South Sudan on the Brink: A Profile of Nuer Opposition Leader Riek Machar Teny

Andrew McGregor

January 31, 2014

As South Sudan teeters on the brink of another civil war less than two years after gaining independence, most of the focus has been on the young nation’s former vice-president, Riek Machar Teny. The 61-year-old is a veteran rebel who spent years collaborating with the Khartoum government even as he led a movement ostensibly fighting for the separation of southern Sudan from the central government in Khartoum. Today, Machar is at the head of a loosely organized force drawn largely from Machar’s own Nuer tribe (South Sudan’s second largest) that opposes the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Salva Kiir Mayardit, a member of the Rek Dinka (the Dinka are South Sudan’s largest and most powerful tribe).

Riek MacharDr. Riek Machar Teny

Early Life

Riek Machar was born in 1953 as the 26th son of a chief of the Dok Nuer in the oil-rich Unity State of southern Sudan. After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Khartoum, Riek went abroad to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy and strategic planning at the University of Bradford, graduating in 1984. On his return to Sudan, he joined the rebel forces of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) under the command of Colonel John Garang, a Twic Dinka. The SPLA had launched a new rebellion against Khartoum in 1983, which was to be the beginning of a 20 year conflict.

As a young, foreign educated Nuer, Machar became part of a new social class of uninitiated Nuers known as tuut dhoali (“man-boys”), who had failed to achieve full adult male status in their society by the absence of the gar (facial scarification given during initiation), membership in an initiation-determined age-set and failure to receive the mut, or lineage-spear, from his father at the time of initiation. [1] Machar would later make an unsuccessful effort to ban tribal scarification, a deeply ingrained tradition in South Sudan.
Machar carried out diplomatic missions for the SPLA rebels as well as acting as a field commander. By 1990, however, Machar was unhappy with his role in the rebel movement and, with Shilluk SPLA commander Lam Akol , began plotting the overthrow of John Garang as movement leader.

Machar Splits the SPLM/A

With Colonel Garang unwilling to abandon his political vision of a “New Sudan” that recognized Sudan’s many peoples within a federal system, Riek Machar forced a split in the SPLA/M in August 1991. However, not all the separatists within the SPLA/M (which included Commander Salva Kiir) joined Machar’s new faction, which the latter liked to present as the “real” SPLA/M. The split occurred largely along tribal lines as many Dinka separatists threw their lot in with the Garang loyalists. Even some prominent Nuer separatists, such as then-Major James Hoth Mai remained with Garang, viewing Machar’s decision as a divisive blow to the Southern movement. With the split in place, John Garang’s group became known as SPLM/A Torit (or Mainstream) and Riek Machar’s group became known as SPLM/A Nasir (or United). The Nasir faction was at first composed mainly of Nuer and Shilluk, though many Nuer remained loyal to Garang, resulting in numerous clashes between Nuer troops of varying loyalties over the next decade.

It was a critical time for the SPLA. It had just lost its principal backer with the fall of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, but Garang’s forces were about to make a decisive march on the southern capital of Juba that might have meant victory in the campaign against Khartoum. However, the coup against Garang was poorly planned and poorly received by many field commanders. In the end, most of the fighters that rallied to Machar’s SPLM/A-Nasir faction were Lou Nuer and Bul Nuer already under his command, while Lam Akol had great difficulty persuading Shilluk fighters to join the new separatist movement. [2] The two were joined at the head of the new faction by Gordon Kong Chuol, a Jikany Nuer SPLA commander. The Nasir faction was later joined by two other groups from the government-sponsored Anyanya II militia; Lou Nuer fighters under Paulino Matip Nhial and Bul Nuer fighters under Yohannes Yual.

In a review of South Sudan’s political history, Machar characterized the SPLM/A of the time as a repressive force preventing South Sudanese independence:

Since 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) has been fighting South Sudanese groups that called for the right of self-determination for the people of South Sudan. This was epitomized in the bitter wars the SPLM/A waged against the Anyanya II “separatists” from 1983 to 1991 and against the Nasir faction of the SPLM/A since 1991. [3]

Though the split was, at its core, ideological rather than tribal, tribalism in its ugliest form did not take long to surface. On November 15, 1991, largely Nuer SPLA/M-Nasir troops under Machar’s command joined the Nuer White Army militia in massacring over 2,000 Dinka civilians in Bor, the capital of Jonglei Province (Sudan Tribune, April 4, 2012). Many thousands more died of starvation after the attackers destroyed crops and stole all the livestock.

Such activities did little to persuade other elements of the SPLA that the Nasir faction was indeed a pro-reform, pro-democracy movement, as it claimed. With military pressure growing from Garang’s Torit-faction, Machar and his allies made a deal with Khartoum. Soon the Sudanese military was airlifting arms and supplies to the southern secessionists. Khartoum ignored the long-term goals of their new proxies, seeing in Machar and his colleagues an opportunity to create a deadly internal conflict within the SPLM/A that would result in the eventual defeat and elimination of all South Sudanese armed groups not loyal to Khartoum.

Machar still found time in 1991 to marry a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who was later killed while pregnant in a 1993 car accident in Nairobi. The story of their relationship was documented in a 2003 book entitled Emma’s War. [4] The marriage was partly a strategic exercise by Machar, as his British wife succeeded in persuading Western journalists covering the conflict that reports of atrocities and collaboration with Khartoum were false. [5] It was during this time that Machar began developing his media skills, providing journalists and aid representatives with a smiling and receptive representative of the southern movement despite Khartoum’s growing input into his decision-making. Machar is now married to Angelina Teny, a leading politician in the South Sudan and a former State Minister for Energy and Mining in the transitional GoSS (2005-2010).

Machar’s movement gained a somewhat broader tribal base when it was joined by the mercurial Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, a Twic Dinka SPLA commander fresh from a spell of imprisonment in an SPLA base. Kerubino brought his troops with him and was made deputy commander of the Nasir faction. Kenyan and American efforts to reconcile the two SPLA factions in late 1993 were a failure.

The Riek Machar SPLM/A United faction was renamed the Southern Sudan Independence Movement/Army (SSIM/A) in September, 1994 (dismissed by Riek Machar in February 1994, Lam Akol claimed the title of SPLM/A United for his group in West Central Upper Nile in October 1994). Machar expelled Kerubino Kuanyin and Nuer commander William Nyuon Bany (a favorite of Khartoum, later made a major-general in the Sudan Armed Forces [SAF]) from the SSIM in 1995 after learning they had signed separate deals with Khartoum.
Machar’s relations with Khartoum became somewhat more transparent when he signed an agreement with Khartoum in 1997 calling for centralized federalism in Sudan, which helped establish Machar’s new Khartoum-backed United Democratic Salvation Front/South Sudan Defense Force (UDSF/SSDF), based mainly in the eastern Upper Nile. Machar, the professed separatist, was made a special advisor to Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and placed in command of the newly formed pro-Khartoum South Sudan Defense Force (SSDF).

In 2000, Machar abandoned the SSDF and formed yet another Khartoum-sponsored militia, the Sudan People’s Defense Forces/Democratic Front (SPDF). Having fallen into disfavor with his own Dok Nuer for his failure to prevent their displacement from the Unity State oil-fields by Paulino Matip’s pro-Khartoum militia during clashes in 1998-99, Machar moved his base of operations to Jikany Nuer territory. Finding himself shunted back onto the political sidelines, Machar began talks with Garang’s SPLA that led to the integration of the SPDF into the SPLA in 2002. After a decade of brutal combat and human rights violations by all sides that left hundreds of thousands dead, Machar was once more under Garang’s command. It was not the end of the fighting, however, as many militias, both from the Nuer and other tribes, were still in the field, often using arms supplied by Khartoum to pursue both Khartoum’s aims and their own local agendas.

After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement

Under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 9, 2005 that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War, all armed groups in the South Sudan, regardless of political viewpoint, were to be absorbed into the SPLA, thus creating a massive army and officer corps in which there was little unanimity of purpose. Recalcitrant gunmen and militias were forcibly disarmed in an SPLA campaign that began in December 2005 and ended in May, 2006. The SSDF was absorbed into the SPLA after the Juba Declaration of January 8, 2006. Machar attempted to also dissolve the White Army, but his orders were ignored and the militia was destroyed (temporarily at least) in the SPLA’s disarmament campaign. [6] In July 2005, Machar was made vice-president of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS), a role he kept when he became vice-president of the new Republic of South Sudan in July 2011.

During this period, Machar was also involved in negotiations with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to end that group’s depredations in South Sudan and elsewhere in the region. However, after Machar invested several years in the effort, Kony failed to show up for the signing of a peace agreement, keeping Machar, dignitaries and observers waiting for days in a bush clearing in Western Equatoria (see Terrorism Monitor, April 16, 2008).

Machar’s status as an uninitiated tuut dhoali arose in 2009, when the sacred dang (rod) of the 19th century Nuer prophet Ngundeng was returned to the South Sudan after being taken as loot by a British officer during an Egyptian Army operation in 1927. A group of Ngundeng’s descendants, led by an SPLA colonel, condemned Machar for conducting traditional cattle sacrifices during the ceremonies to welcome the return of the dang, noting that he did not bear the long horizontal forehead scars of initiated Nuer men. However, Machar was defended by several older descendants of the prophet, who insisted the rules for sacrifice applied only in Ngundeng’s “holy city” of Wec Deang, not Juba (Sudan Tribune, April 22, 2009; May 21, 2009). Though the dang was intended to be returned to Wec Deang, it never left Machar’s hands thereafter and there are suspicions Machar may have taken it with him when he fled Juba, believing that possession of the dang would give him great respect amongst the Nuer (Reuters, December 23, 2013).

Several months before South Sudan’s independence was declared in July 2011, a pro-government Khartoum newspaper carried a story alleging that unidentified persons were plotting to assassinate Riek Machar and several senior SPLA commanders, including Paulino Matip Nhial (Bul Nuer), Thomas Cirilo Swaka (Equatorian) and Ismail Kony (Murle) (al-Rayaam [Khartoum], March 30, 2011; Sudan Tribune, March 31, 2011). No arrests were made and it was possible the story was an attempt by Khartoum to spread dissension in the GoSS.

In 2012, Machar made a surprise admission of responsibility and apology for the Bor Massacre during a meeting held at the home of John Garang’s widow, Rebecca Nyandeng (London Evening Post, August 16, 2011). With Machar at the head of an increasingly vocal number of critics within the SPLM in the last year, the president began to make provocative and highly undiplomatic public references to his vice-president’s role in the Bor Massacre (VOA, January 9, 2014).

Coup or No Coup?

The current crisis might be said to have its immediate origins in President Kiir’s July 2013 decision to dismiss Vice-President Machar and the entire GoSS cabinet in what many observers saw as a demonstration of the president’s increasing authoritarianism.
With tensions simmering and rumors of coups flying about in Juba since the cabinet was dismissed last July, it was perhaps not surprising that a small clash between Nuer and Dinka members of the Presidential Bodyguard on December 15 could erupt into a major crisis. President Kiir took to national TV in full uniform to proclaim a Machar-led coup had been foiled even as the vice-president headed for the bush. Machar’s Juba home was not spared an attack by Dinka elements of the presidential bodyguard that destroyed much of the property and may have killed several of Machar’s bodyguards and relatives (Sudan Tribune, January 18, 2014). Machar insists there was no coup attempt and claims he is being “used as a scapegoat” in the president’s purge of rivals within the SPLM (al-Jazeera, January 5, 2014).

Salva Kiir Mayardit

South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit

Shortly after clashes broke out in Juba, 13 senior members of the SPLM were arrested on charges of plotting a coup against the GoSS. Not all the 13 detainees were Nuer and two of the 13 were subsequently freed). Machar insisted the 11 remaining prisoners be released, but the U.S. government urged Machar to abandon his demand for the release of all 11 senior SPLM detainees as a precondition for negotiations (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 11).

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has committed Ugandan troops to South Sudan to protect Ugandan interests and citizens, but it is widely believed (especially by the Nuer opposition) that the Ugandans are providing some forms of military assistance as well (Sudan Tribune, January 1, 2014). Machar has claimed his followers were attacked by both Ugandan helicopters and jet-fighters (Sudan Tribune, December 27, 2013).Museveni promised to lead a military effort by member states of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) against Machar’s forces, but did made it clear whether he had received commitments for military contributions from IGAD members (including Sudan) (Reuters, December 30, 2014). Museveni is widely viewed as a strong supporter of GoSS president Salva Kiir.

By the end of December, Machar maintained that his forces were “marching on Juba” (Telegraph, December 31, 2013). A few days later Machar backed away from the claim, saying he was “being restrained by the international community” (Telegraph, January 3, 2014). The former VP pledged to send a negotiating team to talks hosted by Addis Ababa, but said he would not attend himself.

Machar has received support from a surprising quarter – his former rival John Garang’s widow, Rebecca Nyandeng, a political force in her own right, and their outspoken son, Mabior John Garang. The latter has charged Salva Kiir with arbitrary rule, false accusations and possible corruption. According to Mabior, “Salva Kiir wanted to foment tribal violence by sacking the vice president. Any lay person in South Sudan would have known that if you sack this person you would foment tribal violence” (New Vision [Kampala], December 26).

Machar’s revolt failed to gain the support of Nuer General James Hoth Mai, the SPLA chief-of-staff. Despite being a separatist, the general was a loyal member of Colonel Garang’s inner circle who refused to join Machar in his split from the SPLA in 1991. General James Hoth Mai has consistently directed the SPLA under his command to avoid interfering in South Sudan’s political rivalries. This stance has led to a dispute with President Kiir, who earlier sought guarantees from the army that it would support the head-of-state should he feel compelled to take action against his political rivals (Sudan Tribune, September 16, 2013).

In Machar’s view, the political crisis in South Sudan is entirely the work of President Kiir:

If we had intentions of toppling the regime, which is under the umbrella of the SPLM and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), we would have opposed the ruling party. On the contrary, Kiir is the one who turned against the SPLM and the country’s constitution though his security crackdown… My group and I, who belong to the southern tribes, are against tribalism, but Kiir is the one who wants to provoke a tribal war. Kiir carried out tribal massacres in Juba on December 15, and the days that followed, until today (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 2, 2014).


Machar’s opposition forces and the GoSS signed a ceasefire agreement mediated by IGAD in Addis Ababa on January 23, 2014. Since then, there have been numerous reports of ceasefire violations. Though the agreement did not address the question of the 11 SPLM detainees, it was reported to call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, an end to media/propaganda campaigns targeting the other party, access for humanitarian agencies and a withdrawal of foreign troops (i.e. Ugandan forces) from South Sudan (Radio Dabanga, January 18, 2014; Sudan Tribune, January 28, 2014).

However, in a recent interview, Machar described the Addis Ababa agreement as only “ink on paper” without the release of the 11 SPLM detainees, while promising that his forces would give the “invaders” from Uganda “a lesson” (New Yorker, January 23, 2014).
At the moment there are few indications that the ceasefire will hold, but there are hopes that cooler heads will prevail and yet another devastating civil war will be avoided in a young nation that is unlikely to survive such a catastrophe. Though Machar does not speak for all the Nuer opposition, it is essential that he be engaged in negotiations for a political settlement before he once again turns for support to his former patrons in Khartoum, who would welcome the return of their one-time proxy as a means of applying pressure on the GoSS, which Khartoum believes is arming and funding guerrilla movements in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions.


1. Dereje Feyissa, Playing Different Games: The Paradox of Anywaa and Nuer Identification Strategies in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia, Berghahn Books, 2013, p. 170.
2. Douglas H. Johnson: The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars, International African Institute, James Currey, Oxford, 2003, p.97.
3. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon, “South Sudan: A History of Political Domination – A Case of Self-Determination,” University of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center, n.d.,
4. Deborah Scroggins, Emma’s War, Harper Collins, New York, 2003.
5/ Douglas H. Johnson: op cit, p.99, fn.10.
6. John Young: “The White Army: An Introduction and Overview,” Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, June 2007,

This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

South Sudan’s Tribal “White Army” Part Two: Arms and the Overthrow of Traditional Order

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2014

An unprecedented cattle raid by members of South Sudan’s Murle tribe on the Nuer “holy city” of Wec Deang on January 14, 2012 yielded some 4,000 cattle (with some 15 civilians killed by the raiders), but invited sure retaliation from the Nuer White Army. Wec Deang is without doubt the single most important historical and spiritual site in Nuerland as the burial place of the Prophet Ngungeng and the location of the Bie Dengkur, a massive sacred mound erected in the 1870s by thousands of Nuer under Ngundeng’s direction. The mound was partially destroyed by the British in the 1920s as a symbol of Nuer resistance but was left untouched by unspoken agreement of all sides in the Second Sudanese Civil War.


The Bie Dengkur at Wac Deang, c.1902

Reports that the Murle had attacked the mound itself during the January raid led Ngundeng’s grandson, Gai Lel Ngundeng, to issue a religious decree “ordering all Nuer in the world to fight [the] Murle tribe.” [1] A White Army statement said that “The Nuer youth were enraged after hearing [of] the attack of Wec Deang because it is an affront to all Nuer, including Nuer of Ethiopia, that the place of Ngundeng’s pyramid could be attacked by Murle. [White Army military leader] Bor Doang concluded that Murle deserters of the SPLA who did that must pay a price for insulting Prophet Ngundeng.” [2] Prior to the launch of the “Savannah Storm” operation against the Murle, Nuer White Army leaders travelled to Wec Deang to ritually slaughter bulls and receive blessings from Gai Lel Ngundeng. [3] Murle raiders also rely on the blessing of a local alaan ci meeri, or Red Chief, a religious figure who is believed to be in direct contact with the spirits.

The emergence of the White Army was simultaneous with an influx of small arms into eastern Upper Nile Province in the early 1990s and the 1991 split in the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) which left largely Nuer pro-Khartoum forces under Riek Machar (the SPLA Nasir-faction) fighting a civil war within a civil war with the largely Dinka-led SPLA-Torit faction under the late Colonel John Garang. While Machar’s main military support came from SPLA deserters and other pro-Khartoum tribal militias that feared Dinka domination of the South Sudan or preferred Southern separation to Garang’s vision of a “New Sudan,” the loosely organized White Army was raised from the Nuer cattle camps and was never absorbed into the formal hierarchy of any of these groups despite efforts to bring them under one command or another. Part of the problem was that there was no formal or even stable leadership to co-opt. Membership in the White Army was informal and based on availability, civilian status and possession of a modern firearm. [4]

It is likely that most of the arms that made their way into the hands of the White Army and other pro-Khartoum militias originated with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Possession of weapons allowed the Nuer youth to disregard and undermine the authority of traditional community leaders. The militia was formed on an ad hoc basis, usually in response to some real or perceived threat to the Nuer community, though many members clearly saw membership in the White Army as a means of acquiring arms cattle and wives. White Army columns typically coordinate their movements through the bush using Thuraya satellite telephones. These rapidly mobilized groups, consisting largely of Lou Nuer, are usually armed with a mixture of machetes, clubs and Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The absorption of pro-Khartoum militias into the SPLA following the 2006 Juba declaration and the SPLA’s simultaneous disarmament campaigns appeared to put an end to the White Army, at least temporarily. In many places, the disarmament campaign was supported by Nuer civilians who had tired of the arrogance and violence of the Nuer youth affiliated with the White Army. Many elements of the militia were not prepared to disband, however, and ignored Riek Machar’s orders to do so before being destroyed by the professional soldiers of the SPLA in 2006. [5]

Though the White Army is believed to be now operating in sympathy with Riek Machar, a 2012 statement from the militia acknowledged Riek Machar as the founder of the militia in 1992, but asserted that “we do not recognize Riek Machar as a Nuer leader. He is responsible for all the killings we experience today because it was he who armed [the] Murle tribe in 1997 when he signed [the] Khartoum Peace Agreement with Omar Bashir.” The statement, signed by military leader Bol Koang, went on to provide a succinct summary of the militia’s purpose: “We want to state, in no uncertain terms, that the Nuer White Army has no political objective. The primary objective of the White Army is to defend the Nuer livelihood from Murle who carried out attacks against the Nuer civilians.”

Tut Deang, a White Army spokesman, has explained that the militia is a youth organization that rejects the leadership of traditional chiefs (Sudan Tribune, January 6, 2011). However, the  influence of traditional Nuer “prophets” (sometimes styled as “magicians”) remains an important factor in the direction taken by Nuer militias and their blessing is vital before undertaking a campaign. The White Army was revitalized in 2011 when a Nuer prophet named Dak Kueth claimed to have been possessed by spiritual powers and began recruiting thousands of of Nuer youth under the military command of Bor Doang to repress the Murle, who were engaged in local cattle raids and abductions of children (Sudan Tribune, May 31, 2013). Dak Kueth urged Nuer youth to refuse to participate in the government’s disarmament campaign before he escaped the SPLA by fleeing to Nuer communities in neighboring Ethiopia.

Despite the White Army’s apparent focus on combatting the Murle, a late December statement allegedly issued by the militia informed that the White Army was now attempting to form an alliance with the Murle against the Dinka leadership in Juba, a development that reflects the growing political instability of South Sudan:

The problem of Nuer and Murle is now Dinka leadership in Bor and Juba. The Nuer and Murle have a common interest, that is, removal of Dinka government is the only solution to end cattle rustling which was introduced by Dinka… We therefore warn the UN that it is possible for genocide to take place in the coming weeks when we attack Bor town… The solution is for Murle and Nuer to unite to confront the Dinka who have an agenda against both the Nuer and Murle. From today onwards, the Nuer White Army will not fight Murle anymore. The focus is now to topple the Dinka government in Juba. [6]


  1. Gai L. Ngundeng, “The Grandson of Prophet Ngundeng Criticizes Attack on the ‘Holy City,’ Calls upon Nuer to Fight Murle and SPLA Defectors,” Decree No: 001/1/12, . For Nuer prophets, see: Douglas H. Johnson, Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997. For the Murle, see: Bazett A. Lewis, The Murle: Red Chiefs and Black Commoners, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972.
  2. “Nuer and Dinka White Army to Launch ‘Operation Savannah Storm’ against Murle Armed Youth,” Leadership of the Nuer and Dinka White Army Media Release, Uror County, Jonglei State, South Sudan, February 4, 2012,
  3. Ibid
  4. Arild Skedsmo, Kwong Danhier and Hoth Gor Luak, “The Changing Meaning of Small Arms in Nuer Society,” African Security Review 12(4), 2003, pp. 57-67.
  5. John Young, The White Army: An Introduction and Overview, Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, June 2007,
  6. “Both the Murle and Nuer White armies will work together to remove the Dinka regime,” December 27, 2013,

Tripoli Battles Shadowy Qaddafists while Tribal Rivals Fight over Southern Libya

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2014

Despite living in the midst of some of the world’s most open and sparsely populated spaces, Libya’s southern tribes are engaged in a new round of bitter urban warfare, as snipers, gun-battles and mortar fire take a heavy toll on the civilian population. At stake are control over the abundant resources of the Libyan south, the heavy traffic of its trade routes (both licit and illicit) and the future of tribal and ethnic relations in a post-Qaddafist south. Simultaneous with these disputes, however, is the mysterious and oddly-timed emergence of “Qaddafist supporters” waving green flags (the symbol of the Qaddafist revolution) in several different Libyan centers, most notably in the southern oasis settlement of Sabha, where they were alleged to have seized an airbase.

Sabha CenterCentral Sabha

Sabha, the Strategic Hub of South-West Libya

Since late December, the strategic oasis city of Sabha has been the scene of deadly clashes between the Tubu, a tribe of indigenous Black African nomads ranging through the eastern Sahara, and the Awlad Sulayman, a traditionally nomadic Arab tribe of the Fezzan (southwestern Libya). Sabha, a city of 210,000 people about 400 miles south of Tripoli, is the site of an important military base and airfield. It also serves as a commercial and transportation hub for the Fezzan. Many of the residents are economic migrants from Niger, Chad and the Sudan, while the Qaddadfa (the tribe of Mu’ammar Qaddafi) and the Awlad Sulayman are among the more prominent Arab tribes found in Sabha. One of the last strongholds of the Qaddafi loyalists, Sabha was taken by revolutionary militias in September 2011. [1]

In March 2012, three days of vicious fighting in Sabha that began as a dispute between the Tubu and the Arab Abu Seif and morphed into a battle between the Tubu and the Awlad Sulayman left 40 Tubu and 30 Arabs dead. After a ceasefire ended the fighting by the end of the month, serious clashes erupted in Sabha once more on January 11. Tubu militants directed mortar fire into Sabha from the edge of town, targeting Awlad Sulayman neighborhoods. The street violence reached such a peak that the Sabha National Security Directorate admitted it no longer had the resources to even attempt to maintain law and order. The Sabha Local Council was forced to suspend operations in late December. On January 17, mortars struck the residence of Sabha’s military governor. The region is desperately short of medical supplies, a situation worsened by gunmen who stole part of an emergency shipment of medical supplies from the UAE and an attack on the Sabha hospital (Libya Herald, January 17; January 20).

It appears to have been fallout from this earlier struggle that sparked the latest clashes, as Tubu gunmen from Murzuk stormed a Traghen police station (140 kilometers south of Sabha) on January 9. The gunmen ignored a number of high value targets as they searched specifically for al-Haq Brigade leader Mansur al-Aswad, the deputy commander of the Sabha military zone. The brigade leader was eventually found and murdered, allegedly in retaliation for crimes committed by his Abu Seif militia during the 2012 clashes in Sabha (Libya Herald, January 10).

Both the Tubu and Zuwaya, rivals in Kufra, have communities in the coastal city of Ajdabiya, that city being the northern terminus of the trade routes that run through Kufra to the north. The conflict has traveled north through this route to Ajdabiya, where a Zuwaya unit under the command of the general staff has had deadly clashes with a Tubu unit under the command of the Defense Ministry (AFP, December 23, 2013).

Misrata’s 154 Battalion joined Libyan Army regulars heading to Sabha to restore order (Libya Herald, January 20). The Tubu arrived at reconciliation talks attended by several leading government ministers and a Zintani reconciliation committee with three demands they insisted be met before negotiations could continue:

  • Establishing exactly who the Tubu were fighting (an issue complicated by the tendency of imported Arab militias to ally themselves with local Arab groups);
  • The expulsion of Awlad Sulayman gunmen from local military compounds and the historic Elena castle (formerly known as Fortezza Margherita), an Italian colonial relic that still dominates Sabha;
  • The transfer of the castle, still used for military purposes and detentions, to the Ministry of Tourism (Libya Herald, January 22).

The Sabha “Castle” – an Italian-era fortress

According to Isa Abd al-Majid Mansour, leader of the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya, the violence in the south is designed to eliminate the Tubu presence in Libya: “This is not a tribal war… The Islamist militias aided by the Libyan government want to get rid of us. International bodies that come to investigate will see who are the victims, with what arms and in which conditions they were shot. They will know that innocent people are taken from their homes and shot by 14.5mm caliber [weapons]” (Paris Match, January 20). Isa Abd al-Majid insists that Sabha has become a headquarters for al-Qaeda forces drawn from Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania. (Paris Match, January 20).

The Mysterious Qaddafists

A group of “Qaddafists” were reported to have seized Tamenhint Air-base (30 kilometers east of Sabha) on January 18, relinquishing it after sorties by Libyan jet-fighters on January 19 to redeploy “with a large convoy” on the road between Sabha and Barak Shati, according to a Zintani mediator (Libya Herald, January 19). According to the spokesman for the Libyan defense ministry, the occupiers were Qaddafi supporters (al-Arabiya, January 18).

After the Qaddafists left, the base was occupied by Tubu troops of the Murzuk Military Council, though these withdrew on January 20 before the arrival of the Misrata militia, allowing the Qaddafists to reoccupy the facility. Defence Ministry spokesman Abdul-Raziq al-Shabahi said: “The situation in the south … opened a chance for some criminals … loyal to the Gaddafi regime to exploit this and to attack the Tamahind air force base” (Reuters, January 20). Libyan government sources claim the violence in the south is being orchestrated by Saadi Qaddafi, a son of the late dictator who has taken refuge in neighboring Niger.

Other pro-Qaddafi elements were said to have taken to the streets in Ajilat, waving green flags and carrying portraits of the late dictator. The Zintan militia was called in when local authorities were unable to contain the demonstrations and five alleged Qaddafi supporters supposedly on their way to Ajilat were killed in nearby Sabratha. Though authorities claimed to have arrested seven Qaddafists, they refused to release any information about the suspects (Libya Herald, January 22).

Oddly, there was also a manifestation of green-flag waving “Qaddafists” who tried to attack the Italian section of a non-Muslim cemetery in Tripoli. The group was driven off by locals, but have apparently returned at night twice to damage graves, even killing the night-watchman in their second visit. West of Zahra, other alleged Qaddafists were reported to have raised the green flag (Libya Herald, January 20).

The identity of the alleged Qaddafists remains in question. In Sabha, citizens became alarmed when reports began to circulate that the Qaddafists were actually “foreign troops from Chad,” prompting a formal Libyan government denial (Libya Herald, January 21).

Tubu Militia MurzukTubu Militiamen, Murzuk (Karlos Zurutuza/IPS)

Tubu militias have occupied two other important military bases in Libya’s largely ungoverned southwest, a refuge for smugglers and terrorists. Al-Wigh airbase was occupied by Colonel Barka Warduko’s Murzuk Desert Shield militia and the military post at al-Tum was occupied by the Oum al-Aranib militia commanded by Sharfadeen Barka.

Qaddafists have also been blamed for the violence in the Ajilat region (on Libya’s northwest coast), where a militia from Zawiya has been fighting with the Warshefana tribe, which has regularly been accused of pro-Qaddafist tendencies.

The neighboring groups have been fighting sporadically since the overthrow of Qaddafi, deploying weapons as large as Grad rockets.  Misrati forces armed with Katyusha rockets and Zintani militia fighters were deployed to intervene in the fighting alongside armor belonging to the National Army (Libya Herald, January 21). The Misrata militia and and Tripoli militias were withdrawn on January 21 after 18 people died in clashes, with local authorities comparing the actions of the militias to those of the Italian colonial army (Libya Herald, January 22). The Warshefana are regularly accused of being pro-Qaddafi and held responsible for a wave of kidnappings and car-jackings around Tripoli.

The Killings in Kufra

A seemingly intractable conflict in Kufra Oasis between the Tubu and the Zuwaya Arabs (who seized the region from the Tubu in 1840) flared up again on January 20, as Arabs and Tubu shelled each other with mortars over the next few days. The struggle between the two tribes, both of whom would like to have full control of the smuggling/trade routes that run from the African interior through Kufra, has also been carried on by continuing tit-for-tat kidnappings of random members of rival communities.

However, Isa Abd al-Majid, leader of the Tubu fighters around Kufra, does not identify the Zuwaya as the real problem in the region: “We are fighting al-Qaeda. They want to eradicate us to occupy our land and control the frontiers with Chad and Niger, which will permit them to attack the French military base in Niger and kidnap Westerners” (Paris Match, January 20).

Government Response – Revival of the Militias

Libya’s ruling General National Council (GNC) declared a State of Emergency on January 18, citing the clashes in Sabha. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan called on the revolutionary militias to rally to the south to expel the Qaddafists and restore order in the south and other security “hotspots” (Libya Herald, January 18). The government’s decision to recall the militias in the midst of efforts to demobilize them and integrate their members into the Libyan National Army has dismayed many Libyans who have become exasperated with the militias’ roadblocks and almost daily violence.  Prime Minister Zeidan said the Misrata militia had been “commissioned by the government to conduct a national task… to spread security stability in the region” (al-Arabiya, January 18). Tubu Colonel Barka Warduko, the head of the Murzuk Military Council, claimed that Ali Zeidan was provoking and exploiting tribal clashes in the south to create a security crisis that would prevent the replacement of his government (Libya Herald, January 21).

The GNC released a statement insisting it had not abandoned laws 27 and 53 (ordering the demobilization of the militias), but their recall was an effective admission that the government security forces are unable to restore security on their own, providing the militias with a reason for their continued existence. Many Libyans felt the militias had lost the justification for their existence after the Misrata Brigade opened fire on anti-militia demonstrators in Tripoli on November 15, 2013, killing 47 people. Though the GNC claims it has not reversed its policy on militia demobilization, it is now clearly saying one thing and doing another.

Tubu demonstrators blockaded the Sarir power station (near Jalu Oasis in eastern Libya) for several weeks in December and January to demand greater representation in Kufra’s municipal government and an extension of the power supply to the Tubu community at Rebyana.

Other Tubu have been integrated into the National Army, most notably the mostly Tubu 25th Brigade, charged with guarding the Sarir, Messla and al-Shula oil facilities in eastern Libya. Three soldiers of the 25th Brigade on a supply run from Sarir to the nearby Jalu Oasis were ambushed and killed in mid-January. The unit’s commander, Saleh Muhammad, speculated that the gunmen might have been the same as those responsible for a late December attack on a Sarir farm project, in which five attackers were killed but the project manager kidnapped (Libya Herald, January 18). Workers at the Sarir power station stopped work the next day due to security concerns, causing power shortages in Tripoli and Benghazi (Libya Herald, January 20).


By January 22, reconciliation talks had helped ease the intensity of the fighting in Sabha, though Sabha military commander Muhammad al-Ayat al-Busaif suggested there was still a problem with “Qaddafi loyalists, some of whom remain in the surrounding area, including the Tamenhint airbase” (Libya Herald, January 22). The Qaddafists remain shadowy, unidentified characters that provide the Tripoli government with a reason to reactivate its reliance on a more tangible threat, Libya’s unruly and independent militias.

The emergence of the elusive Qaddafists could, as suggested by some, to be part of an effort to create an external security crisis (as opposed to Libya’s internal security crisis) to preserve the Zeidan administration at a time when it is under strong criticism. While there is serious opposition to Zeidan’s government, there is no consensus on a replacement – considering Libya’s current state and the inability of the government to enforce its writ almost anywhere, it is questionable whether anyone would really want the job. Faced with the possibility of a non-confidence vote, Zeidan remarked: “I would be happy if the vote went through” (Middle East Online, January 20).

The Tubu are in the midst of a cultural revival (similar to that of the North African Berbers) as the tribe asserts its non-Arab status and demands recognition in the forthcoming Libyan constitution. They are unlikely to return quietly to the days when Qaddafi called them foreigners and withdrew their Libyan identity cards.

Regardless of who is responsible for starting or perpetuating each round of Tubu-Arab violence, there is no doubt that such violence encourages the incipient Tubu separatist movement, closely tied to the Tubu cultural revival. Though there is no proof of such intentions, it remains possible that some acts of Tubu violence may be committed by independence-minded militants with the intent of provoking further clashes to politicize the rest of the community. However, the growth of a Tubu separatist/independence movement in Libya would create immediate concerns in Chad and Niger, which also host Tubu populations with considerable military experience and expertise in modern desert fighting.


  1. For previous clashes in Sabha, see “Arab-Tubu Clashes in Southern Libya’s Sabha Oasis,” Terrorism Monitor, April 5, 2012 and “Libya’s Sabha Oasis: Former Qaddafist Stronghold Becoming Regional Center of Insecurity,” Terrorism Monitor, April 19, 2013.

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.


Political Violence and Islamist Militancy become Entwined in Maiduguri Bombing

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2014

After four years of counter-terrorist operations and a state of emergency in Nigeria’s three northeast provinces since last May, Nigeria’s security forces appear to have made little progress in restoring security, though their efforts may be complicated by the ruthless political style of northern Nigeria as the nation approached general elections in 2015.

The deeper roots of political violence in northern Nigeria (of which Boko Haram is only a symptom) were well displayed in the January 14 suicide bombing in Maiduguri that killed 43 people (Daily Times Nigeria, January 15). The explosion occurred close to a JTF military post at mid-day on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, when the city center was certain to be filled with people (Salafists reject observance of the mawlid, the Prophet’s birthday).

Soon after the blast, hundreds of youths wearing shirts and hats bearing the insignia of the All Progressives Congress (APC – a 2013 alliance of Nigeria’s four main opposition parties) armed with clubs and machetes began targeting vehicles believed to belong to supporters of the former state governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, and the current state deputy governor, Zannah Mustapha, both APC members (the vehicles were identified by the widespread use of political party stickers).. The rioters were on their way to the homes of Sheriff and Mustapha when they were intercepted by security forces. Sheriff was in the city for the first time in 11 months and left shortly after the blast. Others of the APC-clad youth actually tried to attack the local APC office while chanting: “We are going see the end of Ali Sheriff and his accomplice, Zannah Mustapha, who have brought this calamity to us. They are behind this bomb explosion” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 15). Sheriff helped the current governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, into office in 2011, but the two APC members are now engaged in a bitter rivalry, with Sheriff indicating he plans to campaign to take the office back in 2015.