Continued Detention of Rebel POWs suggests Sudan’s military rulers are not ready to settle with the Armed Opposition

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report

May 31, 2019

Sudan Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces Operation in South Kordofan (Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)

There was much joy in Sudan in the dying hours of the presidency of Omar al-Bashir when the dreaded National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) announced they were releasing all political detainees in the country (SUNA, April 11, 2019). While there were many scenes of elated families greeting detained protesters and opposition figures after their release, some detainees never emerged from Sudan’s grim prisons. The absence of members of the armed opposition who were taken prisoner while fighting to overthrow the Bashir regime raises two important questions: Did the regime change, or only the head-of-state? And what approach will the new Transitional Military Council (TMC) use to deal with the well-armed opposition movements still in the field in Sudan’s western and southern regions?

Prisoners of War?

Only days after the military removed al-Bashir, the TMC chairman, General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, was reminded by an opposition delegation that they were still awaiting the fulfillment of his promise to release members of the armed groups (Sudan Tribune, April 14, 2019). Most of these prisoners belong to the major Sudanese armed opposition groups:

  • The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a Darfur-based group led by Jibril Ibrahim seeking a more inclusive government that is not almost exclusively derived from the powerful Nile-based Arab tribal groups (the Ja’alin, the Danagla and the Sha’iqiya) that have dominated Sudanese politics since independence in 1956. JEM’s leadership and membership is largely but not exclusively drawn from the Zaghawa of northwestern Darfur. Due to the political protests across the country, JEM declined to resume talks planned talks with the Bashir regime in mid-January, declaring they could not “betray the revolution,” though they also feared the talks would be used as propaganda to preserve the regime (Sudan Tribune, January 13, 2019).
  • The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – ‘Abd al-Wahid (SLM/A-AW), a group based in the Jabal Marra mountains of Darfur and led by the Paris-based ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur. The SLM/A-AW is largely Fur.
  • The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Minni Minnawi (SLM/A-MM), a Darfur-based group that has operated out of ungoverned southern Libya for several years as a result of military pressure from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and a government paramilitary initially formed from former Janjaweed members, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The leadership and membership is again largely Zaghawa.
  • The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A-N), based in the Nuba Hills of Southern Kordofan and Sudan’s Blue Nile State. Before South Sudan signed a peace agreement with Khartoum in 2005 that would eventually lead to independence in 2011, the SPLM/A as led by Colonel John Garang sought a unified “New Sudan” that would bring the non-Arab majority of Sudan into the central government. With Garang’s death in 2005, South Sudanese separatists gained political and ideological ascendancy, abandoning those parts of the movement still operating in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, both on the northern side of the new border. These parts of the SPLM/A reconstituted themselves as the SPLM/A-North. The movement split in 2017 over leadership differences between ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu (South Kordofan faction) and two other leaders, Malik Agar (Blue Nile faction) and Yasir Arman (then SPLM/A-N secretary-general). Al-Hilu also felt the needs of the Nuba people (who form the majority of the South Kordofan fighters) were not being addressed by the larger leadership (Radio Dabanga, October 23, 2017). South Sudanese president Salva Kiir Mayardit, who continues to struggle to contain a rebellion in South Sudan’s Equatoria region, made efforts to reunite the two SPLM/A-N factions to better negotiate with the TMC after al-Bashir’s overthrow (East African [Nairobi], May 2, 2019). Agar and Arman were both sentenced to death by hanging in absentia along with 15 other members of the SPLM/A-N in March 2014.

The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF – a coalition bringing together Darfur’s JEM with the two factions of the SPLM/A-N) has declared that the civilian groups discussing the creation of a transitional government are not representative without including the armed opposition, noting the nation’s future security and democratic transition are at risk without their inclusion (Radio Dabanga, April 30, 2019). The armed opposition calls the detainees “prisoners-of-war” (a term never used by the Bashir regime), but admits that, after years of detention in some cases, it is unsure of the condition or whereabouts of many rebel prisoners (Sudan Tribune, April 16, 2019). Four days after Bashir’s overthrow, JEM demanded the immediate release of all “war-related detainees,” warning that their continued detention was “a call for the continuation of the war” that would delay the ability of the Sudanese to “reap the fruits of the revolution” (Radio Dabanga, April 15, 2019).

Last August, the SLM/A-MM complained that one of its leaders, “prisoner of war” ‘Abd al-Salam Muhammad Siddig, had died at Omdurman’s al-Huda prison after torture that resulted in two fractured legs and internal bleeding that proved fatal after medical treatment was withheld. The movement alleged that the prisoners were suffering a “slow death” in close confinement.  Accusing Khartoum of violating the Geneva Convention, the statement reminded authorities that “the right of the prisoners to receive medical treatment and follow-up… is a legal right and not a grant from anyone.” (Radio Dabanga, August 15, 2018).

The JEM Prisoners

The Bashir regime was shaken to its core when scores of JEM vehicles crossed the desert from Darfur to suddenly arrive on the outskirts of the national capital in May 2008. The army largely failed to appear in defense of the regime, and the raiders were engaged in running street battles in Omdurman with police and pro-Bashir paramilitaries. As JEM was finally driven out of the capital after a fierce struggle, some 70 JEM members were captured and sentenced to death. When JEM and several other rebel movements declined to sign the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), the prisoners were unable to avail themselves of Article 60, allowing for the release of prisoners of war (DDPD, p.63, Article 60, subsection 329, May 2011). Though the death sentences were not carried out, the prisoners are alleged to have endured a kind of living death of torture and abuse in cramped and squalid conditions (Radio Dabanga, August 15, 2013; Sudan Tribune, September 8, 2018).

According to JEM, many of the prisoners languished under sentences of death after their 2008 capture in tiny, vermin-ridden cells, with only a daily visit to the toilet and no access to bathing facilities. JEM has charged that the men are prisoners of war entitled to decent conditions by the Geneva Convention (Hudocentre.org, November 16, 2015).

When JEM detainees in North Khartoum’s Kober Prison went on a hunger strike in 2013 to protest their treatment, the Director General of Prisons arrived to deliver a little regime reality to the desperate prisoners: “We’ve got the power, wealth, aircraft, and vehicles that enable us to do whatever we want… It is our right to act any way we want against any person in all of Sudan… If I kill you all nobody would ask me why” (Radio Dabanga, September 1, 2013).

Kober Prison, North Khartoum (AFP)

Many JEM rebels were released from Kober and other Sudanese prisons after al-Bashir issued an edict on March 8, 2017. As well as those taken prisoner in Omdurman, there were others taken in later battles at Goz Dango, Fanaga, Donki Baashim and Kulbus (Radio Dabanga, March 9, 2017). A sentence of death was lifted from 66 detainees and another 193 granted amnesty. However, in October 2018, Khartoum admitted that seven JEM prisoners and 21 SPLM/A-N prisoners were still being held in Omdurman’s al-Huda prison despite the presidential amnesty of March 2017 (Radio Dabanga, October 11, 2018).

One of those released under the amnesty, JEM field commander ‘Abd al-Aziz Ousher, complained that a number of senior JEM commanders taken at Goz Dango in April 2015 had not been freed by the presidential amnesty (Radio Dabanga, March 9, 2017). Some 180 JEM prisoners taken at Goz Dango were transferred to al-Huda prison in Omdurman in January 2016. Unable to leave their cells, 23 contracted tuberculosis, which went untreated (Radio Dabanga, September 5, 2016).

President Omar al-Bashir Arrives in Goz Dango to Celebrate SAF/RSF Victory

A report released on May 30 by the Darfur Bar Association (DBA) says that 235 prisoners belonging to the SLM/A-MM and the SLM/A – Transitional Council (SLM/A-TC, a splinter group of the SLM/A-AW) remain inside al-Huda prison. These prisoners are alleged to have endured “cruel treatment and torture” as well as starvation rations and an absence of medical treatment for tuberculosis and injuries sustained in battle or through torture in captivity (Radio Dabanga, May 30, 2019). These fighters were taken prisoner in a series of running battles against the RSF and SAF in Darfur when the two rebel movements attempted to cross back into Sudan from their temporary bases in southern Libya.

Post-Coup Developments

Following the coup, the TMC quickly declared a ceasefire in the three conflict areas (Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State), where many rebel groups were already observing a unilateral ceasefire during the protests for fear the regime would make claims the spontaneous protests were actually planned and executed by the armed opposition. That was exactly the approach the regime took under advice from M-Invest, a Russian company with offices in Khartoum operated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. Darfuri students in Khartoum were rounded up and tortured into confessions that they were provocateurs working for both Israel and the Wahid al-Nur’s SLM/A-AW (BBC, April 25, 2019; CNN, April 25, 2019). The regime, however, had scapegoated Darfuri students for all manner of anti-government sentiment for years, so the familiar accusations had little resonance in the streets.

Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemeti,” TMC deputy chairman and leader of the notorious RSF paramilitary, made the surprising move of thanking ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu and the SPLM-N for extending their unilateral ceasefire, adding (after years of brutal repression by the RSF) that the armed opposition movements were a part of the larger movement responsible for deposing President al-Bashir. According to Daglo, the TMC has made contact with the armed movements, including Daglo’s bitter enemies in the Fur-dominated SPLM/A-AW (Radio Dabanga, May 1, 2019). The existence of such contacts has not been verified by the armed opposition and Daglo’s sudden respect for the rebel movements seems disingenuous.

Musa Hilal and Darfur’s Arab Rebels

Another group that has not benefitted from the general release is composed of former Janjaweed commander Musa Hilal and his relatives and followers who were arrested in November 2017. The nazir (chief) of the Mahamid Arabs of Darfur (a branch of the Northern Rizayqat), Hilal acted as a senior government advisor in Khartoum before a dispute with the regime led to his return to Darfur in 2014. Once home, he began to reorganize the Mahamid members of the Border Guard Force (BGF) into the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC), an anti-regime vehicle for Hilal’s political ambitions. SRAC cleared out the outnumbered SAF garrisons in northwest Darfur and the Jabal Amer goldfields and began to establish its own administration in these areas.

This direct challenge to Khartoum’s authority demanded a response, which came in the form of a massive RSF assault on Hilal’s headquarters in Mistiriyha. Hilal, his sons, three brothers and some 50 supporters were arrested after violent clashes and sent to Khartoum as detainees. [1]

Hilal and a number of imprisoned supporters began a hunger strike on April 25 to protest their continued detention, which, despite the TMC’s commitment to release prisoners of the Bashir regime, has now lasted one and a half years without trial or contact with their families (Radio Dabanga, April 26, 2019). SRAC issued a statement on May 5 calling on the TMC to release all prisoners of war and political detainees in Darfur and Kordofan (Radio Dabanga, May 5, 2019).

Yasir Arman (in white) with SPLM/A-N Commanders (Radio Dabanga)

Yasir Arman Arrives in Khartoum

A “delegation of good intentions” from the SPLM-N Blue Nile faction arrived in Khartoum for talks with the TMC and protest leaders on May 11. SPLM-N Blue Nile deputy chairman Yasir Arman and movement secretary general Ismail Khamis arrived in Khartoum later on May 26 and did not experience any complications at the airport. Arman declared their goal was to “reach a just peace… [and] democracy and citizenship without discrimination and social justice,” while warning the SPLM/A-N would not accept a new military government (Radio Dabanga, May 28 2019). The SPLM/A-N ceasefire has been extended until July 31, unless the TMC chooses to go on the offensive in the meantime (RFI, April 17, 2019).

While waiting for an opportunity to meet TMC representatives, Arman met with US Chargé d’Affaires Steven Koutsis on May 28. This apparently angered the TMC, which ordered Arman to leave the country if he wished to avoid the implementation of his death sentence (Anadolu Agency, May 29, 2019). Arman said he had received no less than five letters from TMC deputy leader Muhammad Hamdan Daglo and one from TMC chairman ‘Abd al-Fatah Burhan demanding his immediate departure from Sudan. Insisting that he had no intention of leaving, Arman described the death sentence hovering over him as “a political ruling par excellence” (Radio Dabanga, May 30, 2019).

Conclusion

The TMC’s warning to Yasir Arman demonstrates that the military council is even less ready to work with the armed opposition than with civilian protest leaders. The plight of the non-Arab POWs who fought for years to remove Bashir is indicative of the enduring elitism of northern Sudan’s Arab population, especially the Nile-based Danagla, Sha’iqiya and Ja’alin tribes. The little-discussed truth of Sudan’s revolution is that many of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum, like the military, have little interest in the welfare of non-Arab rebels who fought and suffered for years to remove Bashir and the ruling clique. Their plight formed part of Yasir Arman’s agenda for talks in Khartoum, but the TMC’s continuing refusal to even meet with the armed opposition leader suggests the military has little intention of abandoning its anti-insurgency campaigns in Sudan, which provide it with wealth and power at the expense of Sudan’s political and economic development.

Note

[1] See: “Musa Hilal: Darfur’s Most Wanted Man Loses Game of Dare with Khartoum… For Now,” AIS Special Report, December 12, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4096

 

 

 

Nigeria Seeks Russian Military Aid in its War on Boko Haram

Andrew McGregor

May 8, 2019

Four years ago, Nigerian military sources said a shift to Russian military training and arms supplies was only an “interim measure” after its traditional American and British partners were perceived to lack interest in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram (Vanguard [Lagos], September 27, 2014). Now, believing that attitudes in the U.S. and UK are unchanged, Nigeria is requesting Russian assistance of a more lasting form in the fight against terrorists and pirates.

August 2017- Mansur Dan-Ali greets Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (MRA Russia/Twitter)

The request was made by Nigerian defense minister Mansur Dan-Ali at the 8th Moscow “Conference on International Security” on April 24. Dan-Ali, a former brigadier in the Nigerian Army, was appointed defense minister in November 2015. He first proposed Russia as Nigeria’s primary arms supplier in the war against Boko Haram in June 2017 (NAN [Lagos], August 2, 2017).

The minister pointed to Russia’s experience in counter-terrorism and suggested that this experience and help in modernizing Nigeria’s arsenal could help defeat the Boko Haram insurgency:

On the security front, Nigeria counts on Russia’s continued partnership in eliminating the Boko Haram insurgents from our sub-region. We wish to leverage on Russia’s experience in counterterrorism operations to bring this scourge to an end. Military and technical assistance in this respect would be highly appreciated (Vanguard [Lagos], April 24; The Nation [Lagos], April 25).

The success of Russia’s ruthless repression of pirates off the Somali coast has been well noted in Nigeria, where shipping and off-shore oil operations are increasingly threatened by pirates. Dan-Ali emphasized the dire security situation in the Gulf of Guinea, asking for Russian assistance to combat piracy, kidnappings, ship-hijackings and illegal dumping of toxic and radioactive waste (Legit.ng [Lagos], April 25). The most dangerous waters in the world for shipping are no longer off the Somali coast, but rather in the Gulf of Guinea; the minister cited figures from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) that indicated violent attacks in the Gulf had doubled in 2018 while pirates were now operating in speed boats as far as 100 nautical miles from shore. Since that report was issued, a further 22 attacks occurred in the first quarter of 2019, including all the world’s 21 reported kidnappings of crew members (IMB Piracy Report, January 16; International Crime Services, April 8).

(International Chamber of Commerce)

Nigeria’s relationship with Russia is much less complicated than its relations with the U.S. and Britain, the former colonial power. U.S. interest in Nigeria has waned in recent years with Nigerian oil imports declining steeply as America develops its own energy resources. China and Russia are increasingly seen in Abuja as more appealing, no-questions-asked partners who can provide affordable and effective solutions to Nigeria’s security and development problems. On May 2, the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, indicated that British military support would be available to Nigeria, “but they are a sovereign nation and they have got to want our help” (Premium Times [Abuja], May 2).

Having outlined Nigeria’s desperate need for help, Dan-Ali surprisingly took the opportunity to brightly proclaim that Nigerian and MNJTF operations had “overwhelmed” Boko Haram, leaving the leadership “decimated” (Legit.ng [Lagos], April 25).  Despite the Nigerian Army’s repeated claims of imminent victory, villagers and forest workers continue to be slaughtered by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP – the movement split in mid-2016).

Boko Haram commander Abubakr Shekau (right) in front of a captured Nigerian APC.

Only three days after Dan-Ali’s sunny assessment, ISWAP fighters overran a Nigerian Army outpost in Borno State on April 27, driving survivors into the bush and adding the captured arms and vehicles to their arsenal. The militants attacked using 12 technicals (pick-up trucks fitted with a heavy machine gun), three previously captured armored personnel carriers and dozens of gunmen on motorcycles operating on the flanks (This Day [Lagos], April 28; Defensepost.com [Johannesburg], April 27). Hundreds of Nigerian soldiers have perished in 22 attacks on military posts in the last four years (Guardian [Lagos], April 29).

Nigeria has had military interactions with Russia in the recent past. When Nigerian attempts to buy U.S. Cobra attack helicopters were rebuffed by Washington in 2014, Nigeria turned to Russia, which had no problems selling them 21 Mi-35 attack helicopters and 11 Mi-17 utility helicopters. Nigeria ordered a further 12 Russian Mi-35M attack helicopters in September 2016 (NAN [Lagos], August 2, 2017).  Russian media reported plans to sell Nigeria ten Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighters in mid-2017, but the sale does not appear to have gone through (Sputnik, June 26, 2017).

Twelve hundred carefully-picked Nigerian security personnel drawn from the armed forces, the police and the Department of State Services (DSS – domestic intelligence) were sent to Russia for advanced anti-insurgency training in 2014 (Vanguard [Lagos], September 27, 2014). The training was apparently meant to be secret – the Nigerian defense ministry only acknowledged the program when the last contingent of 400 security personnel was photographed leaving for Russia at Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport (Defenceweb, [Johannesburg], October 23, 2014).

Nigerian Army chief-of-staff Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai has indicated that Nigeria will soon receive a shipment of advanced military hardware from an un-named country (This Day [Lagos], April 25). As the purchase includes technical training and ongoing maintenance support, Russia would seem to be the most likely point of origin for this shipment.

In the economic realm, Dan-Ali also requested Russian assistance in the construction of pipelines, railways and a nuclear power plant. Nigeria has been in talks with Russian state-owned Rosatom over the development of two nuclear reactors in Nigeria since 2015. Enriched uranium was recently removed from a research reactor by an international team in Nigeria’s Kaduna State over fears the material could be seized by terrorists (This Day [Lagos], April 25).

Meanwhile, despite these developments, Nigeria’s embassy in Moscow is unlikely to entertain Russian visitors any time soon; its unpaid water bill has forced a supply cut-off to the embassy, forcing diplomats to continually borrow water from neighboring embassies to flush the toilets (Punch [Lagos], April 3). Nigeria’s inability to even maintain important foreign embassies is indicative of Nigeria’s ongoing financial crisis. Russia does not need Nigerian oil and has little interest in other Nigerian products. The price of Russian military aid could well be a military base on the Nigerian coast close to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

This article first appeared in the May 8, 2019 issue of the Eurasia Daily Monitor

 

Who Attacked the Libyan National Army in Southern Libya?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report

May 4, 2019

The attackers emerged out of the desert darkness at dawn on May 4, quickly springing on a Libyan National Army (LNA) training base near Sabha, the capital of Libya’s southwestern Fazzan region. A firefight of several hours ensued before the attackers melted back into the desert. The number of dead LNA troops range from seven to 11; one soldier was beheaded, another showed signs of burning and the others all appeared to have perished from close-range execution-style shots to the head or chest. The dead belonged to the 160th Battalion, part of the loose alliance of militias that compose the LNA under the command of “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. The former CIA asset and Qaddafi-era general has tried to secure the Fazzan in recent months as part of his efforts to expel the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, arrest his political and military rivals, and seize power before elections scheduled for later this year.

An LNA spokesman blamed the attack on an unlikely combination of Islamic State terrorists and Chadian mercenaries operating in south Fazzan. The Islamic State issued a claim of responsibility that insisted 16 soldiers had been killed or wounded, describing the victims as “apostates” who had fallen to the “soldiers of the caliphate” (al-Arabiya, May 4, 2019; The Address [Benghazi], May 4, 2019; Reuters, May 4, 2016). Chadian mercenaries and exiled Chadian rebels (often the same thing in southern Libya) have worked for both the PC/GNA and Haftar’s LNA, but are typically not jihadists and are not known to collaborate with the Islamic State.  The Islamic State claimed an earlier attack on the LNA near Sabha on April 11, insisting six soldiers had been killed. The LNA confirmed the attack but claimed to have suffered no casualties (Reuters, April 11, 2019).

Al-Sumud Front Leader Salah Badi

However, another claim of joint responsibility for this latest attack was issued by two militias operating in Tripoli but originally from the northwestern city of Misrata. The two include the 166th Battalion led by Muhammad Omar Hassan and the Sumud Islamist militia led by warlord Salah Badi, the subject of UN sanctions. The 166th Battalion supports the GNA, but, until recently, Badi’s al-Sumud opposed it, favoring, not Haftar and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR – a rival government to the PC/GNA with ties to Haftar), but yet another rival government, Khalifa Ghwell’s Government of National Salvation (GNS).

Now, with Haftar’s LNA battling to force their way into the southern suburbs of Tripoli, al-Sumud appears to have joined in a common cause against Haftar, who is widely disliked in the capital. The militias denied carrying out any beheadings and claimed that the LNA was using the Islamic State as a tool in its propaganda (The Address [Benghazi], May 4, 2019; Anadolu Agency, May 4, 2019).

The attack may have been designed to exploit an LNA weakness, as Haftar’s southern-based forces move north to bolster the LNA assault on the national capital. With the LNA assault bogged down in Tripoli’s southern outskirts, there is increasing pressure on Haftar to transfer forces to the Tripoli battlefront. If defeated, Haftar is unlikely to be able to take another shot at replacing Libya’s UN-backed administration, the Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA).

Cauldron of the Wau al-Namus Volcano in the Haruj Region

Haftar’s need for troops in the offensive on Tripoli has already had tragic consequences as Islamic State forces mount violent assaults on desert communities abandoned by the LNA. Al-Fuqaha, 100 km north of Sabha, has been the target of two carefully orchestrated attacks since last October. With little in the way of defense after the most recent attack in April, the town is quickly clearing out, leaving it open to IS occupation (Middle East Eye, April 10, 2019). Al-Fuqaha is on the edge of central Libya’s forbidding Haruj volcanic field, a challenging environment of 150 dormant volcanoes and their blackened lava flows. The region was being used for shelter and refuge by Chadian mercenaries last year and it appears that Islamic State forces may now be using the same region.

There are signs the Islamic State may be trying to take advantage of the turmoil in Tripoli; on April 13, the Rada Special Deterrence Force (a militia acting as Tripoli’s unofficial Islamist police under ‘Abd al-Ra’uf Kara) arrested a Libyan IS member who had arrived from Sabha with the alleged intention of carrying out terrorist acts in the capital (Libya Observer, April 14, 2019).

General ‘Ali Kanna Sulayman

The LNA launched its military offensive in Fazzan in mid-January with the stated goals of driving out jihadists and bandits, securing oil facilities, ending vandalism of stations of the Man-Made River (MMR) project and ending uncontrolled migrant flows across Libya’s southern border. In response, PC/GNA leader Fayez al-Sirraj appointed Tuareg Lieutenant General ‘Ali Kanna Sulayman the commander of the Sabha military zone on February 6 (Libya Observer, February 6, 2019). A former supporter of Mu’ammar Qaddafi during the 2011 Libyan Revolution, ‘Ali Kanna is a fierce opponent of Haftar and is seeking the unification of the armed Tuareg and Tubu opposition to the Cyrenaïcan warlord. [1] ‘Ali Kanna is also believed to have strong ties to Qatar, which, along with Turkey, supports the PC/GNA against the LNA and its Egyptian, Saudi and UAE supporters.

Whether IS or PC/GNA-aligned forces carried out the attack (both detest Haftar and are in need of a victory somewhere in Libya), the Libyan south will present a security threat in Haftar’s rear if he is forced to further reinforce his stalled offensive in the northwest with troops now tasked with securing the south.

Note

[1] For ‘Ali Kanna, see: “General Ali Kanna Sulayman and Libya’s Qaddafist Revival,” AIS Special Report, August 8, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3999

 

Keeping the Civil War Alive: A Profile of South Sudan’s Rebel General, Thomas Cirilo Swaka

Andrew McGregor

May 2, 2019

General Thomas Cirilo Swaka in SPLA Uniform

A little-known five-year civil war in South Sudan has left up to 400,000 dead and millions more displaced. After the young nation gained its hard-won independence in 2011, only two years of peace followed before latent rivalries between the Dinka and the Nuer (the two largest and most powerful of South Sudan’s 62 recognized ethnic-groups) resurfaced. In December 2013, President Salva Kiir Mayardit (Dinka) accused his vice president, Dr. Riek Machar Teny (Nuer), of planning a coup against the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) (for Machar, see MLM, January 30, 2014). Machar denied it, but was soon leading a largely Nuer army opposed to the government—the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO). In time, other ethnic groups were pulled into the struggle. [1] Many of these smaller groups (especially in Equatoria) had joined pro-Khartoum militias during the 1983-2005 Second Sudanese Civil War, creating a lasting friction with the Dinka who provided the bulk of the rebel SPLA manpower.

The first two years of the war largely avoided Equatoria, the traditional name for the southern third of the nation where there are relatively few Dinka and Nuer. A year-long peace agreement signed in 2015 could not survive growing perceptions that President Kiir’s regime was promoting Dinka superiority at the expense of other ethnic groups. New tribal-based armed movements emerged and the war erupted once more. This time, SPLM-IO forces shifted into the forests of Equatoria, with the government’s Dinka-dominated Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) following them in pursuit. Equatoria’s many ethnic groups were soon forming their own armed self-defense forces gathered into highly fluid alliances.

Fueling the conflict in Equatoria and elsewhere was the regime’s unpopular division of South Sudan’s original ten states into 28 (and later 32). Again, this was perceived as an effort to establish Dinka majorities in various regions, all governed by Dinkas appointed by and loyal to the president. Many Equatorians prefer a return to a single region rather than the current arrangement of nine small Equatorian states imposed in 2017. Southern Sudan is traditionally understood as three distinct regions – Upper Nile, Bahr al-Ghazal, and Equatoria.

With 3.5 billion barrels of proven reserves of crude oil, South Sudan should be enjoying rapid development and significant improvements in living standards. Instead, the ongoing fighting has halved oil production and most oil revenues are spent on military equipment.

A General from Equatoria

The government, the SPLM-IO, and a number of smaller armed groups signed a new peace deal in August 2018, the Revitalized Agreement on Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS). Leading the armed opposition to the agreement and to the Kiir regime is Lieutenant General Thomas Cirilo Swaka, a member of the Bari tribe (a cross-border group also found in northern Uganda) and a former leading general in the SPLA.

Hailing from the South Sudanese capital of Juba, Cirilo fought against the Khartoum regime during the Second Sudanese Civil War, surviving a landmine blast that left an eight-inch scar on his head. By the time South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, Cirilo was already head of the SPLA’s training and research division. In February 2016, he became the SPLA’s deputy chief of general staff for logistics. Having maintained a fairly low profile, he took some by surprise when he resigned from the SPLA in February 2017, becoming the second highest ranking officer to defect from the SPLA. Cirilo established a new rebel movement, the National Salvation Front (NSF), the following month. The movement is better known as “NAS,” meaning “people” in Juba Arabic. At the time of his resignation, Cirilo claimed President Kiir had turned South Sudan’s military, police and security services into a  Dinka-dominated “tribal army” (African News/Reuters, March 7, 2017).

Cirilo claims he was sidelined during the Kiir regime’s worst abuses and largely powerless to stop them (Reuters, May 5, 2017).  A presidential spokesman, on the other hand, noted that Cirilo had a major command position in the SPLA in those years, was part of the decision-making process and therefore “bears the consequences of what the SPLA as an army has actually done” (February 14, 2017).

Reasons for Rebellion

When he resigned, Cirilo issued a statement claiming “President Kiir and his Dinka leadership clique have tactically and systematically transformed the SPLA into a partisan and tribal army…Terrorizing their opponents, real or perceived, has become a preoccupation of the government.” Cirilo went on to state that extensive recruiting in the security forces was ongoing among the Dinka of President Kiir’s home region and that these forces were being deployed to occupy land belonging to other tribal and ethnic groups using methods involving rape, murder, and torture (February 11, 2017). Allegations of regime corruption, economic mismanagement and an inability to maintain law and order were also made (Pachodo.org, December 2017).

In the overcharged political atmosphere of the national capital it was not surprising that the U.S. embassy in that city was compelled to refute charges in the local press that the CIA was backing Cirilo in order to overthrow the Salva Kiir government (Sudan Tribune, March 16, 2017). These charges were revived in September 2018 by South Sudanese intelligence while Cirilo was touring the United States to raise support for his movement: “We are not sure of why he is gone to the U.S., but we know he is there, being sponsored by the CIA” (East African [Nairobi], September 4, 2018).

War in Equatoria

President Kiir offered Cirilo an amnesty in September 2017 that would have allowed the general to rejoin the SPLA or form his own political party, but the offer was refused (Sudan Tribune, September 5, 2017).

SPLA-IO patrol in Kajo Keji (The Nation, Nairobi).

Cirilo’s troops instead clashed with Machar’s SPLA-IO in mid-October 2017 in the Kajo Keji region close to the Ugandan border. The region, a part of Yei River State where NAS is especially strong, is a strategic transit point for rebel movements and its control allows for the importation of supplies from Uganda (October 19, 2017).

Many clashes occur in remote locations, leaving only the spokesmen for both sides as sources. Typical of the credibility issues this presents was a 2017 clash between SPLM/A-IO and the forces of Lieutenant General John Kenyi Luboron. Luboron had defected to NAS from the SPLM/A-IO only days earlier, citing internal feuds in the SPLM/A-IO leadership, neglect of the forces under General Kenyi and the “unnecessary and random promotion of officers” (Minbane, July 29, 2017; Sudan Tribune, July 30, 2017).

The SPLM/A-IO claimed to have quickly overrun Kenyi’s base at Nyori, forcing the defector and his men to flee into the bush. According to NAS, Kenyi repulsed two SPLM/A-IO attacks on his base before pursuing the attackers (NAS Press Release, August 4, 2017, Reuters, July 30, 2017).

Colonel Nyariji Jermilili Roman repeated charges of military negligence in the course of his own resignation from the SPLM/A-IO, accusing Machar of deliberately neglecting the SPLM/A-IO forces in Equatoria:

“You intentionally failed to supply our forces in Equatoria with arms and necessary logistical support, an act that endangered many of our men’s lives because their capacity to defend themselves was greatly affected, hence the death of General Elias Lino Jada and General Martin Kenyi” (Sudan Tribune, March 13, 2017).

General Martin Terensio Kenyi was killed in a battle in Lobonok (Jubek State) in June 2016 (for General Kenyi, see MLM March 2, 2017). General Elias Lindo was allegedly assassinated together with prominent lawyer Peter Abd al-Rahman Sule by South Sudan security agents in Uganda in 2015. Their remains were never recovered: they were believed to have been thrown into the crocodile-infested waters of the White Nile, a common method of disposing of political prisoners during the rule of Idi Amin Dada (South Sudan Liberty News, August 22, 2015; ).

General Khalid Butros Bora

Initially, Cirilo’s leadership attracted other armed groups in Equatoria. Among these was the South Sudan Democratic Movement (SSDM, aka “Cobra Faction”), led by General Khalid Butrus Bora (Murle). The movement’s former leader, David Yau Yau (Murle), signed a peace agreement in 2015 and joined the government, leaving the Cobra faction in the field (for Yau Yau, see MLM, May 31, 2013). General Butrus, who resigned from the SPLA in 2016, warned that Dinka civilians had been issued heavy weapons and encouraged to attack Murle communities in eastern Equatoria (VOA, March 9, 2017). To counter this, Butrus merged the SSDM with NAS on March 9, 2017 (SouthSudanNation.com, March 9, 2017).

Cirilo’s movement suffers from a near-constant shortage of ammunition, a fact well-known to their enemies. Many NAS fighters are armed solely with bows and arrows. Nonetheless, Cirilo remains defiant: “We’re not going to stop. If Juba thinks that without bullets we’re not going to be able to protect ourselves and our people they’re wrong” (Vice.com, February 15).

NAS has also been vulnerable to defections. On June 15, 2018, Lieutenant Colonel John Kaden Elisa led 137 fighters away from NAS in order to rejoin the SPLM/A-IO. Kaden insisted the men had been ordered by Lieutenant General John Kenny Latio to defect to NAS and fight the SPLM/A-IO, actions that they now regretted. Cirilo’s failure or inability to provide arms and his insistence they fight the SPLM/A-IO rather than regime forces were cited as major reasons for their return to the SPLM/A-IO (Daily Monitor [Kampala], June 16, 2018).

Further defections would follow. In mid-November 2018, the SPLM/A-IO reported that Brigadier Peter Yugu Laku and Colonel Augustino Modi had returned to the SPLM/A-IO with “90% of their fighters” after having defected to NAS in August 2017. A NAS spokesman claimed the SPLM/A-IO had then mounted a joint operation with the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF, the re-named SPLA as of October 2, 2018) against NAS forces in Lobonok, though a SPLM/A-IO spokesman denied the operation existed and suggested that NAS “look after their own mess” (Sudan Tribune, November 20, 2018).

The Brown Caterpillars

South Sudan Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial provided a positive report on human rights in his country to the UN’s Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in April despite a massive cross-border refugee outflow from Equatoria, the biggest crisis of its type in Africa since 1994. In response, Cirilo sent a three-page letter to the council refuting the minister’s claims:

The realities on the ground show that there’s no peace in the country and fighting is going on as we speak… the current tragedy in the Yei River area where tens of thousands of civilians fled their homes seeking safety in the neighboring countries refutes the government’s false claims… NAS forces have come under relentless attacks by the SSPDF and the [Mathiang Anyoor] militia affiliated to it (Sudan Tribune, March 3).

General Paul Malong Awan (Radio Tamazuj)

Mathiang Anyoor (“Brown Caterpillar”) is an ethnic-Dinka militia formed by former SPLA chief of general staff Paul Malong Awan (Dinka) as a personal guard for himself and President Kiir. The group, recruited largely from the Northern Bahr al-Ghazal and the Warrap region, is well-armed, though its direct connection to the army is uncertain. The militia split in May 2017 when Malong was dismissed. Some members joined Malong’s new rebel movement, the South Sudan United Front/Army (SSUF/A), in April 2018 (Sudan Tribune, April 9, 2018). Like NAS, the SSUF/A also refused to sign the revitalized peace agreement. Malong’s attempts to run the movement from Kenya proved unsuccessful when the rest of the movement sacked him as leader in order to join the revitalized peace process (Sudan Tribune, October 8, 2018). [2]

Cirilo claimed to have seen documents showing the government was delivering weapons to Mathiang Anyoor by bypassing military supply lines. A government spokesman retorted that it was unfortunate that Cirilo was going “out of his mind”(Reuters, May 5, 2017).

Initial financing for the militia was provided by the chairman of the Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders (JCE). The JCE is a regular target of Cirilo, who charged in his resignation letter that the elders had taken command of the SPLA to pursue an ethnic cleansing of South Sudan’s many other ethnic groups (VOA, February 14 2017).

In early January, the SSPDF accused NAS fighters under the command of General Luboron of killing 19 civilians in Yei River State. A spokesman for the NAS-allied People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) led by Hakim Dario accused Mathiang Anyoor of carrying out the killings as revenge for the loss of 15 militiamen in clashes with NAS forces in central Equatoria (Sudan Tribune, January 5). NAS insisted the SSPDF had taken out its anger on local artisanal gold miners after coming off second-best in a skirmish with NAS forces (Gurtong.net, January 4; Sudan Tribune, January 5). Further clashes between NAS and Mathiang Anyoor in the following days resulted in the reported death of 13 more civilians and seven members of the Mathiang Anyoor (Sudan Tribune, February 13).

Opposing the Peace Process

According to Cirilo, the existing system of governance in South Sudan is “nothing but a dictatorship in disguise.” The rebel leader has also criticized the failure to reform the security sector, “which is dominated by one ethnicity [i.e. the Dinka] out of 64 (Sudan Tribune, March 3).

In September 2018, the main warring parties in South Sudan signed a peace agreement in Khartoum, with Cirilo noticeably absent. A NAS spokesman explained the rejection of the revitalized ARCSS (R-ARCSS), sponsored by the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), by calling the document “a recipe for more conflict” (Sudan Tribune, September 1, 2018). [3] Cirilo’s NAS was joined by the PDM, the Pagan Amum Okiech led SPLM-Former Political Detainees (SPLM-FPD) and a number or armed groups in refusing to sign the agreement.

Cirilo became chairman in October 2018 of the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA), a largely Equatorian coalition of non-signatory groups. A rival SSOA coalition led by Gabriel Chang Changson favored the R-ARCSS. A reorganization of the non-signatory groups occurred in March, when the PDM left the SSOA in favor of another coalition, the National Alliance for Democracy and Freedom Action (NADAFA). [4] The rest of the SSOA formed the Cirilo-led South Sudan National Democratic Alliance (SSNDA).

Cirilo’s SSNDA consists of NAS, the National Democratic Movement (NDM) of Dr. Lam Akol Ajawin (Shilluk), the United Democratic Republic Alliance (UDRA) of Dr. Gatwech Koang Thich (who identifies himself as a research scientist at the United States Naval Air Warfare Center and a NASA research fellow) and a faction of the South Sudan National Movement for Change (SSNMC) led by Vakindi L. Unvu (Sudan Tribune, February 11). [5]

South Sudan – 10 states.

Green = Bahr al-Ghazal, Yellow = Upper Nile, Blue = Equatoria.

The greatest difference between the rival coalitions is that the SSNDA favors the redivision of South Sudan’s current 32 states to the 10 that existed at independence, while NADAFA favors a return to the traditional three states of South Sudan (Sudan Tribune, March 26). [6]

South Sudan – 32 States

In November 2018, South Sudan Vice President Wani Igga warned that all non-signatory groups would be declared terrorist organizations at the end of an eight-month period. More recently, IGAD has confirmed there will be no renegotiation of the R-ACRSS and Cirilo turned down a personal meeting with IGAD’s special envoy, sending a delegation instead (East African [Nairobi], March 7; IGAD Press Release, March 14).

Conclusion

With IGAD now threatening sanctions against him, Cirilo has little chance of attracting international or even regional support for his wish to strike a more favorable peace deal. Lacking an external source of arms and ammunition, Cirolo’s NAS is now facing growing military pressure. With the regime and Machar’s SPLM/A-IO now reconciled (at least temporarily), the SSPDF joined with Machar’s forces in February to launch an offensive against NAS fighters in central and western Equatoria. In early March, there were reports that troops of the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) had crossed the border into Equatoria, where they were in combat with NAS elements (Uganda is a strong supporter of the Kiir regime) (Observer [Kampala], March 6). Though the advent of the rainy season may provide Cirilo with some respite, the rebel leader may have to ultimately choose between reintegration with the regime or the gradual annihilation of his movement.

Notes

[1] Names and acronyms for South Sudanese rebel movements tend to follow the dual pattern first established by John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) to emphasize the existence and difference between the political (SPLM) and military (SPLA) wings of the movement.

[2] Malong has made many political alliances through mass-scale polygamy, having over 100 wives.

[3] IGAD, “Revitalized Agreement of the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan,” Addis Ababa, September 12, 2018, https://www.dropbox.com/s/6dn3477q3f5472d/R-ARCSS.2018-i.pdf?dl=0

[4] A new faction of the PDM favoring the R-ARCSS was recently formed. The People’s Democratic Movement for Peace (PDM-P) is led by Josephine Lagu Yanga, daughter of Anya Nya leader Joseph Lagu.

[5] Another faction of the SSNMC, led by Bangasi Joseph Bakosoro, is a partner in the R-ARCSS (SouthSudanNation.com, January 3).

[6] Other NADAFA partners include the Workers’ Party of Upper Nile (WPUN – largely Nuer) and the Federal Democratic Party/Army (FDP/A) of Peter Gatdet Yak (Bul Nuer), the main suspect in the 2014 massacre of 400 non-Nuer people at Bentiu while acting as a SPLA-IO commander (Sudan Tribune, February 9).

This article first appeared in the May 2, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.