Rebel general Moses Lokujo was in his element. The burly commander paced back and forth in front of an audience of roughly 100 civilians who had gathered at an elementary school in the tiny settlement of Pure near South Sudan’s border with Uganda, and gave an impassioned speech about the latest battle his men had fought in Kajo Keji county. The opposition fighters had suffered sizable losses, but it was a price they were willing to pay for a better South Sudan, he told the crowd in December. “If we were here for the money and the positions, we wouldn’t be here anymore,” he preached.
Lokujo had delivered many similar performances in order to galvanize grassroots support for the SPLM-IO, the main opposition movement, led by exiled rebel-leader Riek Machar. For much of 2017, the orations seemed to be working. The SPLM-IO had won over many South Sudanese who suffered at the hands of President Salva Kiir’s government, which has committed widespread human-rights abuses in the southern Equatoria region where Kajo Keji is located.
When I first came to Kajo Keji a year ago, locals spoke fondly of the opposition. They called the rebels “our boys,” and Lokujo referred to them as “my civilians.” People willingly donated food and money, hoping that the rebels would protect and eventually free them from an oppressive government. Many saw the SPLM-IO as a viable alternative to govern South Sudan, a country that gained independence in 2011 but has since been plagued by a brutal civil war, the biggest humanitarian crisis on the continent, massive corruption, and what many call a tribalistic government.
But when I returned in December, the mood had changed. Visibly tired of multiple displacements brought about by the latest battle, people looked at Lokujo and his men with skepticism, even disdain. They still clapped when the general paused his sermon to woo their applause—but only after being prompted by one of his soldiers. When the soldiers struck up a call-and-reply war song, only a handful of people joined in. After the spectacle was over and when we moved out of earshot, they told me about their frustrations.
“I’m very, very, very disappointed,” whispered one community member, who didn’t want to be named in fear of retaliation. “But they have weapons, and they are here with us, so there’s not much I can say about it.”
In the eyes of many civilians who lived under their rule, the rebels had turned out to be no better than the government they sought to overthrow. People had come to see them not as liberators but as warlords looking out for their own interests and using civilians only as pawns in their quest for power. The commanders pointed to civilian presence as a source of legitimacy and to lure aid agencies to their areas of control, but they threatened or killed those who spoke out against them. They had started stealing civilians’ meager possessions, the community member told me, recounting how two days earlier a group of Nuer rebel soldiers showed up demanding he hand over two cattle. They had also begun cutting down the precious forests, according to several local chiefs, selling logs to Ugandan traders to line their own pockets. Worst of all, they had been fighting with another opposition group, handing the government the upper hand and putting civilians in harm’s way.
What brought about the rebels’ fall from grace was part of a broader, worrying trend: a growing fragmentation of South Sudan’s civil war. Ever since the beginning of the conflict in 2013, the opposition had been a fractious alliance. Many men had taken up arms to defend their tribes’ land interests. Their shared grievances vis-à-vis the central government brought them together under the umbrella of the SPLM-IO. For a short period, a 2015 power-sharing arrangement signed in Addis Ababa served to unify the coalition by offering rewards in form of government positions. The peace deal was hailed as a breakthrough in ending the civil war, which began in 2013 after months of power struggle between Kiir and his former deputy, Machar. But the agreement collapsed in 2016 when the government and opposition began fighting again in the capital, upending the transitional government and ushering in a new chapter of violence. The SPLM-IO split in two. Disillusioned with the peace process, defectors from the government, the opposition, and other parties to the peace deal mobilized their own militia, often along ethnic lines.
The ripple effects of this disintegration were felt at the negotiating table in Addis Ababa and in the White House, where Trump administration officials were attempting to formulate a new policy to try to end violence. In 2015, the US-backed peace deal included two main warring factions. By the end of 2017, when negotiations resumed, the number had grown to more than a dozen. The latest group to jostle for a seat at the table is the so-called South Sudan United Front, announced today by Paul Malong, the recently ousted chief of general staff and a hard-liner who stands accused of orchestrating much of the war. In a bewildering effort to rebrand himself as a rebel, Malong called on South Sudanese to struggle to “arrest the carnage that has befell [sic] our country” and to steer the country toward democracy, according to a statement posted on social media. While few of these groups have forces to realize their lofty ambitions, their proliferation is a sign of growing disunity that risks tearing South Sudan apart, a process that the international community has been unable to halt.
One new rebel group, in particular, was at the center of the fallout in Kajo Keji. The National Salvation Front (NAS) was formed in 2017 by Thomas Cirilo, a famous Equatorian general who had defected from the government army earlier that year. Despite its inclusive name, NAS, like many other armed groups in the country, catered to a narrow ethnic constituency among South Sudan’s 64 tribes. Just like SPLM-IO was seen as a movement dominated by Machar’s Nuer ethnic group, many of Kajo Keji’s ethnic Kukus referred to NAS simply as “the Bari,” the name of Cirilo’s tribe.
Nevertheless, there was hope that NAS and the SPLM-IO would team up in their fight against the government. “We wanted them to unite so they have strong forces and so they give us freedom,” the community member told me. It was a reasonable demand. Both suffered from a shortage of ammunition. They shared the common objective of overthrowing Kiir. Both called for federalism to grant disenfranchised tribes more autonomy from the Dinka-led government in Juba.
But as so often in South Sudanese politics, such decisions hinged on personalities rather than policies. Neither Cirilo nor Machar was willing to relinquish leadership of a united force. When NAS arrived in Kajo Keji in August 2017, it didn’t take long for tensions to spill into armed confrontation. NAS accused the SPLM-IO of not wanting to collaborate in a proposed joint operation against the government. The SPLM-IO blamed NAS for provoking violence by turning up unannounced in their territory. The truth was likely somewhere in the middle, with both sides jockeying for control of a strategically located, resource-rich area.
In late October, NAS and SPLM-IO fought each other in several locations in Kajo Keji, each suffering casualties and wasting scarce ammunition. Kiir’s government forces, based only a few miles away, watched with delight and anticipation. After 10 days of fighting, with both rebel groups weakened and demoralized, the government made its move. Riding atop machine-gun-mounted pick-up trucks, they swept through areas that had been firmly under rebel control, retaking several villages including Lokujo’s headquarters.
The government’s assault was a blow to the opposition, but it was the civilians who suffered the most. In April 2017, the sprawling camp for displaced at Logo in Kajo Keiji was quiet and peaceful, tucked behind rebel lines in a forest of mango and papaya trees. Although most of the county’s population of 200,000 had fled the war to neighboring Uganda, around 30,000 people had decided to stay. Determined to remain on their ancestral homeland for as long as they could, they set up camp in Logo and two other settlements located just a few miles from the Ugandan border. Their temporary shelters made of grass and plastic tarps offered little comfort compared to the spacious mud huts they had left behind when their villages came under attack by government forces, yet they preferred them to an idle life of exile in Uganda’s refugee camps. In Logo, they could farm, look after their cattle, and, during lulls of fighting, sneak back across enemy lines to check on their plots.
By the time I returned in December, Logo had turned into a ghost village. As government forces closed in during the battle, the entire population had escaped across the border to Uganda. To prove that his troops had regained control of the area, General Lokujo took me on a tour of the deserted settlement, a three-mile drive from Pure along a narrow, bumpy dirt road enveloped by thick bush. The silence in Logo was haunting, a stark reminder of what much of war-torn Equatoria looked like. Abandoned livestock aimlessly roamed past burned and ransacked shelters. Heaps of bullet casings lay in the grass where machine guns had ejected volleys of gunfire. “This is where my forces deployed,” Lokujo said, picking up a handful of the empty cartridges. “It was heavy fighting.” Lokujo described how his men managed to repel government troops (given the government’s greater firepower, it was likelier it had withdrawn on its own). “It’s safe for my civilians to come and pick their belongings. We have put enough forces to protect them.”
Such assurances weren’t enough for Rose Diko, who was stuck in a limbo at the border in Pure, unwilling to leave for Ugandan refugee camps, yet unable to return to Logo. “I’m scared to go back. They are still fighting over there,” she said. Just two days earlier, when Diko attempted to return to fetch food, her group came across the body of a young boy. He had been shot the same day, his body left to rot on the roadside as a warning to others. As she spoke, Diko was seething with anger at both rebel groups. “This fighting has caused us a lot of suffering.” Along with her fellow villagers, Diko fled to Uganda, where they set up temporary shelters near the border in hope of returning soon. But Ugandan soldiers evicted them days later, instructing them to register as refugees or return to South Sudan.
Following the rebels’ battlefield losses in Kajo Keji, many of Logo’s inhabitants finally gave up and went to the camps. But something else was pushing people to leave: They had come to dread the opposition almost as much as the government. It only took a few incidents for fear to take root. One was the gruesome beheading of two civilians at the nearby border post of Jale, including a health worker who was running a clinic in government controlled areas. The killings happened just a day after community elders met with government officials as part of a local peace initiative aimed at negotiating the safe return of refugees. The attack was seen as a threat to anyone who struck a reconciliatory tone with the government.
Community leaders who had spoken out in favor of an alliance with NAS also escaped, fearing for their lives. “We were trying our level best to make them join forces, but we failed, and the blame goes to the SPLM-IO,” one chief, who also wanted to remain anonymous, told me in Uganda. “Now, most of the people are supporting NAS.” Such endorsement could be premature. NAS has drawn many of its soldiers and commanders from the ranks of the SPLM-IO, which in turn used to be part of the government army. Given an opportunity to govern, neither the government nor the opposition has done well by their people, and the same risks being true for their offshoots.
The feeling that now reigns over the sprawling refugee camps in northern Uganda is one of resignation and hopelessness. Many South Sudanese see no end to this war, which has killed tens of thousands and uprooted millions. Attempts to unite the armed opposition groups have yielded limited results, with the SPLM-IO refusing to join a recently formed alliance. During the most recent dry season, the government launched several successful military campaigns, pushing rebels deeper into the bush and tilting the balance of power unequivocally in its favor.
One such battlefield victory was secured just as the warring parties sat down to negotiate in Addis Ababa last December, casting doubt on the government’s sincerity in reaching a political solution. The talks were the first attempt in 18 months to resuscitate the failed peace deal. A new cease-fire agreement was signed, but like many times before, it was broken in a matter of hours. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway, the three main Western guarantors of the peace deal, known as the Troika, issued a scolding statement, promising to hold those to account “who obstruct the realization of lasting peace for the people of South Sudan.”
The warring parties had grown accustomed to such threats, uttered many times in the past without actual consequences. This time, however, political winds had shifted. Last October, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley became the first senior Trump administration official to travel to South Sudan. Her visit was seen as the harbinger of a tougher stance toward South Sudan, whose birth in 2011 was largely the product of US diplomacy and generous financial support. “It’s bordering on the line of ridiculous how many cease-fires have been announced and broken,” a senior administration official told me during a phone interview last December. Since the parties began negotiating in January 2014, eight agreements to end the war have been signed and violated.
During her visit, Haley demanded that Kiir’s government participate in peace talks and ensure unhindered access for humanitarians and UN peacekeepers. If Kiir failed to comply, the United States would impose a series of escalating unilateral sanctions. “We are working to expedite the timeline to bring the parties of the conflict back to the peace table to talk about how to solve this conflict through non-military means,” the official explained.
As part of this new approach, the United States has already sanctioned three government hard-liners as well as a close business associate of Kiir. In February, the administration imposed a unilateral arms embargo, followed by a restriction on transactions with 15 South Sudanese oil-related entities believed to have helped finance the war.
“The sanctions, in this case, are actually quite smart,” said Nicholas Coghlan, who served as Canada’s top diplomat in South Sudan between 2012 and 2016. By requiring a license for US-origin items or US companies that dealt with South Sudan’s oil sector, Coghlan argued, sanctions could be loosened and tightened depending on the government’s level of cooperation. Moreover, sanctioning the oil sector was unlikely to affect the wider population, who depend largely on aid agencies rather than the government for service delivery. “Few if any of the proceeds of the oil ever make it to the Central Bank, let alone into South Sudan government programming,” Coghlan said.
But so far, the sanctions have failed to bring about any positive change in behavior. A second round of talks in February ended in a deadlock. The same month, the government launched a fresh offensive. Incidents of humanitarian obstruction, tracked on a monthly basis by the UN, briefly dropped in January but spiked again in February. Instead of showing a more cooperative side, the government recalled its ambassador to the United States, rallied the public against the West, and vowed to strengthen ties with Russia and China, who already purchases most of South Sudan’s oil. “During the war of liberation, I have never seen the American M16. I know AK-47, I know the support from Russia, I know the support from Libya, I know the support from Ethiopia, and I know the support from Yemen,” said Vice President Taban Deng Gai in February.
Civil-society leaders worried that without regional buy-in to help enforce sanctions, they could have the opposite effect and harden the government’s position. “They may not be changing their behaviors, but they will try to look for workarounds,” said Edmund Yakani, who leads a South Sudanese civil-society organization called CEPO. Emboldened by recent military gains, the time when such measures could have been effective may have passed. “We called for sanctions a long time ago, and we missed the opportunity,” Yakani said. “We are starting to hear voices asking to give war a chance.”
The sanctions had one more shortcoming, experts argued. They were one-sided, targeting only the government. While Kiir is largely to blame for the escalation of fighting since 2016, the rebels are also responsible for acts of aggression. It was Machar’s SPLM-IO, not the government, that first broke the December cease-fire. There was little international condemnation and no consequences for the fighting between NAS and the SPLM-IO in Kajo Keji, although it led to civilian deaths and mass displacements.
Punishing rebels who thrived in South Sudan’s bush is much harder than targeting established government institutions. Isolated from the world and with no foreign bank accounts to freeze, rebel commanders couldn’t care less about travel bans. General Lokujo seemed content enough to rule over his own little fiefdom, making money from selling timber and, according to his own account, gold. If the peace talks don’t work out, remaining a rebel for life was a viable alternative. “I’m 37 now. I can still fight 20 years,” he said.
This article was reported with support from the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.