On the March 5, 2014 Shooting in Juba, South Sudan.
By PaanLuel Wël, Juba
A sustained and heavy shooting erupted at Gihada Military Barrack on Wednesday, 5 March 2014 in Juba, the same site of the last year December 15thmilitary uprising that led to the current humanitarian, political and military standoffs in the country.
While the December 15th shooting was among the elite presidential guards, the March 5th shootout was among another elite forces of the South Sudan national army: the SPLA Commandos.
These Commandos were the former bodyguards of the late SPLM/A leader, Dr. John Garang, and they have been the most elite forces of the People’s Revolutionary Movement since 1983 when the SPLM/A was founded.
Following the death of Dr. John Garang in 2005 in a mysterious helicopter crash, the SPLA Commandos have been left intact, though they have frequently complained of neglect by the President in preference to the presidential guards.
The Commandos, under the late Abraham Jongroor, were the ones sent to recapture Boma after it was taken by the forces of the renegade militia leader, David Yau-Yau, in May 2013.
When the violence broke out in December following the December 15th Mutiny, it was again the Commandos under Commander Abraham Jongroor that were sent to retake the strategic town of Bor after it was captured by Peter Gadet and the Lou-Nuer White Army.
Unfortunately, Abraham Jongroor—their commander, was killed in action at Pariaak before reaching Bor. After the death of Jongroor, his deputy, Gatwech Ghai, took over the command of the SPLA Commandos.
On March 4th, the Chief of General Staff, Hoth Maai, was reported to have gone to Gihada in the evening to talk to the Commandos. Reportedly, the soldiers have not been paid for over three months, and were therefore demanding their money.
Their Commander, Gen. Gatwech Ghai, however, was said to have told them that he was not aware about any Commandos present in Juba because the Commandos are either at the front-line at Gadiang in Jonglei or at Buma.
Gen. Gatwech Ghai is reported to have told the soldiers that “anyone who want his/her money should report to either Gadiang or Buma to get his/her salary.” He is further reported to have wondered what they were doing in Juba when their units were at the front-line (are they deserters emerging from the UNMISS Compound?).
By the time Hoth Maai left them, it was said that there was some kind of unspecified general understanding, part of which was a general interview of each of those soldiers to ascertain their units and the reasons as to why they were in Juba or so, and then they would be paid.
It appears on the morning of Wednesday, March 5th, Commander Gen. Gatwech Ghai has gone to brief and to interrogate them further. It was during that briefing and ‘interrogation’ that a shoot-out erupted at 9 AM, one that set the whole city of Juba on edge.
Ear-witnesses claimed that the questions being asked were derogatory and humiliating and that was how the misunderstanding ensued, followed by shooting. It is said that there was a big commotion and shouting and surging forward from the enraged soldiers, prompting the bodyguards of Gen. Gatwech Ghai to open fire on the rowdy soldiers.
The fighting then spread to the entire Gihada military barrack, with heavy artillery being involved. According to the government, only five people were confirmed dead, though eyewitness accounts talked of about 27-30 or more dead.
Thus, it seems the dispute was between the government and the Commandos over delayed salaries, and didn’t obviously have tribal undertone since the unit is composed of all tribes and the Commander representing the government is a Nuer by ethnicity.
What is true though is that most (but not all) of the soldiers from Commandos demanding their salaries were Nuers (and so is Gatwech Ghai) and it is not clear if that factor played into the failure by the government to pay them on time (on the suspicion that any Commado still in Juba had deserted the army and was therefore not entitled to salary).
What is not clear too is why they were/are still in Juba when their units are deployed in Gadiang and Boma. It could be that they had feared for their lives and had taken refuge at the UNMISS compound, not as rebels but because of last year killing in Juba.
Some reports alleged that the soldiers had simply melted into the civil population following last year violence in Juba but then later regrouped and took residence at Gihada Military Barrack where few of their comrades are still stationed.
The account that the March 5th shooting was not related to last year rebellion nor another aborted coup is a version corroborated by many government officials.
According to the SPLA Information and Communication Director, Brig. Gen. Malaak Ayuen, “What happened this morning was a very limited shooting, by a limited number of some few commandos in a very limited area.”
Cabinet Affairs Minister Martin Elia Lomoru concurred that the issue was over salaries, but not related to rebellion: “I understand that salary payment was ongoing in Gieda this morning, probably differences over the procedures payment may have sparked the firing.”
And Awan Guol Riak, the Minister in the Office of the President, explained that “It was just a misunderstanding which arose between soldiers. The situation is now under control.”
Reportedly, some arrests have been made, although it is widely believed that some soldiers did flee into the bush. After the shooting started, Gen. Gatwech was escorted to safety by his bodyguards and was received by top government officials afterwards.
The shooting was eerily reminiscent of the December 15th military rebellion within the Republican Guards. That it was again at Gihada Military Barrack, in the heart of Juba city, didn’t help matters much.