Analyses Contributor's Mabior Garang de Mabior

The Root Cause of the December 2013 Crisis in South Sudan: The Riek Machar Factor

A Response to Hon. Arop Madut Arop’s Article “How Political Wrangling in the Ruling SPLM Party Wrecked South Sudan Apart In 2013

By Mabior Garang de Mabior, Nairobi, Kenya


Mabior Garang de Mabior and Dr. Riek Machar Teny posts for a picture after a meeting to discuss their return to Juba in March 2016(Photo: file)
Mabior Garang de Mabior and Dr. Riek Machar Teny posts for a picture after a meeting to discuss their return to Juba in March 2016(Photo: file)

March 21, 2018 (Nyamilepedia) — The current civil war in the Republic of South Sudan is now entering its sixth year and a negotiated resolution to the conflict seems more elusive with the passage of time. There are various challenges to the peace process, however, the most immediate challenge has been the chronic failure to address the root cause of the conflict. The social sciences teach us that in order to resolve a difficult problem, one of the best approaches is the “root cause analysis”. In order for us to overcome the uncertainty currently surrounding the prospects for peace, it is important to revisit the genesis of the problem we are trying to mitigate, so that we can approach the solution to the crisis in a scientific manner and not based on our personal opinions. The following shall be an attempt by the authors to address the known facts leading up to the December 2013 crisis. It is in the analysis of this that we may perhaps be able to find a way out of the current abyss.

Historical Background

The SPLM crisis of 2013 was a culmination of several months of tension within the SPLM Political Bureau (PB) caused by the then forthcoming SPLM National Convention, scheduled for May 2013. The SPLM Convention was set to discuss among many issues, the Constitution, Basic Documents, Code of Conduct, term limits of office holders (including the SPLM Chairman) and the flag-bearer for the 2015 general election. The crisis escalated when the Chairman of the SPLM/SPLA, Salva Kiir, acting in his capacity as the President of the Republic, decided to sack the Vice President, the National Ministers and their Deputies, and the SPLM Secretary General, on July 23rd, 2013. The president also dissolved all the SPLM structures during a speech at the opening of the SPLM House in Juba on the November 15th, 2013.

The SPLM leaders retaliated by coming together and forming a coalition of the various candidates who had expressed their intention to contest for the Chair of the SPLM, joined by other concerned SPLM senior politicians and SPLA veterans. The SPLM leaders, after several meetings, resolved to contact Dr. Riek Machar, the deputy chairman of the SPLM, and they mandated Taban Deng Gai and Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth to initiate contact with him. They eventually resolved to endorse him as the chair of the coalition by virtue of his seniority as Deputy Chairman of the SPLM. The tension further escalated when the SPLM leaders, with the intention to put pressure on President Salva Kiir to call for dialogue, decided to call a press conference on December 6th, issuing a press statement in which they exposed the tension within the leadership, corruption and many other issues, the text of this statement is available by a simple online search.

The SPLM leaders categorically expressed that: “the efforts to transform the SPLM from a liberation movement into a mass-based political party have totally been frustrated by the Chairman”. The SPLM leaders also called for a rally to be held on the 14th of December, in which they would expose further the crisis that had been unfolding in the movement since 2005. This was postponed, however, because of the National Liberation Council (NLC) meeting convened by the President. It is worth noting that the state security organs tried to diffuse the tension, but to no avail. The NLC meeting, for which the SPLM PB was yet to set the agenda was held unconstitutionally, and the SPLM documents still under discussion in the PB, were unconstitutionally passed at this NLC meeting. The SPLM leaders, frustrated by the hostility of the allies of the President, decided not to attend the second day of the NLC meeting.

Tiger Mutiny

The situation between the contending SPLM groups was compounded by another unfolding situation which was developing among the Presidential Guards, known in South Sudan as the “Tigers”. The Commander of the Tigers, under orders from his Commander in Chief, Gen. Salva Kiir, ordered the disarming of one community within the unit, spontaneously leading to a mutiny, which quickly spread to the rest of the units in Juba. The President soon appeared on national television in full Tiger Combat Uniform and declared that he had foiled a coup by the SPLM leaders, placing them under house arrest, and declared a state of emergency from 6 pm – 6 am. On that infamous night of December 15, 2013 the Tigers allied to the President, supported by a private militia, committed a door to door massacre targeting the Nuer nationalities in Juba, leading to a cycle of revenge killings across the country and the current civil war.

The mutiny of the SPLA Division 8 under Gen. James Gadet Yaka, and Division 4 under James Koang Chuol, and the mobilization of the Traditional Defense Forces of the civil populations in traditional Nuer lands, known as the White Army, provided an escape route for many leaders from the carnage in Juba. These mutinies and armed uprisings by the civil populations, enabled the new movement to take control of most parts of Upper Nile and Jonglei States by January 2014, when negotiations were scheduled to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The SPLM leaders, still one at this time, were divided by the consequent war which erupted in Juba; and, naturally Dr. Riek used the pressure of the burgeoning armed resistance to call for the release of his group and decided they would constitute the negotiating team, while he was in the field organizing the anger of the civil population, which was quickly turning into sentiments of political tribalism and cycles of revenge killings.

The SPLM Leaders Split

The SPLM Leaders decided at this point, for some incomprehensible reasons, to denounce the war in the country and they incorporated themselves into a distinct, neutral group as they were released from detention and handed over to the custody and care of the Government of the Republic of Kenya. They became the SPLM Former Detainees (FDs) and claimed to be a non-violent movement and that they disagreed with the method of armed struggle applied by the SPLM/SPLA (IO) as a matter of principle. The relationship between the FDs and the SPLM/SPLA (IO) has been antagonistic since, and at times the FDs have even had more in common with the regime in Juba than with the other groups in the opposition, the major example of this has been the inability to work with Dr. Riek Machar.

The sudden lack of cohesion between the SPLM leaders and the abandonment of the December 6th program, strengthened the regime and this was evident at the negotiations, when the opposition groups failed to back each other up at the negotiations in Addis Ababa. The SPLM/SPLA (IO), despite signing a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoH) on January 23rd, 2014, watched the regime reverse the situation in the field without facing punitive measures from the guarantors. This led to intransigence from the regime and ultimately to the collapse of the ARCISS in July 2016, this has been well documented by the UN Panel of experts in: Letter dated 22 January 2016 from the Panel of Experts on South Sudan established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2206 (2015) addressed to the President of the Security Council – Final report (S/2016/70) [EN/AR].

The Collapse of ARCISS

It would be fair to protest that the ARCISS was never promulgated. It is a contradiction for the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) to be established, prior to the establishment of a Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA), which would ratify the Agreement by incorporating it into an Interim Constitution. It is this constitution which would be used to establish the TGoNU. This state of affairs is what led to the sacking of the FDs Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, which the FDs curiously acquiesced to, the President could flaunt the Agreement with impunity, using the Agreement to appoint an official and circumvent it by citing the old constitution when he wanted to dismiss an official. This is how the FVP was replaced, an illegal replacement according to Chapter I, Article 6.5 of the ARCISS, which states that “in the event of temporary absence of the First Vice President, the First Vice President may delegate a senior South Sudan Armed Opposition Minister to carry out functions and duties as stipulated in this Agreement. “

The July 8, 2016 incident was essentially a coup to the Peace Agreement and the FDs acquiesced to the new status quo which emerged in Juba and this new regime mobilized regional and world opinion in favor of isolating the leadership of the SPLM/SPLA (IO), and confining the Chairman and Commander in Chief, Dr. Riek Machar to house arrest in South Africa, where he has been for nearly two years. The new regime sold a local ideology of a minority ruling clique in South Sudan, that Dr. Riek Machar and Madam Angelina are responsible for all the problems of South Sudan, the regime went as low as naming their July 2016 operations to abrogate the Agreement, the “Angelina War”.

The Other Opposition Groups

The expansion of the war to the states of Equatoria, the emergence of new Resistance Movements and Traditional Defense Forces of civil populations, should disabuse us of the myth that keeping Dr. Riek Machar in detention will somehow solve South Sudan’s problems. There are many revolutionary forces across South Sudan since the collapse of the Agreement in July, 2016 and some of them are now part of the new IGAD attempts to revive the Agreement at the High-Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF), soon going into Phase III. The HLRF has provided a great opportunity for South Sudanese leaders to overcome political isolation and be able to dialogue about the future of our country.

The SPLM/SPLA (IO) recognizes the importance of the principle of unity of opposition groups and from the inception of the resistance, the Movement has waged this struggle. The SPLM/SPLA (IO) brings together SPLA Divisions, Traditional Civil Defense Forces, Leaders of the SPLM, Leaders of Other Political Parties and Leaders of Civil Society Organizations. The SPLM/SPLA is committed to this principle and shall continue to wage the struggle for unity of not only the opposition, but of people of South Sudan who have been divided by the regime.

The SPLM/SPLA (IO) will work with any genuine revolutionary forces in the country, however, the Movement will not allow the principle of unity of the opposition to be hijacked and politicized by opportunist as a tool for their own vested interests. The SPLM/SPLA (IO) has been the spearhead of the resistance to the genocidal regime in Juba and except for this resistance, there is nothing that would have prevented the regime’s success. Any genuine opposition groups in the country recognize that it is the sustained pressure of the armed resistance of the South Sudanese civil populations under the political leadership of the SPLM/SPLA (IO), that brings an otherwise belligerent and genocidal regime to the negotiating table, creating space for dialogue. The SPLM/SPLA (IO) equally acknowledges these revolutionary forces. The opportunists can be easily identified by their enmity for Dr. Riek Machar, which they share in common with some members of the FDs and with the Regime in Juba, this factor has been a stumbling block to a transparent peace process.

The genocide that has taken place in South Sudan is a known fact. According to The Independent, in December, 2016 Yasmin Sooka , a Human Rights Lawyer, warned the UN Human Rights Council that they needed to do something to prevent a “Rwanda like” genocide. In April, 2017 Britain’s secretary for international development, Priti Patel, stated after visiting victims of the South Sudan Conflict in Uganda: “There are massacres taking place, people’s throats are being slit … villages are being burnt out, there’s a scorched-earth policy … It is tribal, it is absolutely tribal, so on that basis it is genocide.” The world is doing what it can; however, the SPLM/SPLA (IO) leadership has resolved not to be spectators in our own affairs and have taken up the historical responsibility to organize the anger of our people into an opportunity to establish the Second Republic of South Sudan.


The conclusion to this, is that enmity towards Dr. Riek Machar may be the root cause for the failure to find a resolution to the current civil war in the Republic of South Sudan. The anxiety of those with power that Dr. Riek Machar may emerge victorious out of a democratic process, led to the introduction of war through ethnic cleansing by President Salva Kiir, targeting the Nuer community, despite the fact that the crisis was with SPLM leaders from all regions of South Sudan. The opposition was divided, weakened, and has been unable to put up an effective resistance against the regime because of this enmity. Some leaders coded this enmity with language like: “our constituencies would not understand joining a Movement led by Dr. Riek Machar”.

The failure of the opposition to cultivate the spirit of unity they had on December 6, 2016 has helped the regime promote a toxic sectarian propaganda in the country. This propaganda has succeeded in arousing tribal sentiments calling back to mind historical tribal feuds, the most used being the incidents of 1991. This is not to dismiss the reality of the pain and the right to justice and accountability for the victims of the incidents of 1991, or any other tribal conflict throughout our history; however, these cases can be addressed as separate discussions so that they are not politicized and used to divert the peace process, which ultimately provides for justice and accountability and national reconciliation and healing for all South Sudanese. The politicization of atrocities only hurts the cause of victims.

The root cause of the current civil war in South Sudan, the reason the ARCISS was abrogated through a coup and the reason peace remains elusive, is due to the political machinations of those in power to prevent Dr. Riek Machar from becoming the president of the Republic of South Sudan by any means including violence, even if he used ”peaceful means”. The current conflict could easily be resolved through elections and if Dr. Riek Machar won these elections and we were genuine about peace in our country and respected the outcome of the choice of people of South Sudan, then the idea that Dr. Riek Machar may win elections should not distress anyone. The fact that Dr. Riek Machar taking power even through peaceful means is considered repugnant and that the country could be allowed to reach this level of state collapse in order to ensure this objective, speaks to a more serious crisis of identity in the country which needs a deeper analysis.

In conclusion, it would move the peace process forward if those in power and the beneficiaries of the power structure, put the ultimate permanent interests of our people above their enmity for Dr. Riek Machar. There are many causes for the crisis in South Sudan, however, the authors have tried to limit the events submitted here to those that are easily verifiable, these events are now history and it makes little sense to argue about them, they are well documented by the OCTOBER 27, 2015 – FINAL REPORT OF THE AFRIAN UNION COMMISSION OF INQUIRY ON SOUTH SUDAN, the LETTER DATED 22 JANUARY 2016 FROM THE PANEL OF EXPERTS ON SOUTH SUDAN ESTABLISHED PERSUANT TO SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION 2206 (2015) ADDRESSED TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE SECURITY COUNCIL – FINAL REPORT (S/2016/70) [EN/AR]. There are also many official, well-researched reports by various groups. There are local reports such as the Annual Reports of the South Sudan Audit Chamber and internationally there are reports by such groups as Amnesty Internationaland the Sentry, any reader who genuinely wants to understand this crisis can easily verify these facts through a simple research.

The author, Mabior Garang de Mabior, is the first born son of South Sudan founding father, Dr. John Garang de Mabioor, the former Minister for Water and Irrigation in South Sudan’s Transitional Government and is currently the SPLM-IO secretary for information. You can reach him via his email: ancient_ofdayz@yaboo.com

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