Khartoum Orchestrates Violence in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, South Sudan: Survivalism at its most ruthless

Eric Reeves, 3 April 2013

A number of very recent, highly credible, ground-based reports indicate that Khartoum's regular Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Arab militia proxies have attacked the Kiir Adem area of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State, South Sudan. What makes these attacks—which have killed a number of Southern civilians and police officers—so alarming is that they have occurred in the immediate wake of the Government of South Sudan's complying with the agreement brokered in Addis Ababa to withdraw its military forces from this border area, even as Khartoum committed to a simultaneous withdrawal of its own forces. There have been several such attacks in recent days, and we should recall that the Kiir Adem area has been a dangerous flashpoint for conflict over the past two and a half years, going back to the bombing of the region on December 14, 2010. Khartoum of course denied the bombing, as it denies all bombing attacks on civilians, even when UN observes or international journalists are present. The Kiir Adem bombing, for example, was witnessed by an Associated Press reporter who was present at the time and reported in detail on what she saw. (For a full account of Khartoum's record of bombing South Sudan since the signing of the CPA, see "They Bombed Everything that Moved.")

The most recent attack on Kiir Adem could hardly be a more provocative—an armed assault on a region supposedly in the process of being demilitarized by both parties. And yet the UN seems unwilling to investigate or report what it has been told by those on the ground. Neither the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan (UNMISS) nor the UN peacekeeping force in Abyei (UNISFA) has regarded the attacks as sufficiently threatening or urgent to confirm, this despite the fact that the Sudan Tribune first reported attacks on March 26, 2013 (see below).

Expedient myopia in the present instance is of a piece with the broader failure of the international community to see connections between the various intensifying crises throughout greater Sudan; this failure continues a pattern that extends back decades. Rapidly escalating violence and insecurity in Darfur, ongoing genocide by attrition in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, and more than two years of provocative assaults along the North/South border are all related. And if there is no straight-line connection between them, the common denominator is the ruthless survivalism of the National Islamic Front/ National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime in Khartoum. The regime is more deeply threatened than at any time in recent history, and we may be sure that efforts at survival by these brutal men will entail using whatever means are necessary, certainly including prevarication, opacity of public declarations, contradiction between statements by various officials, outright mendacity—and of course reneging on signed agreements.

Thus with an almost formulaic predictability, the regime has succeeded in making just the right number of promises, apparent concessions, and public relations efforts to deflate international outrage at the collective assault on the people of Sudan, including also the long-suffering people of eastern Sudan and Nubia in the far north. The remoteness of Kiir Adem from the oil regions evidently ensures that it will not be central to international concerns about continuing North/South conflict.

The scale of Khartoum's dissimulation should be shocking—certainly if we look closely at the realities in Darfur. Zambian jurist and International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda recently declared "we must not forget victims of the Darfur genocide," reminding us of what has produced arrest warrants for senior Khartoum regime officials on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Current realities—unfiltered by the anodyne and disingenuous reports of the UN/African Union ("hybrid") Mission in Darfur (UNAMID)—reveal human security is in free-fall (see March 10, 2013 account). The consequences of this rapid increase in violence, over the past nine months and more, are a further deterioration of humanitarian capacity and access, and a corresponding deterioration in provision of food, clean water, and primary medical care (see overview of February 11, 2013). UNAMID is powerless to provide the civilian and humanitarian protection that is central to its mandate; indeed, it is repeatedly prevented by Khartoum from undertaking either the assessment or protection missions that are so urgently required. The epidemic of rape that continues to rage throughout the region is passed over with virtually no notice. The recent convening of the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) in Darfur produced not a frank assessment, but a shamefully bland final statement that was emphatic chiefly in its thanks to Khartoum for permitting this highly controlled visit.

In the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and in Blue Nile, Khartoum continues to bomb civilians and civilian targets—including agriculture—with merciless frequency and intensity. The regime also maintains its complete embargo on international humanitarian relief aid, sending more than 200,000 refugees into South Sudan and tens of thousands more into refugee camps in Ethiopia. The brutality of this campaign of extermination continues despite, indeed in large measure because of the inability of regular and militia ground forces to seize the military initiative, especially in the Nuba. Khartoum is quite simply prepared to starve the people of these regions as a means of subduing the insurgency.

The UN, African Union, and Arab League offered a plan for international access to the regions well over a year ago; it has so far yielded nothing, largely because none of these organizations is prepared to pressure Khartoum over the issue, and the broader international community has responded to this extraordinarily cruel human destruction with nothing more than tepid words of condemnation. Negotiations are continually urged, but Khartoum refuses to engage with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N). There are no plans in place to create humanitarian corridors into either region, and the rainy season once again approaches. Once roads are flooded, there will be no opportunity to move food in large quantities to most parts of the two regions. Given the exceedingly poor sorghum harvest this year, starvation will soon accelerate rapidly; children in particular are already dying from malnutrition.

Khartoum has repeatedly assaulted South Sudan with air attacks, both before and after the self-determination referendum of January 2011. There were repeated, confirmed attacks in November and December 2010, and an attack within days of the referendum itself. In November 2011 Khartoum deliberately bombed the large refugee camp in Yida (Unity State, South Sudan), as well as camps in Upper Nile. Moreover, there have been continual cross-border assaults in the wake of the military seizure of Abyei (May 2011). Here we must remember that if the "residents of Abyei" had been allowed to vote in their own self-determination referendum—as guaranteed by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005)—they would have voted overwhelmingly to join the South. Despite Khartoum's outrageous violation of the CPA, the international community's response was muted, emboldening the regime to go forward with its assaults in South Kordofan (June 5, 2011) and Blue Nile (September 2011).

International outrage was stirred only a year ago when, after a series of provocative military actions by Khartoum's SAF along the South Kordofan/Unity State border—including two assaults on the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) garrison at Tishwin—Juba struck back and seized the crucial Heglig oil station, in the area from which the SAF had launched its attacks (March/April 2012). Geographic ignorance, indeed outright error, about the nature of the border dispute in this region was accompanied by an intemperate international condemnation of Juba. In fact, Juba's account of the chain of events was essentially confirmed by UN observers on the ground, part of the excessively constrained UNMISS. Although the SPLA withdrew, the asymmetric nature of the international response to Juba's supposed "provocation" left a bitter taste in the mouth of Government of South Sudan (GOSS) officials. All this was made even more distasteful by the concurrent misrepresentation of what had, and had not, been determined by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague) in its July 2009 decision concerning Abyei's boundaries.

So it is hardly surprising that we are hearing so little of the recent assaults on Kiir Adem in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, from which the SPLA has withdrawn its forces in accord with the cease-fire agreement and provision for a demilitarized zone between the forces of Sudan and South Sudan; the SAF has not. UNMISS regards the area as "contested" and thus beyond its reporting mandate, at least in conducting first-hand investigations. And so far, the third UN peacekeeping force in greater Sudan—the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA)—has proved unable or unwilling to patrol and investigate this flash-point to the west of their mandated area of responsibility.

Amidst apparent agreement on the resumption of oil production and transport, the international community—the UN and AU in particular—seems willing to take whatever Khartoum offers as further signs that peace is about to break out. Thus the announcement that Khartoum's President al-Bashir will visit Juba; the expediently timed announcement that the regime will release some political prisoners (who may of course easily be re-arrested); the vague suggestion that the regime might be willing to negotiate with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N); the shift in rhetoric within the state-controlled media; and the African Union Peace and Security Council's upbeat assessment of Darfur following its recent mission to the region—all this is hastily and unambiguously welcomed by various international actors, and no one is asking what is signified by the attack on Kiir Adem.

But if Khartoum truly wishes to make peace with Juba, it knows what it must do—and attacking an area from which the SPLA has recently withdrawn as part of a cease-fire agreement is profoundly counter-productive. Killing civilians and policemen no longer defended by the army of South Sudan sends all the wrong signals to Juba, as Khartoum well knows. The provocation is deliberate, and all evidence to date argues that this is no free-lance action, but an operation with senior army approval. Juba's anger is not factitious but grows out of repeated failures by the international community to hold Khartoum accountable for its military provocations.

To date, this is what has been reported in public sources (primarily the Sudan Tribune) and confidential sources on the ground and by the SPLA/M. The most recent and complete overview is provided by Sudan Tribune (April 1, 2013, Juba: "South accuses Sudan of launching attack ahead of Bashir's visit"):

• "South Sudan on Monday accused neighbouring Sudan of 'deliberately' launching a new ground attack on its border state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, underlying the level of suspicion with which the two countries still view each other, despite a recent thawing of relations. Local authorities and security sources said in series of interviews with Sudan Tribune on Sunday that the attack took place in Kiir Adem, an area that falls within the Safe Demilitarised Border Zone (SDBZ) which the two sides agreed to establish under African Union mediation in September last year, but only implemented recently. One policeman was killed and seven others reportedly wounded during the attack….

"James Monday, the spokesperson of South Sudan Police, also confirmed the attack, but said the situation was brought 'under control' and that the police are ready to protect the lives and properties of the population in the area. The commissioner for Aweil North County, Kuol Athuai Hal, said the attack was jointly organised by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), armed Arab nomads and paramilitary forces.

"'This attack did not come as a surprise to us and the people of the area. We knew it would happen especially after they were defeated on 26 of March when they launched a similar attack. We also do not think that this attack will be the last, Hal told Sudan Tribune by phone Sunday. He anticipates attacks could occur, given what he describes as a political scheme by the Sudan government 'designed to execute in order to claim territory control and eventual annexation into territory.'"

• Voice of America reports from Juba (March 29, 2013):

"South Sudan said Friday that Khartoum is doing nothing to stop attacks by Arab nomads on communities near the border of the two countries, adding that it has filed a complaint with the United Nations security forces about the attacks. Earlier this week, members of the Rezigat tribe, which is from Sudan, killed three people, including two police officers, in a raid in Northern Bahr el Ghazal. Last month, the Sudanese Miseriya tribe raided a community in Unity State, killing three people and wounding five. The deadly attack by the Rezigat came days after South Sudan completed its withdrawal of troops from the border, in line with an agreement signed with Sudan."

• Also on March 29, Radio Tamazuj reported ("Aguer: Armed group 'linked to SAF' killed 3 at Kiir Adem"):

"Philip Aguer, South Sudan's army spokesman, said yesterday that an armed group on horseback, allegedly linked to the Sudanese military, killed three people in an attack on the disputed border area of Kiir Adem. Speaking to Radio Tamazuj, Aguer reported that the attack took place yesterday and a policeman was amongst the victims. The South Sudanese government considers Kiir Adem to be part of its Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state. Given that both Sudan and South Sudan have withdrawn their armies from the border area in order to create demilitarized zones, Aguer claimed that the attack must have been with the assistance of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). 'They carried out attack on citizens while riding horses and killed two civilians and a policeman. According to us, any armed person from the republic of Sudan is linked and have a relations with Sudanese forces where the Mujahideen or popular defence forces or even militias of Baggara and Reizegat because they got the guns from SAF,' Aguer claimed before adding that the attack constitutes a violation of the demilitarisation agreement.

"'We have raised a complaint to UNISFA forces and African Union forces over what happened in Kiir Adem … The same violation also happened in the Renk area of Adham where elements of the Sudanese forces appeared with three vehicles loaded with heavy guns machines and opened fire in the space,' added the spokesman."

• Sudan Tribune had earlier reported (March 27, 2013, "Three dead in Reizigat attack on Mile 14, says official"):

"Members of Sudan's nomadic Arab Reizigat tribe have launched a deadly attack on South Sudanese civilians in the disputed Mile 14 territory in North Bahr-el-Gazal on Tuesday. The incident, which took place at about 4pm (local time), led to the death of two policemen and one civilian….

"Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday in Juba, police spokesman Col. James Monday Enoka called on the African Union (AU) to take action, saying the deadly incident had occurred just two weeks after the SPLA's withdrawal from Mile 14. 'It is very unfortunate that the Reizigat took advantage of [the] withdrawal of the SPLA from the area and launch[ed] the attack,' he said. '[The] South Sudan National Police Services strongly condemns this attack and appeals to the African Union monitoring and verification teams to take action,' he added."

• The Sudan Tribune had reported the previous day (March 26, 2013: "Sudan: South Accuses Sudan of Killing Three People in Northern Bahr El Ghazal"):

"South Sudan has accused the government of neigbouring Sudan of launching a heavy and coordinated attack on its Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, killing at least three innocent civilians and wounding several others in Rual Horic, east of the disputed Kiir Adem area, local people and county authorities said on Tuesday Aweil North county commissioner, Kuol Athuai Hal said Sudan was using armed border tribes and auxiliary forces to launch provocative attacks in an attempt to derail efforts to peacefully implement a cooperation agreement signed in September 2012.

"After months of stalling the two sides agreed to implement the deal, which will create a demilitarised buffer zone 10 km either side of the tense and contested oil rich border, as well as allow South Sudan to resume exporting its oil through Sudan for the first time in over a year. 'The Sudanese armed forces have been increasingly active in the area this week. The activity zone of the Sudanese armed forces has expanded considerably from last week, immediately realising that SPLA forces have completely pulled out of the area. Their activities in the area are becoming serious security concern not only to the civil population but also us in the government,' Hal told Sudan Tribune on Tuesday from Gokmachar, the area's administrative headquarters.

"The official said three people were killed when armed Arab tribes backed by the Sudan Armed Forces collaborating with their aligned militia carried out a raid on the area. 'They killed three civilians who have gone to fish. They [the civilians] were found at the fishing site when they were killed. None of them had survived. This incident occurred today at around 11:30am. It was in Rual Horic, east of Kiir Adem. Another attack was carried out by the Sudanese armed forces themselves in Kiir Adem against civilians. They just opened fire on civilians. The civilians were unaware. They did not know. It was a surprised and well-organised attack. The intention is to chase civilians away from the area,' Hal said…."

"There is a United Nations mission in South Sudan with a strong chapter seven mandate to protect civilians but policing the Safe Demilitarised Border Zone (SDBZ) is due to be monitored by the UN peacekeeping force in Abyei—the main disputed border region—as part of a Joint Border Verification Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM) with military officials from both nations. 'There was another attack today. Three people have been killed in Rual Horic, East of Kiir Adem The Sudanese armed forces are taking advantage of the withdrawal of SPLA forces from the area. They have moved into the area in full capacity. Instead of withdrawing they are deploying and carrying out attacks and killing of innocent civilians. What is happening is a political strategy by the government of Sudan so that civilians can flee the area. This is clear a clear tactic,' explained Achien.

"'Why [do] the Sudanese Armed Forces continue to remain in the area which is supposed to be arms free? Why is the international community keeping quiet? Why is the African Union? We will hold [them] responsible for the loss of lives,' Achein said."

Questions that cannot be ignored

These last questions remain unanswered, even as the reports I have received from the ground confirm what Sudan Tribune and others have reported.

Is there a discernible strategy in these actions on the part of the regime's regular Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and its Rizeigat militia allies? Certainly in assessing the consequences of its actions on the basis of international silence, the regime has concluded that it can be credited with a cease-fire and separation of forces agreement even while blatantly violating that agreement. Moreover, it is unlikely that the SAF will cease its various actions along a border that is much too long to be effectively monitored with present resources and mandates. UNISFA's initial failure in Kiir Adem is a sign of what is to come, with grim parallels to UNAMID in Darfur.

There seem to be two most likely explanations for the attacks on Kiir Adem, neither of them encouraging for a broader peace:

[1] These are the actions of a regime determined to keep international attention focused on North/South issues, at the expense of South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Darfur, and other marginalized regions of eastern Sudan and Nubia in the far north. Khartoum is calculating that if the North/South border remains sufficiently "hot"—but not so hot as to convince Juba once again to suspend oil production and transit—then all real international efforts, diplomatic and political, will stay focused narrowly on avoiding war between Khartoum and Juba. A strategy very much like this was deployed by the regime during the final months of the CPA: all negotiating issues of substance were settled by May 2004, and only narrowly technical issues remained. But the genocidal counter-insurgency in Darfur was then at its height, and Khartoum was determined that international attention remain focused on the talks in Naivasha (Kenya); and there was in fact a disgraceful muting of criticism for many months before the CPA was finally signed in January 2005.

In 2010 the regime again saw that the U.S. was so focused on securing the January 2011 self-determination referendum for the South that it essentially abandoned Abyei—demanding that Juba "compromise" further over the final status of the region despite the explicit terms of the Abyei Protocol in the CPA and the July 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Current Secretary of State John Kerry—then Senator Kerry but serving as an ad hoc Obama administration envoy—went so far as to declare that the CPA should not be held hostage to "a few hundred square miles" of disputed territory (Reuters [Khartoum], October 25, 2010). Not only was Kerry egregiously in error about the size of Abyei—it is only slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, which neighbors Kerry's own Massachusetts—but as subsequent events would dramatically prove, Abyei was at the very center of the viability of the CPA from the perspective of the South. The Obama administration's willingness to trade it out on the basis of ignorance and expediency was not lost on Juba—or Khartoum.

Certainly Khartoum hopes that in any final delineation and demarcation of the North/South border, Kiir Adem and a number of other areas in Northern and Western Bahr el-Ghazal (e.g., the Kafia Kingi enclave) will be placed in the north. And as Abyei reveals, Khartoum is perfectly willing to seize militarily what it cannot win by diplomacy. But at the present time, a strong case can be made that the attacks on Kiir Adem and other areas along the border (Unity and Upper Nile states in particular) are meant to be provocative, meant to convince the international community that the agreements on oil and a demilitarized zone along the border are not guaranteed, and that further diplomatic resources and commitment are required. These will inevitably come at the expense of the Nuba, Blue Nile, Darfur, and other marginalized regions of Sudan.

[2] It is also distinctly possible that the attacks on Kiir Adem are further evidence of the depth of the split within the regime—between the security "hard-liners" and army generals on the one hand, and the political officials who have been ascendant for most of the NIF/NCP tyranny on the other. Here it is important to recall again the extraordinarily revealing dispatch by Julie Flint in summer 2011 after the assault on the Nuba had begun, making clear there would be very little room for civilians in the new configuration of power:

"[A] well-informed source close to the National Congress Party reports that Sudan's two most powerful generals went to [Sudanese President Omar al-] Bashir on May 5 [2011], five days after 11 soldiers were killed in an SPLA ambush in Abyei, on South Kordofan's southwestern border, and demanded powers to act as they sought fit, without reference to the political leadership." [These generals are named below—ER]

"'They got it,' the source says. 'It is the hour of the soldiers—a vengeful, bitter attitude of defending one's interests no matter what; a punitive and emotional approach that goes beyond calculation of self-interest. The army was the first to accept that Sudan would be partitioned. But they also felt it as a humiliation, primarily because they were withdrawing from territory in which they had not been defeated. They were ready to go along with the politicians as long as the politicians were delivering—but they had come to the conclusion they weren't. Ambushes in Abyei…interminable talks in Doha keeping Darfur as an open wound…. Lack of agreement on oil revenue….' 'It has gone beyond politics,' says one of Bashir’s closest aides. 'It is about dignity.'" (Daily Star [Lebanon], August 2, 2011)

The power of the army soon became clear when a "Framework Agreement" between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N) and Khartoum—represented by the powerful presidential aide Nafi'e Ali Nafi'e—was abruptly abrogated. Committing the regime to negotiate a cease-fire and address political grievances in South Kordofan (Blue Nile was not yet caught up in the conflict), the June 28, 2011 agreement might have been the basis for ending what is now a conflict affecting more than 2 million people—perhaps 1 million of them refugees or internally displaced, and more than 1 million people facing increasingly stark food shortages. But despite Nafi'e's putative authority, three days later—clearly under pressure from the same powerful army generals—President al-Bashir renounced the agreement (July 1, 2011), declaring that the "cleansing" operation in the Nuba would continue:

"[al-Bashir] directed the armed forces to continue their military operations in South Kordofan until a 'cleansing of the region is over,' SUNA quoted Bashir as telling worshippers during Friday prayers."

The commitment to civilian destruction as a means of conducting counter-insurgency had once again been embraced by the NIF/NCP regime (see also my contemporaneous analysis at Dissent, "A Creeping Coup in Khartoum," August 10, 2011).

There has been considerable subsequent evidence of the ascendancy of the military, specifically a cabal of generals who have a record of extreme brutality and callousness, and who will surely end up in The Hague if the regime falls:

• Lt. General Ismat Abdel Rahman al-Zain: he is implicated in Darfur atrocity crimes because of his role as SAF director of operations (Khartoum); he is also identified in the "Confidential Annex" to the report by UN panel of Experts on Darfur (the Annex was leaked in February 2006); Ismat was one of the two generals who in May 2011 confronted al-Bashir, demanding that the military take over decisions about war and peace in Abyei and other border regions.

• Major-General Mahjoub Abdallah Sharfi: he is head of the brutally efficient Military Intelligence, and was the second of the two generals who in May 2011 confronted al-Bashir.

• Major General Bakri Salih: he is the former Defense Minister and now a very powerful senior minister for presidential affairs. The current political environment in Khartoum is one that suits him particularly well.

• General Awad Ibn Auf: he is the former head of Military Intelligence and gave the order for the SAF and Janjaweed "to destroy everything" in Darfur (2003).

• Major General Ahmad Khamis: he was commander of the 14th Sudan Armed Forces infantry division in Kadugli during the large-scale atrocity crimes committed in June–July 2011).

If these are the men making the decision about whether or not to pursue peace, about whether the agreement about border demilitarization will be honored, then the attack on Kiir Adem has even grimmer implications. Their commitment to a military solution to outstanding issues between Juba and Khartoum may well include the ambition to seize Southern oil fields, both in Unity State and Upper Nile. Any such military move would guarantee a return to full-scale, unfathomably destructive war.

What is notable is that the international community hasn't a clue as to which of these two explanations for the Kiir Adem attacks—coming at such a crucial moment—is the right one. The solution seems to be simply to ignore the issues altogether, and continue to focus on negotiations which may be undermined by the very narrowness of focus that governs talks in Addis Ababa. We have seen this pattern too many times before.