Analyses Contributor's Mabior Garang de Mabior

The Root Causes of the December 2013 Crisis in South Sudan

The SPLM/SPLA Factor

By Mabior Garang de Mabior,
Movie star and rights activist, George Clooney in discussion with South Sudan's leader President Salva Kiir, Dr. Riek Machar and second Vice President Hon. James Wani Igga(File: past photos)
Movie star and rights activist, George Clooney in discussion with South Sudan’s leader President Salva Kiir, Dr. Riek Machar and second Vice President Hon. James Wani Igga(File: past photos)

March 28th, 2018(Nyamilepedia) —– The December 2013 conflict in South Sudan has often been portrayed as a power struggle between the President Salva Kiir and his then Vice President Riek Machar – a Vice President who was seen as and continues to be depicted as a power-hungry individual. We have branded this as “The Riek Machar Factor”. The conflict has also been portrayed as a tribal war between the Dinka and the Nuer. This is not true. It is a known fact that the causes of war are economic in nature; and war, as theorized by Carl Von Clausewitz is, “the continuation of politics by other means”. The attempts to politicize the root causes of the current conflict are an attempt by a regime, waging a war of attrition on its own civil population, to hide the heinous crimes which led to the outbreak of war.

The following is an attempt by the author/s to discuss the failure of the SPLM/SPLA as one of the many factors leading up to the December 2013 conflict. It would be important to define some terms in order to avoid confusion. The abbreviation SPLM/SPLA shall be used here to refer to the liberation struggle during the civil war in the old Sudan (1983-2005) and the term SPLM/SPLA (IO) refers to the movement currently spearheading the struggle against the regime in Juba.

Historical Background

In order to understand the failure of the SPLM/SPLA, it is necessary to give a brief historical background of the ideology of the movement, in order to understand concretely this failure. The SPLM/SPLA was a politico-military organization founded in May 1983 as a response to the dismantling of the Addis Ababa Agreement, signed between the Anyanya Forces and the Sudanese Government in 1972. The history of the founding of the SPLM/SPLA is drenched in blood and we want to avoid arguments and counter-arguments that may arouse sentiments of political tribalism and deal here with the philosophies, principles and objectives the movement expounded, this is the basis by which any organization is judged.

The SPLM/SPLA defined the Sudanese problem as domination by successive Arab/Islamic governments in Khartoum as the cause for civil strife in the country and presented the idea of unity and vision of a New Sudan as the solution to the Sudanese problem. The contention of the movement was that secession was not a solution to resolve the contradictions in society, but the solution was in rearranging the power relationships to eliminate civil strife. The vision of new Sudan was a solution from an analysis by the movement of the psycho-history of our people, who had been enslaved and colonized since antiquity.

The founding Chairman of the SPLM/SPLA Dr. John Garang de Mabior, once explained severally in simple terms to his officers, “the vision of new Sudan is moving our farmers from muscle and hoe technology, to plough technology”. The vision of new Sudan and the principle of unity were not understood in the above way by neither Southern elites, who saw it as contradictory to the aspirations of the people of South Sudan for independence; nor by the northern elites, who saw it as a gimmick to recruit northerners into a southern movement. The difference of opinion within the SPLM/SPLA regarding independence of Southern Sudan, inevitably led to a split in its ranks at its inception, which would echo throughout her history. The official adoption of the right of self-determination during the 1994 Chukudum Convention, resolved this contradiction and paved the way for the reconciliation of the movement and the successful signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005.


The SPLM/SPLA had a policy of negotiating with the successive governments in Khartoum from the early days of the struggle, from Koka Dam, Ethiopia in the 1980’s, to Abuja, Nigeria in the 1990’s, to the final signing of the agreement in Nairobi, Kenya in 2005. The outstanding issues by the time of the Naivasha IGAD peace process were; the relationship between religion and state, interim arrangements during the transition and the right of self-determination. The peace process was an opportunity for the various political groups in the opposition to meet and dialogue on how to present a united front at the Naivasha-IGAD negotiations.

The CPA provided the people of Southern Sudan the first opportunity in thousands of years to collectively determine their own destiny. From the epoch of the Sudanic kingdoms of antiquity that were vanquished, enslaved and colonized, our civil populations have engaged in a historical struggle to emancipate and redefine themselves. The SPLM/SPLA defined itself as the latest manifestation of this struggle, going as far as records are available. The people of South Sudan and the territorial area, which defines the Republic of South Sudan today, are part of this ancient history of the Nile Valley and for thousands of years, our people have been engaged in a historic struggle.

The collective struggle of the Sudanese people against subsequent colonial administrations, culminating in the recent struggle of our civil population under the leadership of the SPLM/SPLA, was able to negotiate and sign the CPA. The CPA provided for a referendum on self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan, which has established the (first) Republic of South Sudan. The opportunity provided by the CPA, as history has shown, was squandered by the SPLM/SPLA leadership in the name of flag independence for Southern Sudan. The movement failed to use the spirit of the CPA and apply it to the new realities of an independent South Sudan.

The SPLM/SPLA position during the Naivasha IGAD peace process was published in several booklets by the various commissions of the movement; “SPLM/SPLA Strategic Framework for War to Peace Transition” and “Peace Through Development”, in which the movement lays out their solutions to the Sudanese problem and their plan for development. The solution is explained in three tracks in, “Peace Through Development”. Track one, negotiations with the regime; track two, to build the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as an alternative to the regime; and, track three was Peace Through Development.

The SPLM/SPLA through its own internal dialogue process, was able to reconcile by signing the Nairobi Declaration in 2002. The preamble of the agreement partly reads, “the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/SPLA), Dr. John Garang de Mabior AND The leader of the Sudan People’s Democratic Front and Sudan People’s Defence Force (SPDF), Dr. Riek Machar Teny; MEETING in Nairobi, Kenya, on January 5th, 2002 on their own without the benefit of external mediation and pressure … HEREBY AGREE: To the immediate merger of the two Movements under the historical name of SPLM/SPLA”. ..

The Naivasha IGAD peace process also afforded the rest of the armed opposition an opportunity to be part of the dialogue and they soon joined the peace process as Other Armed Groups (OAG). This policy of dialogue was likewise responsible for the establishment of the NDA, envisioned in track two as an alternative to the regime in Khartoum, which could take over and resolve any outstanding issues impeding the peace process. The most important of the proposals of the movement was, peace through development, which is the vision the movement had for South Sudan and their interpretation of what self-determination means in concrete terms.


The principle of self-determination is self-explanatory, but it is unfortunate that it is a contentious topic, as it is understood by many as a synonym for secession. The late Chairman of the SPLM/SPLA, in 2001 while briefing officers in Yei regarding the Naivasha IGAD peace process stated, “you can kill self-determination with self-determination.” He explained that self-determination cannot be derivative, this would be a contradiction. The Chairman was debunking rumours that the Government of Sudan (GoS) had given “self-determination”, however, the SPLM/SPLA was rejecting this in the name of a united Sudan. The late Chairman stated, “In the first place, our concept of self-determination with such people is different; it is our conviction that self-determination cannot be given by another”. The perception of the SPLA/SPLM was of “self-determination” as “self-reliance” and not as ending with secession and the founding of the Republic of South Sudan, flag independence.

The SPLM/SPLA envisioned the concept of peace through development (track three) as a process which should not wait for the triumph of the liberation struggle, as liberation is not an event. The movement would start development projects in the liberated territories. The SPLA/SPLM Economic Commission was mandated to issue currency and encourage the intensification of production in the liberated areas. The movement built primary schools and high schools and went on a project of rehabilitating roads, with the WFP as development partners.

The struggle of the Sudanese people reached its highest level of maturity with unity of the opposition and with the concept of peace through development as a program for self-determination.

The Independence of South Sudan

The Republic of South Sudan attained its independence on the 9th of July 2011 following an internationally monitored referendum and the people of Southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly to secede from the old Sudan by a vote of 98.83%. The euphoria of this victory was short-lived and unfortunately soon turned into despair when the SPLM/SPLA subsequently failed to manage the transition from an armed opposition to a national government and establish a state. There are several ways this happened. The laws of modern states provide for separation of the army from politics and the SPLM/SPLA being a politico-military organization, failed to recognize this contradiction and many cadres found themselves confined to the Army General Headquarters and could only watch as interest groups, including SPLM/SPLA members with vested interests and former NCP cadres (the enemy in government during the liberation struggle), successfully hijacked the hard-won freedom of our civil populations.

The definition of independence according to Webster is, “freedom from outside control or support: the state of being independent: the time when a country or region gains political freedom from outside control”. In this context, we would have to be forced to say that, the Republic of South Sudan is independent at the theoretical level. The definition of independence suggests, “freedom from outside control.” This means economic independence. Unfortunately, the Republic of South Sudan was established politically but was not established economically. The assertion that South Sudan has an informal economy is inaccurate as an informal state economy would be a criminal enterprise. The informal economy is part of a bigger formal economy and this is not the case in our country.

The Republic of South Sudan has no economy and Our people have never been more dependent in their history, not even during the wars of liberation.

The Economy

To use a simple definition of what an economy is, Webster’s Dictionary states, “the process or system by which goods and services are produced, sold, and bought in a country or region: careful use of money, resources, etc.: something that makes it possible for you to spend less money”. This definition quickly makes us understand that there is no economy in the modern sense in South Sudan. The economy of South Sudan could be more easily defined as a “black market”, which is defined by Webster’s as, “illicit trade in goods or commodities in violation of official regulations; also: a place where such trade is carried on.” The same dictionary states, “the process or system by which goods and services are produced, sold, and bought in a country or region; careful use of money, resources, etc.; something that makes it possible for you to spend less money”. This definition seems to be more consistent with the economic reality in South Sudan.

The conventional way to measure an economy is considered to be GDP, and again according to Webster’s can be defined as, “the total value of the goods and services produced by the people of a nation during a year not including the value of income earned in foreign countries”. This obviously can’t be applied to South Sudan, not when we know that not even the oil revenues are accounted for, as recently revealed by the deputy head of accountants at the state petroleum parastatal – Nile Petroleum (Nilepet).

If there is no production, nor record of production and the people depend on emergency relief, how then is GDP calculated?

The level of economic collapse has reached such a low that the President recently declared at the swearing in of his new Minister of Finance and Economic Planning that, “…….[attempted] forceful taking of power has brought us now to this stage where we have no money in our bank, we have nothing and so we have become a laughing stock worldwide”, as reported by Eye Radio – Juba. This would be humorous if it was not such a catastrophic situation. The movement of international reserves is how international business is done between nations and the central bank is where revenues are kept. However, this is not the case in South Sudan. The plunder of our national wealth is so thorough that the regime can issue a Sovereign Letter of Guarantee despite the bank being “empty” and can appoint a convicted criminal as an Under Secretary of the Ministry of Petroleum.

The mortgage of our country has put unborn generations of South Sudanese in debt.

The Central Bank of South Sudan operates as a private bank account for the Presidency and individuals are given checks from the Central Bank to go and make overpriced purchases on behalf of the government, or as preferential assistance. The use of the central bank to store and control foreign exchange reserve which can be used as a form of currency in international transactions is unknown in South Sudan. The country is experiencing chronic negative flows of wealth with the hard currency from the oil revenues being divided by a few individuals in the country before reaching the central bank.

In a country with a bad economy, social strife is inevitable, in a country where there is no economy social order is impossible.

The SPLM/SPLA Failure

The SPLM/SPLA leadership failed to redefine the objectives of the movement within the contexts of the new realities of an independent Republic of South Sudan. The vision of new Sudan and the principle of unity were viewed with contempt and suddenly labelled irrelevant to the new realities. This means that when new contradictions arose in our society we were unable to apply the lessons from the liberation struggle. These are the same recurring problems of management of wealth sharing, power relationships in a diverse society and security. Instead of applying the principles, goals and objectives within the territorial boundaries of the Republic of South Sudan, the vision of the movement was abandoned due to lack of concrete understanding by the leadership.

There is a tendency to portray South Sudan as a failed state due to the breakout of the December 2013 war, as the President recently alleged and as the regime has done on many occasions. To blame the victim of crime and violence for their own predicament is known criminal behaviour. The truth is that the failure to set up an economy is what has led to social strife and before the December 2013 crisis, there was tribal based conflicts and active rebellions across the country. This insecurity had further exacerbated the prevalent dire economic situation. There were already revolts that had taken place before December 2013, however they had always been unpopular or were discouraged because they all took place before the vote for independence. The Republic of South Sudan was already a failed state prior to the outbreak of civil war.

The Republic of South Sudan is not a failed state because there is war, but there is war because South Sudan is a failed state. The failure of the SPLM/SPLA leadership to deliver the promises of the liberation struggle, by establishing a revolutionary state that can resolve the contradictions from the psycho-history of our people has led to a desperate economic situation in the country. The SPLM/SPLA leadership’s “we liberated you” mentality, has only compounded the situation by alienating and militarizing the civil population. The people of South Sudan offered their livestock and farm produce, including providing their children to constitute the forces for the liberation army and they had a stake in the triumph of the revolution. The imposition of liberation is a contradiction and the “we liberated you” mentality is a new form of domination based on purported “liberator” and “liberated”. The SPLM/SPLA was aware of the views of the grassroots surveyed by the Political Bureau between July and August 2012, who were unanimous in declaring the failure of the movement. This is the greatest indictment of the SPLM/SPLA.


There are many factors which have contributed to the December 2013 civil war, however the main factor has been the SPLM/SPLA factor. The movement failed to transition from an armed political movement to a political party, consequently leading to a failed state. The failure of the SPLM/SPLA to deliver on the promises of the liberation struggle has been mainly characterized by the failure to establish an economy, inevitably leading to a breakdown of social order. The author/s here are not suggesting that all this is President Salva Kiir’s fault as an individual. The movement and its leadership bear a collective responsibility; however, as the president, the finger comes with the territory.

The tension which arose from the failure to manage the transition from war to peace is what precipitated the leadership crisis in the SPLM Political Bureau (PB) – one camp of the PB satisfied with the status quo and the other for radical reforms. The situation culminated in the December 6 press conference, where a faction of the leadership pointed the proverbial finger at the President. This act of defiance finally resulted in the December 15, 2013 Massacre which targeted civilians in Juba of Nuer nationality. The SPLM/SPLA failure to implement their “Strategic Framework for War to Peace Transition”, meant that grudges from the liberation war had not been resolved and some leaders were unable to put their grudges above the national interests.

The SPLM/SPLA (IO) is a political movement which arose out of the contradictions created by the SPLM/SPLA failure to deliver the promises of the liberation struggle. The metaphysics of our revolution is based on correcting our failure as a movement. The leadership of the movement has taken up the historic task to wage the struggle to organize our civil population and turn this tragedy into an opportunity to establish the Second Republic of South Sudan. The struggle of the SPLM/SPLA (IO) is not a struggle for positions as has been portrayed by our detractors and the propaganda machine of the regime.

This again, is the regime’s strategy of blaming the victims as a way to cover up the atrocities they have committed and probably to evade justice and accountability.

Our movement’s pursuit of power is not subversive, nor is it in the context of attaining positions, but in the context of ending the power of the regime to massacre its own citizens. The people of South Sudan did not initiate the violence on December 15th 2013; it was the regime and this is well documented. The SPLM/SPLA (IO) has waged peace since January 2014 and we have signed several agreements with the regime, from the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) in 2014 to the ARCISS in 2016 and we continue to be engaged at the IGAD – HLRF, despite the intransigence and belligerence of the regime. The people of South Sudan have never had an opportunity to experience the self-determination they fought so hard for and the current peace process is an opportunity for the people of South Sudan to make a new social contract with themselves and to choose what kind of state and government they want to establish and to choose their leaders.

The SPLM/SPLA has failed in this historic task, however for us the struggle continues.


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

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