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.