Fighting has broken out in Juba inside the Presidential Guard. The clashes pitted Dinka, who support President Salva Kiir, against Nuer, who back former Vice-President Riek Marchar. This has re-opened wounds that reach back decades.
Colonel Philip Aguer, spokesman of the SPLA, told the BBC this morning that the situation was “tense overnight” but is now “relaxing a bit” and that the army is “in full control of Juba.”
The clashes took place as the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) were holding a meeting bringing together about 160 members from across the ten states. The meeting of the SPLM’s National Liberation Council began on Saturday. It had been delayed three times in the previous two months, with observers siting deep divisions within the party.
Sources in Juba indicate that the tension that led to today’s fighting has been building for some time. President Kiir is seen as responsible for a noxious leadership style, which includes insulting some inside the movement. He is reported as saying: “I went to the bush and took up arms in 1960s and never deviated from the struggle. I have never betrayed the cause of my people and I will never do it”.
This is clearly aimed at Riek Marchar, who left the main southern rebel movement, the SPLM, in 1991 and went on to become a senior adviser to the Sudanese President in Khartoum. The rift was not healed until 2002 when Marchar made his peace with the SPLM leader, John Garang. The civil war ended three years later and Riek Marchar was given the post of Vice-President. But relations with Salva Kiir, as President of the newly independent South Sudan, were far from easy and in July 2013 Marchar was dismissed from office.
Tensions between Kiir and Marchar have simmered since July, but instead of mending fences, the president ordered the Chief of General staff, James Hoth Mai to arrest a number of senior leaders including Machar. General Hoth refused, saying that there were insufficient reasons for the arrests.
President Kiir turned to his Presidential Guard Commander to carry out the order. The commander agreed, but did not trust some non-Dinka members of the Guard. The Commander wanted to disarm them and strip them of their authority. He demanded the keys to the ammunition store keys but the guard, who was not a Dinka, refused to surrender the keys to the commander and fighting broke out.
Around 10 troops were killed. The clashes spread to Bilpam, the SPLA headquarters where both groups have comrades. Shooting took place but has now, apparently, been brought under control.
Deep-seated discontent with Kiir
There have long been rumblings of unhappiness about the leadership style of President Kiir. On Sunday, Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, widow of the late founding chairman of the SPLM, John Garang spoke out.
Rebecca Nyandeng expressed disappointment at South Sudan’s system of governance and the lack of democracy in the country. She told journalists that she was not planning to unseat President Kiir but admitted that she had considered contesting Kiir’s chairmanship of the SPLM as a means of promoting democracy. “We were going to struggle for the seat of the SPLM, the chair of the SPLM and not the presidency as it is being circulated. This was what we were going to struggle and whoever will win, will be the chair”, Nyandeng explained.
In July Kiir not only sacked Riek Machar, he also suspended the SPLM’s secretary general Pagan Amum, and reshuffled his cabinet the following month. Since then disenchanted officials have become stronger in their criticism of the Kiir’s leadership and his “dictatorial tendencies”.
UN appeals for calm
Diplomats and security sources said the fighting appeared to have broken out in a barracks close to the city centre shortly before midnight and involved the use of heavy machine guns and mortars. Political tensions have been high in South Sudan in recent weeks, and earlier this month key leaders of the ruling party – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – made a public challenge to President Salva Kiir and accused him of “dictatorial” behaviour. (READ: Kiir names new ministers, governor)
South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth refused to comment on the unrest, but signalled the president was still in charge.
“The president is going to speak soon. I can’t say anything until he speaks,” he said.
A diplomat in the city described the situation as “quite confused”, but added that relative calm returned to the city at 9:00 am with troops posted at major intersections.
Statements from the US and British embassies in Juba urged their nationals to avoid unnecessary movements. The US embassy said there were “reports from multiple reliable sources of ongoing security incidents and sporadic gunfire in multiple locations across Juba”. The British embassy, through its twitter account, advised British nationals to “stay at home and avoid movement unless necessary”.
Jok Madut Jok, Chairman of South Sudan’s Sudd Institute think tank in Juba, told Reuters it was believed that soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, who was sacked by President Salva Kiir in July, had initiated the fighting.
Clashes were concentrated at two military barracks, the main Bilpam barracks north of the airport, and at Jebel barracks south of Juba, where the presidential guard is based. “It’s been going on all night and it resumed very heavily this morning,” Jok said by telephone from Juba. “It’s coming from groups said to be loyal to former VP Machar.”
US Embassy Statement
Press Release from U.S. Embassy
December 16, 2013
U.S. Embassy Urges Peaceful Resolution to Violence
The U.S. Embassy in South Sudan is deeply concerned at the recent outbreak of armed violence in Juba. We join the UN Special Representative’s request for all parties to “cease hostilities immediately and exercise restraint.”
Throughout the night and this morning U.S. Embassy officials have spoken with a range of government officials, diplomatic counterparts, and concerned parties in order to urge calm, restraint, and a settling of differences through a peaceful political means rather than through violence.
We have released two Warden Messages to U.S. citizens regarding the events on the ground, and urge all citizens to remain indoors at this time. The U.S. Embassy will continue to monitor the events on the ground and provide updates as they become available.