Those Who Learn Not from History are Doomed to Repeat it: We Must Learn from our Troubled History.
By PaanLuel Wël, Juba, South Sudan
May 23, 2015 (SSB) —- The government has reportedly retaken the town of Melut, about one-hour drive away from the oilfields of Paloch in northern Upper Nile state. The rebels had captured the town on Tuesday evening, 19 May 2015. Since the eruption of the civil war on 15 December 2013, this is the closest rebels have come to disrupting the oil supply and deny Juba oil revenues.
Had the rebels succeeded, the resultant reverberations would have haunted South Sudan for decades to come, akin to the self-immolation of Somalia after the departure of President Siad Barre in January 1991.
So what transpired in the city of Malakal, leading to the defection of Johnson Olony? For those who have been following the news since or even prior to 2005 when the war ended, there have always been disputes pitting the Shilluk and Ngok Dinka communities over the ownership of Malakal town.
It is this land dispute that gave birth to militia leader Johnson Olony. It is also this land dispute that led to the killing of Olony’s deputy, James Bwogo in April 2015, by armed Padang Dinka youth. Malakal has not been the same since the death of Bwogo. The subsequent heightened tension and mutual suspicion resulted in the killing of the bodyguards of Governor Simon Kun Puoch.
The escalation of fighting between the bodyguards and Olony’s soldiers culminated in the defection of Olony on Friday, 15 May 2015, in spite of many spirited attempts by the government to patch up frayed military relations between Olony and the state government, which included efforts to persuade Olony to report to Juba.
Apparently, while negotiating with the government, Olony was also surreptitiously coordinating with the rebels on how to strengthen his Agwelek militias. The combined forces of the rebels led by Gabriel Tanginye and Mabor Dhol teamed up with Olony’s men and captured Malakal on Saturday, 16 May 2015—the SPLM/A Day.
And as the government troops tried to reorganize and to retake Malakal, the rebels sneaked out of Malakal and marched towards the Paloch oilfields, taking the towns of Akoka and Melut on Tuesday.
For years to come, whenever Junubeen have sobered up enough to document the history of this ongoing war—and their many other bloody conflicts—many will hotly debate what transpired in Malakal that took the rebels to the brink of capturing the Paloch oilfields, where over 98% of government revenues come from.
More specifically, many questions will focus on how the government could have put so much trust in a former militia leader, Johnson Olony, who became famous for fighting the government. How could such a figure have been entrusted with amphibious tanks, military barges, heavy artillery, and other assortment of armaments?
In other words, how could the government have relied on Johnson Olony to execute its war against the rebels in Malakal? For the military strategists in Bilpam, Juba, the military debacle in Malakal is a shellacking with a teachable moment. It is said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This is what happened in Malakal.
President Salva Kiir Mayaardit commenced his leadership in 2005 with a “big tent” philosophy in which every Deng, Gatluak and Lado was paraded as a national hero including the very militias that collaborated with Khartoum against the SPLM/A during the war of liberation. The consequence was the spectacular fallout in December 2013 that our nation is yet to recover from.
After the war erupted in December 2013, instead of relying on SPLA proper, the government decided to curry favor with (and sometimes exclusively rely on) militia leaders such as Johnson Olony in Upper Nile, Mathews Puljang in Unity, David Yau Yau in the GPAA–not just to fight the war, but also to rule certain quarters of the country.
The defection of Johnson Olony almost led to the loss of the entire Upper Nile state. Likewise, if Mathew Puljang and David Yau Yau were to defect today, the entire Unity and Jonglei states would automatically be lost to the rebels. While this might not result in the immediate fall of the government, it would certainly lead to the somalization of South Sudan.
The government has no absolute control over—and no plan B whatsoever in—areas under the militia leaders. The nation is at the mercy of those leaders. Where is the national army?
It is a precarious military situation. Arm the militias at your own risk. Abandon them at your own risk, too: deny them armament and they fall into the waiting arms of the rebels. It is the military dilemma the government of Iraq is confronting in Anbar province where ISIS has recently overrun the city of Ramadi. The local Sunni militias allied to the government in Baghdad are demanding arms to fight ISIS on their own, but the central government dominated by Shia cannot trust their Sunni allies.
And the problem is not entirely due to the unpredictability or the wickedness of these militia leaders. The government has no clue whatsoever on how to manage and control these warlords. Take the military farce in Malakal for example–the deputy of Olony was killed and no appropriate measures were taken until after there was open warfare between Olony and the state government.
Inasmuch as we may castigate Olony for the catastrophe that has befallen our unarmed civilian population in Malakal, we must ask the government if the killers of James Bwogo were arrested and justice was served, since he was killed on patrol mission and not in all-out fighting. Had the government brought the killers to justice, perhaps Olony might have never contemplated defection and the current military fiasco might have been avoided.
We must learn from our troubled history. We must learn from the humiliating debacle of Malakal. This should be a wake-up call for the military strategists in Bilpam, if indeed there are such people in Juba.
PaanLuel Wël, the Managing Editor of PaanLuel Wël: South Sudanese Bloggers, is a South Sudanese national currently residing in Juba, South Sudan, where he works for one of the International NGOs. He graduated with a double major in Economics and Philosophy from The George Washington University, Washington D.C, USA. He is the author of “Return in Peace (R.I.P) Dr. John Garang” and the editor of the speeches of Dr. John Garang, published as “The Genius of Dr. John Garang, Vol. 1 &2“. He is currently working on two books to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Dr. John Garang: Vol. 3 of “The Genius of Dr. John Garang” and “Who Killed Dr. John Garang“, an account of events and circumstances leading to the death of the late SPLM/A leader in July 2005. You can reach him through his email: email@example.com