August 12, 2011
The mysterious death of South Sudanese rebel commander Colonel Gatluak Gai (a.k.a. Galwak Gai) may jeopardize future attempts to rein in some seven other renegade commanders who refuse to join the new post-independence government of South Sudan.
Gatluak was a Nuer from Unity State’s Koch county. A colonel in the region’s prison service, Gatluak was little known until his failure to receive an expected appointment as Kock county commissioner led him into politics as a supporter of Angelina Teny (wife of South Sudan vice-president Riek Machar and a failed candidate for Unity State governor) and eventually into rebellion (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 17, 2010).
Unity (Wahda) State contains some of the largest oil reserves in Sudan. Its economic potential and position along the North-South border has resulted in its devastation by marauding troops, militias and tribal fighters since 1997, resulting in a massive displacement of the population
Colonel Gatluak took up arms against the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA – the armed wing of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement – SPLM) in May, 2010 with an announcement that he had seized 27 machine guns and intended to join the rebel movement of Lieutenant General George Athor Deng (Al-Ra’y al-Amm [Khartoum], May 29). The SPLA replied by accusing Gatluak of working in the interests of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum (Sudan Tribune, May 29). Only a week later, however, Gatluak was defeated in a clash with the SPLA in Unity State’s Mayom County. Gatluak was reported to have fled into thick brush (Sudan Tribune, June 8, 2010). The SPLA was confident Gatluak’s rebellion was broken and an offer of amnesty was given in September 2010 as part of a larger amnesty program sponsored by South Sudan president Salva Kiir. Gatluak remained in the field rather than accept the amnesty.
Negotiations with Gatluak resumed in July after South Sudan’s declaration of independence. An agreement was reached under which Gatluak’s forces would be integrated into the ranks of the SPLA while Gatluak himself would receive the rank of Lieutenant General. While the rank of Lieutenant General (and its associated salary and perks) appears to have become the default compensation for rebel commanders joining or rejoining the SPLA, it was a remarkable jump in rank for a prison service colonel who was virtually unknown to the rest of South Sudan’s inflated general staff.
Gatluak agreed to the terms of the July 20 amnesty, which included an end to hostilities and cattle-rustling, the provision of a list of all members of his rebel formation, the integration of his men into the SPLA, and an agreement to be moved anywhere in South Sudan as a senior officer in the SPLA (Sudan Tribune, July 20).
According to Ruei, Gatluak’s group was seeking a new supply of arms from Khartoum, though the latter had made this supply conditional on Gatluak’s group joining the larger Nuer rebel movement led by Peter Gadet, the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), operating out of Unity State’s Mayom county (Sudan Tribune, July 27).  Colonel Gatluak had previously denied having any ties to Gatdet, who is Gatluak’s son-in-law.
While it is confirmed that Gatluak and three of his followers were killed on July 25, accounts of his death begin to diverge after that. Gatluak’s deputy, Marko Chuol Ruei, admitted responsibility for his commander’s death a week later on local radio, saying Gatluak and several other rebel officers had decided to renege on the agreement with the SPLA and ally themselves with the North Sudan, adding:”Gatluak Gai should blame himself for his death” (Bentiu Radio, July 24; Sudan Tribune, July 25). The former deputy said he had taken command and was ready to honor the agreement with the SPLA/M.
However, Gatluak’s brother, John Nguanyeat Gai, disputed Ruei’s version of events, saying Gatluak had no intention of dishonoring the agreement but was instead murdered by SPLA elements angered by his sudden promotion to Lieutenant General. Nuer Colonel Bol Gatkuoth, a spokesman for Peter Gatdet’s rebel group, said Gatluak “was killed by the SPLA… He signed a peace agreement and was ambushed by the same forces he signed the agreement with… It was a way of luring him in so that they could catch him” (AFP, July 23). Gatluak’s wife claimed their camp was already surrounded by SPLA troops by 5 AM and that Gatluak was killed while trying to escape with his family, rather than in a confrontation with his deputy (Sudan Tribune, July 25).
Nine of Gatluak’s sons served in his almost exclusively Nuer militia, which SPLA officials confirm will still be integrated with SPLA forces (AFP, July 23).
The SPLM’s deal with Gatluak appears to have been hastily fashioned as Juba was eager to present a unified face to the world when South Sudan celebrated its independence in July. Though the deal reached with Colonel Gatluak was seriously flawed – his promotion to Lieutenant General suggested that rebellion was a sure route to an exaggerated rank for disaffected soldiers and government officials – his death poses similar problems, in that it dissuades other notoriously suspicious rebel commanders from reaching an agreement with officials in Juba. Regardless of its real motives, however, Gatluak’s murder might serve to disabuse some potential rebels from the belief a quick insurrection is the key to rapid promotion.
1. Footage of the SSLA can be seen at : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_zoe1kaoIo and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIjKGDpVNPY&feature=related.
This article was originally published in the August 12, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor