Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

South Sudan Vulnerable Despite Peace Talks

Even if Ugandan rebels operating in southern Sudan agree to stop fighting, the region is likely to suffer more raiding by renegade militias and bandits.
Raphael Lado leaned unsteadily on his cane as he spoke about the night in mid-June when he narrowly escaped death.

Bandits broke into his mud hut in the middle of the night, flashed lights in his face, and shot dead his son-in-law, Joseph Wani, at point-blank range.

Seventy-year-old Lado lay on his cot, frozen with fear, thinking he was about to die. He turned to look at his killer, but instead the man slapped his face and said, “sleep, uncle, sleep”, then disappeared into the night.

Outside, Lado heard sporadic gunfire as the raiders went from hut to hut, killing people and taking food and clothes.

The attack was just one of many that continue to plague southern Sudan despite the widely publicised peace talks now under way in the regional capital, Juba, between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, a northern Ugandan rebel group that has in recent years operated out of neighbouring Sudan.

Peter Loting, the chief of Lado’s village of Gumbo, said such attacks have continued unabated since last autumn. Three people including a woman died the night Lado’s hut was attacked.

The headman shook his head in disgust as he pointed to bloodstained grass in a field where a 17-year-old boy was shot while trying to flee bandits during an incident a week earlier.

“This area is a chest of problems,” said Loting. “The people here are bad.”

Loting recalled how many people believe peace had arrived in January 2005, when the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, SPLA, signed an agreement with the government in Khartoum to end the 20-year war in the south.

The deal had been spearheaded by the SPLA’s charismatic leader, John Garang, who died months later in a helicopter crash. The SPLA’s political wing, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement or SPLM, now dominates the government of an autonomous – but not independent - South Sudan.

After the euphoria surrounding the agreement faded, reality set in, said Loting. The area was still a battleground for SPLA and Sudanese government troops, as well as the LRA and pursuit troops sent in by the Ugandan army.

Before peace set in, Sudan’s Islamic government supported the LRA, allowed it to maintain bases, and encouraged it to attack the SPLA. Military aid from Khartoum enabled the LRA to continue its own war against the Ugandan military, which had been operating in southern Sudan since 2002.

In southern Sudan, the LRA employed many of the same tactics as on its home ground in the north of Uganda, terrorising the population with brutal killings, abductions and pillaging.

The Ugandan rebels’s use of machetes to kill and mutilate their victims earned them the name of “tong-tong,” meaning “cut-cut”.

Loting said LRA attacks in the region intensified six years ago, but moved closer to Gumbo in 2003. Although the village is just three kilometres from Juba, it is vulnerable to attack because it is only accessible via a strategically important bridge over the Nile. The village was the scene of battle between the Ugandan rebels and the SPLA last December.

But the presence of the “tong-tong”, the two government armies and the SPLA are only part of the problem, according to Loting. Other armed groups also roam southern Sudan using the LRA’s fearsome reputation as cover for their own raiding.

“We know some gangs are there,” he said. “They are using the tong-tong as an umbrella.”

So it is not even clear who was behind raids such as the one on Gumbo, or an attack on a pickup truck full of civilians in early July which left five dead and 11 wounded.

LRA representatives at the talks in Juba insisted their guerrillas were not responsible.

“We are at peace with the government of South Sudan,” said spokesman Obonyo Olweny. “There is no reason we should attack anywhere.”

But others were not so sure. The truck that was attacked belonged to a German construction company repairing roads in the region, whose project manager, Julius Mono, was convinced the attack was by LRA rebels.

“We blame the LRA,” he said, citing documents captured at the scene that identified the attackers, and witness statements from those who escaped alive.

Mono said that in a leaflet distributed around the region, “They put it clearly… we are the LRA.”

However, Mono conceded the raiders could have been could be another paramilitary group posing as the LRA.

Whoever it was, Mono said he was frustrated at the failure to pursue them after the attack on the truck.

Because the SPLA is under orders not to engage the LRA, a Ugandan army unit present in the region set off in pursuit, only to stop after a short distance complaining that they lacked the food supplies to carry out a sustained chase.

“How many people do they want killed?” asked Mono. “It’s a terrible thing and something must be done.”

A week later, the LRA’s second in command, Vincent Otti, suggested what many others - including South Sudan vice- president Riek Machar, the man who brokered the Juba talks, had feared.

Otti indicated that part of the LRA may now be operating beyond his control or that of the group’s commander Joseph Kony.

“I don’t know if there’s some splinter group,” Otti said when he was asked about the July attacks.

Loting believes this kind of renegade force might be responsible for at least some of the attacks. He said there was definitely some connection with the LRA since the raiders spoke a Luo language – as the Acholi people of northern Uganda do – and sported the unmistakable dreadlocks favoured by the rebel fighters.

Security is still tenuous on this part of the east bank of the Nile.

“They [LRA] are not completely gone,” said Loting. “They are there, but there is also another gang.”

Villagers frequently sight heavily-armed fighters when they are out gathering firewood. Some are recognisable as locals formerly part of the SPLA, others belong to another south Sudanese group called the Equatorial Defence Forces, while others still may be renegades from the LRA.

“The area includes them all,” said Loting. “They are very troublesome people. This is a troublesome area.”

The local police force and an undermanned SPLA unit that provides limited protection in the area have captured some of the armed men who appear to be little more than bandits.

“They confessed they were doing this [killing and robbing] to earn their living,” said Loting.

He said his village needs another 40 or 50 soldiers to ensure security, because most of its residents have abandoned it for the safety of Juba, returning to tend their land plots during the day.

He is hopeful that the peace talks in Juba will proved successful since this could have a calming effect on the region.

“If people can fight, they can also negotiate,” he said. “The peace talks will make it a bit milder [here].”

Loting thinks the government of South Sudan should “expand the mediation effort” to include other groups of local origin.

Until these groups are removed, he warned, “The people are losing.”

Peter Eichstaedt is a senior editor with Uganda Radio Network, a programme of IWPR-Africa.