Assault by other means

In 2020, President Kiir issued a decree returning South Sudan to ten states and three administrative areas. This left a number of territorial disputes unaddressed. One such dispute is over a narrow triangle of land connecting the counties of Abiemnom and Pariang, without which the Ruweng Administrative Area (RAA) would not constitute a contiguous territorial area. This triangle, which includes what used to be a major SPLA-IO base at Panakuac and lucrative oil fields, as well as an area called Rotriak, is claimed by both the RAA and Rubkona county. Tensions over the area have increased since the flooding of 2020–21, because Leek Nuer cattle herders who customarily went south to Guit and Koch have started to come to higher land on the border of the RAA, including at Panakuac.

Until July 2021, the disputed area was under the control of the RAA.[8] In the second half of 2021, however, troops under the command of Carlo Kuol Ruai, a Jikany Nuer commander historically close to Taban Deng Gai, occupied the site, pushing out the RAA officials and securing the territory for Unity state, and effectively cutting the RAA in two. Rotriak, a site in the contested area, had been raised as a possible contingency site for IDPs if the Bentiu IDP camp flooded back in 2021, but humanitarian organizations were cautious about supporting movement to the area, given its controversial and contested status. Nevertheless, the Unity state government encouraged the movement of IDPs to Rotriak, and as of June 2023, the site has a population of 60,000 people (UNOCHA, 2023).

The conflict in Sudan has caused widespread displacement into South Sudan. This has largely centred on Renk in Upper Nile state, but as of 12 July 2023, some 19,702 people fleeing the fighting in Sudan had arrived at Panakuac, where they were registered by the International Organization for Migration and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in collaboration with other INGOs and NGOs.[9] South Sudanese who had fled were then transported to Rotriak, while refugees (largely Sudanese) were taken to the Ajuong Thok camp in the RAA. Both the RAA and the Unity state administration are effectively competing for the political and humanitarian benefits that come with those exiled from the north.

The conflict in Sudan comes at a good time for Nguen. While he has political control of Unity, he is enormously unpopular, and postulated elections in December 2024 threaten his domination of the state. The returnees constitute a valuable political constituency if they can be won over. Thus, the creation of an IDP population at Rotriak accomplishes two purposes: it creates facts on the ground by creating a durable Nuer population that entrenches Nguen’s control of a contested territory, and it allows him to try and build up a base of popular support. He visited Rotriak on 21 May 2023, after having sent police units and SSPDF forces to ensure that no RAA officials were present in the area—which they did, by beating such officials.[10] The humanitarian community is split, with some agencies acquiescing to government demands to move assistance to Rotriak, while others insist that IDPs must go to Bentiu to receive assistance.[11]

[8] Author interviews with RAA officials, Pariang, September 2021.

[9] Figures are from IOM (n.d.).

[10] Author telephone interviews with international humanitarians and local informants, June 2023.

[11] Author telephone interviews with international humanitarians, June 2023.