The “Big Tent Policy Factor” in the December 2013 Crisis and Civil War in South Sudan (Part 3)

Posted: August 4, 2018 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in December 2013 Crisis, Editorials, History, HLRF, PaanLuel Wël

The “Big Tent Policy Factor” in the fundamental root causes of the December 2013 Crisis and the present civil war in the Republic of South Sudan (Part 3)

By PaanLuel Wël, Juba, South Sudan

The Flag of the Republic of South Sudan

The Flag of the Republic of South Sudan

  1. Introduction

Saturday, August 04, 2018 (PW) — On the 4th of July, 2013, the Vice President of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar, few hours after returning from Khartoum, summoned the Guardian newspaper into his office, denounced his boss, President Kiir, as incompetent and corrupt, and then declared his interest in contesting for the office of the president in the 2015 presidential election. While few people had any inkling as to why Dr. Riek Machar would declare a public revolt against his boss of 10 years, what is crystal clear though was that this was at a time when the Nuer was at the peak of their military predominance in the Republic of South Sudan, both at the top echelon, as well as among the rank and file, of the national army.

Gen. James Hoth Mai was the Chief of Staff of the SPLA, while John Koang Nyuon was the Minister for Defense. Of the three (3) sectors of the SPLA, two were headed by the Nuer. Gen. Charles Lam Chuol was the commander of the SPLA Sector Three in Torit, while Gen. Johnson Gony Bilieu was the commander of the SPLA Sector Two in Malakal. Of the eight (8) divisions of the SPLA, three were headed by the Nuer. Gen. James Koang Chuol was the commander of SPLA Division 4 in Bentiu; Gen. Peter Gatdet Yak was the commander of SPLA Division 8 in Bor, while Gen. Yien Makuach Mut was the commander of SPLA Division 6 in Yambio. Of the two directors of national security (internal and external), Gen. Thomas Duoth was in charge of external security. Moreover, 70% of the national army was reportedly composed of Nuer soldiers. And the vice president of the republic was also a Nuer.

How was it possible that a single community whose percentage share of the national population is merely 19% would account for such a lion share of the national army in a nation of “64 tribes”? The spectacular and magnificent success of the South-South dialogue, what the South Sudanese intellectual and politician, Dr. Luka Biong Deng, has dubbed as the “Big Tent Policy” of President Salva Kiir.

  1. The Genesis and Evolution of the “Big Tent Policy”

The history of the South-South dialogue, the frantic and concerted search for peace and unity among the people of South Sudan, is as old as the armed revolutionary struggle itself. Among the pioneers of the South Sudanese liberationary struggle, there were serious ideological rifts and leadership squabbling pitting Father Saturnino Lohure, Joseph Haworu Oduho, William Deng Nhial, Aggrey Jaden Ladu, Joseph Lagu Yanga and Gordon Muortat Mayen among themselves. These political divisions and personal differences partly resulted in the unfortunate estrangement of Joseph Oduho and Gordon Muortat from the leadership of Anyanya one movement and the fateful decision by William Deng to return to Khartoum to fight from within, a decision that might have played a role in his May 1968 assassination by Khartoum government in Chueibet on his way from Rumbek to Tonj during the 1968 parliamentary elections.

After Joseph Lagu launched a successful bloodless coup against the leadership of Gordon Muortat and swiftly consolidated the leadership of the Anyanya one movement with the help of the Israelis, various informal and formal South-South dialogues were conducted to patch up and iron out the political divisions and personal clashes under the leadership of Joseph Lagu. With the unity of the leadership, army and the civil population secured, the Anyanya one movement was taken seriously by Khartoum regime and the international community and was therefore able to negotiate and sign the 1972 Addis Ababa Accord that established the 10-year first autonomous government of Southern Sudan from 1972 to 1982.

Similarly, the formation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA) was marred by leadership wrangling, ideological clashes and personal differences pitting Akuot Atem Mayen, Samuel Ghai Tut, Gordon Koang Chol and Abdallah Chuol Deng group against John Garang, Kerubino Kuanyin, William Nyuon, Arok Thon and Salva Kiir camp. Not only did the ensuing fighting led to the unfortunate death of Ghai Tut, Akuot Atem and Abdallah Chuol, it also resulted in the near collapse of the SPLM/SPLA in its infancy.

After John Garang had consolidated his leadership of the movement, a South-South dialogue was launched which later culminated in the final peace and reconciliation agreement between Anyanya two of CDR Gordon Koang and the SPLM/SPLA of CDR John Garang in the town of Jikmir, Nasir County, in 1988. It was only after this reunification that the SPLM/SPLA was able to capture major towns from the government of Khartoum, eventually taking the war to the outskirt of Juba city. It is hard to ponder what might have become of the SPLM/SPLA without the historic 1988 Jikmir Declaration between Dr. John Garang and CDR Gordon Koang Chol.

However, it was following the 1991 Nasir coup and split within the SPLM/SPLA, and particularly in the years leading up to the negotiation and signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the SPLM/SPLA and the NCP-led government in Khartoum, that the South-South dialogue become imperative and indispensable. On the eve of the conclusion of the CPA, Dr. John Garang, who had initiated the South-south dialogue between the SPLM/SPLA and various Nasir groups in 1995 with the Lafon Declaration, began to perceive and present the South-South dialogue as an outgrowth of the New Sudan Vision, meant to resolve the real “Southern Problem” as opposed to the New Sudan Vision which was aimed at solving the “Khartoum Problem”.

  1. The Fundamental Problem of South Sudan

According to John Garang, the dogged attempts since 1956 by various Khartoum-based regimes to build and perpetuate a monolithic Arab-Islamic state to the exclusion of the peripheral regions of Southern Sudan, Nuba Mountain, Abyei area, Southern Blue Nile, Darfur region, Eastern Sudan and Nubia people of Northern Sudan constituted the fundamental problem of the historical Sudan and defined the protracted Sudanese conflict. The New Sudan Vision proposed a new Sudanese political dispensation in which the center of power in Khartoum is totally and irrevocably dismantled and all regions and people of the historical Sudan are offered the choice to either (1) voluntarily live together in a systematically restructured democratic New Sudan through a consensus rather than by force or coercion, or alternatively, if they so wished and preferred, (2) break up the country freely and peacefully, each going her own way to form independent sister nation-states, coexisting and interacting amicably.

Dr. John Garang, too, was very explicit, if not prophetic, about the future problems of the Republic of South Sudan if it were not governed well. By referencing the problem of the historical Sudan, he foretold the fundamental problem of South Sudan in the following startling words: “The solution to the Sudanese’ fundamental problem is to create a stable Sudanese state with a self-sustaining economy and a stable all-inclusive governance or government, in which all different ethnic groups, different tribes, various religious groups, agree upon that form of governance and are equal stakeholders with equal opportunities in the political, economic and social fields—a state in which they are able to coexist with harmony and development. This challenge is equally true of the whole of the Sudan as it is of Southern Sudan, because we are going to form a government of Southern Sudan. It must be inclusive—an all-inclusive government—of all ethnic groups, of all tribes, of all religious faiths, so that they are equal stakeholders with equal opportunities in the political, economic and social fields—a state in which all Southern Sudanese are able to coexist with communal harmony, economic development and social prosperity. Otherwise, you will also have a problem of Southern Sudan: you will now really have the problem of Southern Sudan, not before.” Dr. John Garang, Naivasha, Kenya, 2004.

In his June 2005 address to the gathering of the SPLM/SPLA and Other Armed Groups (OAGS) during the launching ceremony of the South-South dialogue conference in Nairobi, Kenya, Dr. John Garang declared that the “objective in this dialogue is to heal the wounds of the past, remove mistrust, build confidence and restore fraternity and mutual respect among us. This is of utmost importance if the legitimate aspirations of our people are to materialize…This demands that we dialogue among ourselves to resolve our differences so that we redirect our energies as a united people towards a peaceful, prosperous and tolerant society.” He concluded: “The new situation in the Sudan requires that Southern Sudanese rediscover their common destiny and reconnect with it.”

Therefore, the new problem of South Sudan that the “Big Tent Policy” was divined to resolve was a dilemma of achieving an all-inclusive South Sudanese state in which all regions and ethnic groups feel equal stakeholders with equal opportunities in the political, economic and social fields, a new South Sudanese political dispensation in which all regions and people are able to coexist and interact with communal harmony, economic development and social prosperity. Consequently, when President Kiir assumed the leadership of the SPLM/SPLA in 2005 following the untimely and mysterious death of Dr. John Garang in a helicopter crash, he pursued the policy of the South-South dialogue to its logical conclusion with the 2006 Juba declaration.

In his July 2011 inaugural address to the new republic, President Kiir called upon the South Sudanese people “’to forgive, though we shall not forget’ perceived injustices at the hands of the northern Sudanese over the preceding decades and announce a general amnesty for South Sudanese groups that had warred against the SPLM in the past.” Upon securing the secession of South Sudan, the new government of President Kiir relaunched and promoted the “Big Tent Policy” under which all the former militias – armed, trained, supported and directed by Khartoum against the SPLM/SPLA – were forgiven and integrated into the new government and army of South Sudan.

The “Big Tent Policy” reached its zenith with the 2006 Juba declaration in which militia leader, Paulino Matip Nhial, was appointed deputy commander-in-chief of the national army. President Kiir’s “Big Tent Policy” was necessitated by his resolve to safeguard smooth and successful implementation of the CPA and timely conduct of the referendum: the informed and concrete determination to ensure successful secession from Khartoum and to realize political stability and social prosperity in the infant Republic of South Sudan.

The “Big Tent Policy” that culminated in the 2006 Juba declaration saw the re-absorption and reintegration of nearly all militia groups that had been fighting the SPLM/SPLA on behalf of, and alongside, Khartoum government, following the 1991 split within the movement: SPLM Forces for Unity group of the Late William Nyuon and Cdr. John Luk Jok, under the Lafon Declaration in 1995; then the Kerubino Group (1998); the Philip Bepan Group (1998); the Peter Gatdet Group (1998); the SSDF (Fangak) Group (2001) under Cdr. Taban Deng Ghai, Cdr. Thomas Duoth and Cdr. James Kok and the late Cdr. Michael Top; the SSDF of Dr. Riek Machar (2002); the SPLM/A-United of Dr. Lam Akol (2003); the Equatorian Defense Forces (EDF) of Dr. Theophelous Ochang and Cdr. Martin Kenyi (2004), the SSLM of CDR Gabriel Yual (2005), Gen. Paulino Matip Group (2006), and the Mayom Declaration of Gen. Peter Gatdet, Gen. Bapiny Monytuil, and Gen. Mathew Puljang.

  1. Factors for the Success of the “Big Tent Policy”

How did President Kiir succeed so stunningly with his “Big Tent Policy”? Several contemporary factors account for the splendid success of President Kiir’s “Big Tent Policy”. The first factor was the historic legacy of CDR Salva Kiir as the godfather of the famous 1999 Wunlit peace and reconciliation conference which sealed the frayed relationship between the Dinka and Nuer communities. Since most of the militias that were being integrated were Nuer, it was natural for CDR Salva Kiir to connect and present the “Big Tent Policy” as an extension – part and parcel – of the 1999 Wunlit conference. Crucially, the legacy of the Wunlit conference meant that CDR Salva Kiir could be trusted by the militia groups as someone they could honestly negotiate, and faithfully sign a peace deal, with.

The second contributing factor to the spectacular success of the “Big Tent Policy” was the vital role CDR Salva Kiir played in the negotiation and signing of the historic Machakos protocol which granted self-determination to the people of South Sudan via an internationally-supervised plebiscite. By the time CDR Salva Kiir succeeded Dr. John Garang, he was still glowing in the status of a statesman – a veteran of the Anyanya one war, and co-founder of the SPLM/SPLA revolutionary war that finally ushered in the independence. Machakos protocol was therefore a triumphant closure, an icing on the cake, of his long and illustrious military career minted in war for liberation.

Thus, as a successor to Dr. John Garang who had initiated the South-South dialogue, and as the 1st president of the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), it was natural for the Statesman Salva Kiir to finally emerge from the towering shadow of Dr. John Garang by seeking and attaining national unity and harmony among all South Sudanese people under one leadership and destiny. And what a better way to do so than to finally achieve what Dr. John Garang, his comrade, predecessor and mentor, had terribly failed to realize – that elusive peace, unity and reconciliation between the Dinka and Nuer, two communities long pitted against each other by the poisoned legacy of the 1991 Nasir coup.

Thirdly, the “Big Tent Policy” was actualized against the backdrop of the lingering memories of the 2004 Yei Crisis. Following the public political disagreement between CDR John Garang and CDR Salva Kiir, most of the militias, collaborators and sworn critics of the SPLM/SPLA saw an opportunity to reinvent themselves as South Sudanese patriots by siding with the Yei faction. They aggrandized themselves to CDR Salva Kiir, mistakenly believing that CDR Salva Kiir was ready to jettison the movement. Following the demised of Dr. John Garang in July 2005, it was easy for CDR Salva Kiir to make contact with and convince these detractors of the SPLM/SPLA to work with him. Given their conviction that the late Dr. John Garang was the problem, it was natural that most militia leaders would readily embrace Salva Kiir’s SPLM/SPLA.

Lastly, CDR Salva Kiir had a tremendous mandate from the SPLM/SPLA and civil population of South Sudan. He was anointed by Dr. John Garang in Rumbek, just three days before his plane crash. Upon the death of Dr. John Garang, he was reportedly nominated by CDR Kuol Manyang, seconded by Madam Rebecca Nyandeng and unanimously endorsed by all the members of the SPLM Politburo and National Liberation Council as Chairman of the SPLM/SPLA, president of GOSS in Juba and the 1st vice president of the Sudan in Khartoum. He was largely seen as an orphaned, the only surviving founding member of the SPLM/A, and as the Biblical Joshua, the successor to the Biblical Moses of South Sudan.

  1. How the “Big Tent Policy” birthed the December 2013 Crisis

President Kiir’s “Big Tent Policy” succeeded brilliantly in integrating all the militia groups into the army and government of South Sudan, a fact highly credited to have created a conducive environment and atmosphere for the successful conduct of the census, the referendum and the ultimate secession and independence of South Sudan. However, this remarkable success might have come at a high price to the young republic as it might have propagated the seed for the December 2013 crisis which triggered the present civil war.

One, the December 2013 crisis was triggered by a mutiny among the presidential guards, the Tiger Division, comprising of President Kiir’s and Paulino Matip’s bodyguards that were put together as a result of the 2006 Juba declaration, the prime success of the “Big Tent Policy”. These presidential guards of the Tiger Division, long exhibited as the epitome of the glorious success of the “Big Tent Policy”, became the incendiary with which the December 2013 crisis was ignited.

Two, the “Big Tent Policy” resulted in serious inflation of the numbers and ranks of the national army, the demoralization of and disillusionment among the veterans of the war of liberation. It also invariably led to grim cases of incentivizing violent rebellion – the culture of rewarding rebellion with big titles, big cash and big offices, in which the militia groups would simply compete to outdo each other in the incentivized business of violent rebellion, carnage and destruction. Open rebellion feasting on more resources, more offices, and more titles instinctively encouraged others to rebel to reap the same fruits, with hardly any trepidation, whatsoever, leading to the proliferation of violent rebellion prior to and after the December 2013 crisis.

Three, the nuerization of the national army might have led Riek Machar to fancy military, rather than political, path to power after his acrimonious fallout with President Kiir in July 2013. Prior to the outbreak of the December 2013 crisis, Riek Machar was reported to have bragged to the Americans that the Nuer control more than 70% of the army, in addition to the chief of staff, the minister for defense, two out of the three sectors of the army and three out of the eight commanders of the army divisions, all of which were byproducts of President Kiir’s “Big Tent policy.”

This rare alignment of the zodiac might have emboldened Riek Machar to pursue military means to acquiring power in South Sudan, especially after the door to his political path within the SPLM party was abruptly closed by President Kiir’s political maneuverings. Conceivably, Riek Machar, more likely than not, might have won the SPLM chairmanship had free and fair party election held. This was not so much the popularity of Riek Machar among the members of the SPLM Politburo as it was the degree to which majority of the Politburo members had fallen out with President Kiir owing to their mass dismissal from the cabinet in July 2013.

Thus, it is plausible that the combination of apparent Riek Machar’s sudden popularity among the members of the SPLM politburo and his assumed superior numbers within the top echelon and foot soldiers of the national army might have nudged him toward militarism – civil war – in the pursuit of his presidential ambition.

Four, President Kiir’s final realization of having been cornered politically and outmaneuvered militarily by his nemesis might have compelled him to embrace and champion the recruitment and use of tribal militias to counterbalance the perceived military and political powers of Riek Machar. One of the most unforeseen consequences of President Kiir’s “Big Tent Policy” was how it skewed the national army in favor of those groups – almost all of them Nuer – being reintegrated.

The resultant danger and fear this unintended scenario engendered among President Kiir’s supporters when the full implication finally dawn on them following the acrimonious political fallout within the SPLM party was partly demonstrated by the degree to which they swiftly resorted to procuring their own militias to counterbalance Riek Machar’s supposed military numbers. It was this militia group – Dot ku Bany – that was severely accused of committing the 2013 Juba massacre in the aftermath of December 2013 mutiny.

  1. Conclusion

In South Sudan, it is often claimed that President Kiir did not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, and founding father of the nation, Dr. John Garang. This unexamined view has led some critics of President Kiir to conclude that the present civil war might have been avoided had President Kiir not, wittingly or unwittingly, strayed from the vision of Dr. John Garang. Therefore, according to this logic, current peace endeavors being pursued to end the war, reform and reinvigorate the young Republic of South Sudan, can simply be typed as nothing more than an attempt to retrace, dust up and revitalize the SPLM vision of the post-independence South Sudan as contained in the SPLM Strategic Framework for War-to-Peace Transition: The SPLM’s Vision for the Post-war Era (New Site, April, 2004).

Yet, what many critics of President Kiir might not have realized, or acknowledged, is the degree to which the success of the “Big Tent Policy” – initiated by Dr. John Garang and later fully pursued to its logical conclusion under the leadership of President Kiir – laid the seed for the December 2013 crisis and the present-day civil war. More importantly, what most critics of the president have refused to recognize and appreciate is the degree to which the current vigorous and elusive pursuit of peace and reconciliation, amidst the civil war, is nothing more than a futile attempt to reinvent the wheel – a humble reconstruction and revitalization of President Kiir’s “Big Tent Policy”, the very policy that might have triggered the December 2013 crisis.

Therefore, this article will contribute to our understanding of the fundamental root causes of the December 2013 crisis and the present civil war by highlighting the role played by President Kiir’s “Big Tent Policy” in the lead up to, outbreak and evolution of the present civil war in the Republic of South Sudan. Above all, the article will confront us with and compel us to wonder if the current peace and reconciliation efforts might not actually be the revitalization of the 2015 ARCSS but rather the revitalization of President Kiir’s “Big Tent Policy” that birthed the current, ongoing civil war.

If indeed, as it appears, that good-intentioned policies and well-meaning procedures might – and could – sometimes generate unintended negative consequences, what key lessons and experiences can we learn from and apply to the ongoing revitalization of the peace process in South Sudan?

More notably, it is crucial that the people of South Sudan should clearly understand and appreciate the fact that the proposed power sharing and security arrangements under the revitalized ARCSS will not and cannot, in the long run, be a substitute to resolving the fundamental root causes of the December 2013 that ignited the present intractable conflict in South Sudan.

The opinion expressed here is solely the view of the writer. The veracity of any claim made is the responsibility of the author, not PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website. If you want to submit an opinion article, commentary or news analysis, please email it to PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website do reserve the right to edit or reject material before publication. Please include your full name, a short biography, email address, city and the country you are writing from.

PaanLuel Wël, the managing editor of PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website, graduated with a double major in Economics and Philosophy from The George Washington University, Washington D.C, USA, and currently works as a Project Coordinator for one of the international NGOs in South Sudan. He is the author of Pioocku Thuongjang: The Elementary Modern Standard Dinka (May, 2011), The A.B.C.D.: An Introductory Book into the English Alphabet (July, 2011) and  Who Killed Dr. John Garang (July, 2015). He is also the Editor of The Genius of Dr. John Garang, vol. 1-3 (November, 2013), including Dr. John Garang’s Speeches on the War of Liberation (November, 2015) and Speeches on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (November, 2015), Salva Kiir Mayaardit: The Joshua of South Sudan (with Simon Yel Yel, February, 2011), as well as The Customary Laws of the Greater Bor Dinka Community: Legal and Basic Rules for Self-Administration (July, 2017).

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