonglei State,” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, February 11, 2013, http://www.sudantribune.com/IMG/pdf/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Yauyau.pdf .
- “The Jebel Boma Declaration,” Jebel Boma, Jonglei State, Republic of South Sudan, March 28 – April 2, 2013, http://www.cobrassda.com/en/index.php/about-us .
- “David Yauyau’s Rebellion, Jonglei State” op cit, http://www.sudantribune.com/IMG/pdf/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Yauyau.pdf .
- “SSDA Sent Forces to Attack Bor Town,” Public Statement, South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (SSDM/A), Jebel Boma Headquarters, May 13, 2013, http://www.southsudan.net/ .
- “Weapons in service with David Yau Yau’s militia, Jonglei State, February 2013,” Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Arms and Ammunition Tracing Desk, April, 2013, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/arms-ammunition-tracing-desk/HSBA-Tracing-Desk-Yau-Yau-April-2013.pdf .
- “David Yau Yau’s Rebellion,” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, December 17, 2013, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/south-sudan/armed-groups/southern-dissident-militias/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Yau-Yau.pdf.
This article first appeared in the May 2013 issue of Militant Leadership Monitor