South Sudan: Kith, Kin and Peace Agreements – By Carol Berger
The January 23rd Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, which promised an end to the fighting, came and went, entirely ignored by both parties. In the weeks that followed the signing, several of the South’s major towns “” Bor, Malakal and Bentiu “” were the scenes of gross human rights abuses and mass murder. The towns were looted and sacked until there was nothing left to carry away.
Friday’s IGAD-negotiated agreement states that the signatories agree to twelve points. The first is that they “recognize that there is no military solution to the crisis in South Sudan, and that a sustainable peace can be achieved only through inclusive political dialogue.”
As has been the case for many years, in matters of South Sudanese reconciliation and peace efforts, the language and terminology used are standard expressions. It is a kind of international language, the origin of which is far removed from lived realities in South Sudan. It is a language and terminology the likes of which virtually no one living in South Sudan would comprehend, at least not in the way intended.
Several of the agreed points deal with military matters. The two men have committed to “disengage and separate forces and refrain from any provocative action or combat movement until a permanent cease fire [sic] is agreed and signed.”
Point eight has the two men agreeing “that a transitional government of national unity will offer the best chance for the people of South Sudan to take the country forward; and that such a government shall oversee government functions during a transitional period, implement critical reforms as negotiated through the peace process, oversee a permanent constitutional process, and guide the country to new elections; and thus direct our respective representatives to the IGAD-led peace process to negotiate the terms of a transitional government of national unity”.
The wording of the agreement affirms two important ideas: the first is that there are recognised military forces, the command structures of which follow orders given by a central authority; the second is that Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, regardless of their actions over the past five months, are to take part in the creation of a transitional government of “national unity.”
Millions of people have been displaced throughout the country. Famine looms. Thousands have died, unknown numbers of women and girls have been raped, and thousands of boys and teenagers taken into fighting forces.
A South Sudanese writer penned a searing comment on the unfolding situation, published on the respected Gurtong online site the day before the agreement was signed. Under the title “Reconstituting a Regime that Abused “˜Power and Wealth’ isn’t the Solution,” Justin Ambago Ramba wrote, in part: “Much of the scepticism expressed here is not intended in any way to discourage any well intended efforts at stopping the vicious cycle of revenge killings. We are all in agreement that people shouldn’t be left to be butchered while the world watches.”
But, he writes, the killing of innocent civilians throughout the country has been commonplace for years. Ambago adds: “And those who continue to talk as if this new country was indeed some kind of good, peaceful and stable place prior to the December 16–19, 2013 massacres in Juba, are right out hypocrites. They are doing so to justify their inactions when this embattled country was sleep-walking into the current self-destruction.”
With the Friday agreement, international and regional interest appears to be on two parallel tracks: one is focused on a need to determine who authored and committed the violence, and the other seeks to facilitate a ceasefire between the same parties responsible for that violence, and then support the creation of a transitional government by those same interests.
Late last week detailed reports of the massacres and human rights abuses which have torn through South Sudan since mid-December were issued by Amnesty International, as well as the UN Mission in South Sudan. The latter is now hosting tens of thousands of terrified people inside its compounds. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has also prepared important documents on the targeting of civilians by both sides.
But what if the earlier calls for investigations, for accountability, become, in the final result, only a tactic used to force the two men to meet and negotiate a ceasefire? What if the only means of insuring their cooperation in a cessation of hostilities is to step away from investigations that would implicate them in crimes against humanity?
Of kith and kin: The tangled relationships of the SPLA’s leadership
Any attempt to answer the question of whether or not individuals will be held to account for what has occurred in South Sudan must acknowledge the communal nature of responsibility for the deaths of others. This is a norm throughout the country. The communal responsibility for murder “” and avenging that murder “” means that the act of one person is seen as the act of all who are related to that person.
To say that a power struggle between two men, President Salva Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar, was the starting point for the renewed state of war in South Sudan is to misunderstand the nature both of the military regime and that of the dominant cultural groups.
Kiir and Machar are indeed competing for control of South Sudan, but their respective ethnic groups have a crucial role in the unfolding violence. Issues of kinship and relatedness permeate all social and political interaction within Nilotic and non-Nilotic peoples living in South Sudan.
Despite several years of western involvement in the supposed professionalization of the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), geographic and kin relations continue to have the greatest influence on the conduct and operation of the country’s military. This despite the concerted efforts of all manner of foreign military trainers and programs aimed at turning a rebel force into a national army. These have ranged from workshops on military strategy and drill exercises to the renaming of war-time divisions from their colourful Arabic names “” Jamoush (Buffalo), Koreeum (Locust), Zenzal (Earthquake) “” to the more mundane, western style of numeric labelling (Division 1).
In the escalating violence between peoples of Nuer and Dinka origin, complex and entangled kinship networks have reinforced and magnified the cycle of killing and revenge. It is important to remember that Dinka are themselves divided into different sections, which, particularly in Lakes State, have for years been engaged in a cycle of revenge killings and cattle raids.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) originated in the bush in the mid-1980s under the leadership of Col. John Garang, a Dinka from the Bor region, in South Sudan’s easternmost region, along the border with Ethiopia. But the original group of army deserters that crossed the border into Ethiopia in 1983 was led by Nuer men from Upper Nile region.
The formation of SPLA battalions and divisions proceeded on the basis of geographical and ethnic origin, in part because “recruits”, both volunteers and those who were forced, came in particular waves, depending on which regions were becoming directly impacted by the war.
As the war progressed, these military groupings continued to reflect their regional origins, with commanders specifically chosen to lead people from their home areas.
President Salva Kiir assumed the position of SPLA commander after the July 2005 death of Garang in a helicopter crash. Kiir is a Rek Dinka, from the former Bahr el Ghazal region of northwestern South Sudan. While both Garang and Kiir are Dinka, they are from different regions and different sections of the ethnic group. After Garang’s death, power shifted from Dinka originating from the Bor section, to Dinka coming from Bahr el Ghazal, including the Rek and Agar Dinka sections.
Machar is leading a rebellion from territory that he knows well. Consistent with the SPLA’s strategy throughout the 22-year civil war, he was the regional commander for western Upper Nile. It meant that he was leading troops from his home region, predominantly from his Nuer people. The same was the case in other regions of the South, with SPLA commanders in charge of their home territories.
Throughout the now nine years since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the SPLA has largely maintained these ethnic divisions. Former military commanders are appointed back to their home regions as governors. It provides continuity in leadership, but also perpetuates the absence of accountability and any semblance of democratic conduct. The governors, with strong links to the military, rule at whim.
Strategic marriages to create alliances and provide “insurance”
Over the course of the war and afterwards, many of the commanders, particularly those coming from sections of the Dinka and Nuer, built alliances with other divisional leaders through strategic, militarized marriages.
The neglect by western analysts of these often militarized marital connections can be attributed, in part, to simple oversight. Gender relations within major cultural groups in South Sudan are complex. Under the UN/NGO umbrella of development and emergency assistance, “gender” is synonymous with “women”, as opposed to “women and men.” As an issue, gender, within the aid complex, represents women as victims of underage marriage, of inequality, of sexual violence. Their agency and role in cementing relations between disparate kin relations is overlooked.
These marriages enabled the various commanders to, effectively, unite their fates. Under traditional law, the consequences of acts of an individual are borne by his family, his village, his section.
By marrying into each other’s kin groups, the commanders gave themselves not only military alliances but “insurance” against later demands for compensation for deaths and property loss, and also revenge by other kin groups. Once these senior men were intermarried, the expanded kin group, across Dinka sections (i.e., Ngok Dinka, Rek Dinka, Atuot Dinka), now shared in the responsibility for war-time atrocities against fellow South Sudanese.
The Nilotic (Nuer and Dinka) concept of revenge is an important reason why it was so difficult for the SPLA to retire its older senior commanders and officers: once the uniform is taken off, traditional law kicks in.
One particularly infamous officer was given free rein to move between the states of Warrap, Lakes and Western Bahr el Ghazal between 2005 and 2009. Bol Akot Bol is a veteran of both civil wars, the first ending in 1972. In the years since the civil war ended, he has been implicated in the extrajudicial killings of SPLA soldiers, as well as the murder of civilians.
Over a period of several years, Akot terrorized communities and the often under-aged soldiers he used. Such was the commander’s reputation and longevity that he operated independent of any centralized authority. At that time, he had twenty wives, several of whom were the kin of fellow commanders. He is related to both the president, Salva Kiir, and another former SPLA commander, at that time the governor of Lakes State, Lieutenant General Daniel Awet Akot. Awet, formerly the deputy speaker of the National Legislative Assembly, is now an adviser to the president.
A South Sudanese writer complained about the security situation in Lakes State back in 2007. In an article published in the Sudan Tribune, Athiaan Majack Malou made mention of Bol Akot’s marital situation: “Brig. Bol Akot is a rich man and of late has gone on a marrying spree, and all people of Lakes State, from Malon-Pech in the West to Mingkaman in the East and from Amongpiny in the North to Penmanga in the South have become his Nasibs (or in-laws); and he is fond of calling everybody Nasib.”
In the same article, the writer referred to rumours that UN agencies were threatening to leave Rumbek, such were the threats of violence: “[M]embers of their staff sometimes come under threat or humiliation by soldiers of Bol Akot, who roam streets of Rumbek with whips in their hands, beating almost everybody they could come across.”
In a particularly twisted use of kinship and its obligations, Akot, as recently as 2009–2010, would order soldiers under his command to carry out the extrajudicial killing of soldiers who were from the same kin group, effectively making the entire kin group responsible for the murder of one of its own.
On January 1, an article titled “The Finger Prints [sic] on Genocide in South Sudan” was published on the website of the Paris-based Sudan Tribune. The author, Stephen Par Kuol, listed the names of seven people he considers responsible for the murder of hundreds if not thousands of Nuer people in Juba in mid-December. Kuol is identified as a former deputy ambassador of the Sudan to Tanzania and state minister of education in Jonglei State.
On his list were the president and six generals, one of whom was named as General Bol Akot, described as a “general in reserve reinstated after the clashes to execute the genocide in Thuk Sita and Gudele,” two neighborhoods in Juba
Of the other names, one is the president’s father-in-law (Gen. Salva Mathuok Gengdit), one is a lifelong friend (Gen. Alew Ayieny), another is from the same village as Kiir (Gen. Marial Chinoum), and two are from Kiir’s home region of Bahr el Ghazal (Gen. Garang Mabil and Gen. Malong Awan).
Kuol writes: “In conventional practice, those primitive tribal generals should be charged with the following crimes:
1. Genocide and crimes against humanity
2. War crimes in violation of Geneva Convention
3. Vandalism and formation of a private tribal army for the sole purpose of committing genocide in violation of South Sudan Transitional Constitution.”
Regardless of whether or not there is substance to the charges against the named men, it is not surprising that those listed hold senior ranks and appear to be closely related. It is consistent with the operation of the SPLA over the past three decades that kinship ties and geographic proximity reveal more about the sharing of power than a conventional chart showing the hierarchy of a military command.
It is noted that individuals on the rebellion side, led by Riek Machar, are also often related by marriage. Machar is related to Taban Deng Gai, the former governor of Unity State and originally in Addis as the lead representative for the rebel side. To add to the complexity, one of Taban Deng Gai’s wives is the sister of General James Hoth Mai, a fellow Nuer who, until only last month, was the SPLA’s chief of staff, responsible for leading the war against Machar’s rebel forces.
To return to the question which opened this article: Were the two men who signed the agreement “” Salva Kiir and Riek Machar “” given assurances that they will not be held responsible for the past five months of carnage? Their relatives, by blood and marriage, will want to know.
Carol Berger is an anthropologist and holds a doctorate from Oxford University. She lived in Rumbek, South Sudan, from 2005 to 2008, and 2010 to 2012.