In Nguen’s long shadow

Nguen uses a variety of strategies to maintain his rule. His political coalition has spread itself across the putative divisions of South Sudan’s political parties, allowing him to maximize the positions he can control under the technocratic terms of the R-ARCSS (Craze and Marko, 2022). His brother, Bapiny Monytuil, is formally part of the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA), but substantively loyal to the government. Gatluak Nyang Hoth, the Mayendit county commissioner, is in theory a member of the National Democratic Movement (NDM) (which is part of the SSOA), but is actually an ally of Nguen, and on 21 June 2023 simply refused an order from the NDM to step down.

Nguen’s approach to governance combines technocratic subtlety with violent brutality. During the South Sudanese civil war, the government launched a series of offensives in southern Unity that were designed to remove the capacity of populations putatively loyal to the opposition to sustain life (Craze and Tubiana, 2016, pp. 52–94; Amnesty International, 2018). The signing of the R-ARCSS did not lead to an end to such assaults. In February 2022 a government offensive conducted by forces under the control of Gordon Koang Biel, the Koch county commissioner, overran the SPLA-IO cantonment site at Mirmir (OHCHR, 2023, pp. 12–13). Then, following a meeting between the commissioners of Mayendit and Koch, and with the agreement of Nguen Monytuil and Tut Kew Gatluak, government-backed militias conducted a campaign in Riek Machar’s home county of Leer from February to May 2022. [1] The attackers killed hundreds of civilians, engaged in extensive sexual violence, looted, and destroyed property (CTSAMVM, 2022; UNMISS and OHCHR, 2022; OHCHR, 2023). The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) did not intervene to prevent the attacks. In May 2023 the commander of Division 4 of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF), William Manyang Mayak, a Nguen loyalist, commended UNMISS for protecting civilians in Unity state (Radio Tamazuj, 2023).

For a decade, Nguen’s forces have attacked southern Unity with total impunity, without facing any legal sanction. Such assaults are a means of rewarding Nguen’s supporters (with looted livestock, humanitarian supplies, and captured women), eliminating supposedly hostile populations, and weakening the SPLA-IO. While the opposition struggles with an acute lack of finance, Nguen has access to the state’s tax revenue and strong connections to the political elite in Juba via Tut Kew Gatluak, who, like Nguen, is a Bul Nuer from Mayom county. Since 2018, a number of opposition commanders and political figures have defected to the government, including Lok Tang Ret (November 2022) and Tito Biel Wiec (February 2022), who was the last major Bul Nuer commander in the SPLA-IO. Tito claimed to be joining the Kitgwang faction, although he actually joined the government. Tito’s rhetoric enabled the government to chalk up the 2022 offensive on intra-opposition clashes between the SPLA-IO and the Kitgwang faction—a claim without factual support.

Nguen and Bapiny are the sons of Monytuil Wejang, who was one of the most important Bul Nuer paramount chiefs, and many of Nguen’s most important supporters are Bul, including the commander of SSPDF Division 4, William Manyang Mayak, and the head of the special operations division in Mayom, Makal Kuol. However, Nguen has also built an intersectional coalition, fragmenting the constituencies of his rivals. Malual Tap, the state minister of finance, is from Koch county, and the chairman of the Jagei Nuer community. Salam Maluit, his security advisor, Stephen Malek, the executive director of Rubkona county, and Lam Tungwar, a state minister, are all Leek Nuer. These three figures allow Nguen to try to fracture opposition support in Rubkona county, which would nominally be the heartland of support for the SPLM-IO deputy governor, Tor Tungwar. In commanding Lam Tungwar’s loyalty, Nguen also splits the Tungwar family: Lam is Tor’s brother.

Nguen has also extended his reach by unilaterally appointing customary authorities and payam administrators.[2] The SPLM-IO has attempted to retain former administrators, largely opposition loyalists, leading to rival administrations across much of the state. Those given positions are rewarded with entrepreneurial licences. Gordon Koang Biel, for instance, uses his position as commissioner of Koch to tax the population under his control and acquire resources during frequent sorties into southern Unity. It is notable that it is the militias of Mayendit, Mayom, and Koch that are the effective government fighting forces in Unity state, not the SSPDF, and it is the militia commanders who are rewarded with licences to plunder (Craze, 2023).

The rewards from Rubkona county are even more alluring. Since 2018, Nguen’s circle has been acquiring land in the state capital, often via illegal land grabs. In one confirmed case in 2020, a man who had the temerity to protest the expropriation of his house by John Bol Mayik, then the state police commissioner, made the mistake of trying to take Mayik to court. Mayik never appeared; the man disappeared.[3] Members of Nguen’s inner circle also own hotels in Bentiu, and earn further revenue from renting rooms for international NGO (INGO) and UN workshops.[4]

Rubkona has the largest tax base of any county in the state by some margin. It contained a PoC site that was redesignated an IDP camp in 2020, with peacekeepers replaced by a police service under the control of John Bol Mayik, who led the Bul Nuer Terschuong militia that raped and rampaged through southern Unity in 2015, sending thousands in flight to the PoC site whose security UNMISS handed over to their principal tormentor (Craze and Tubiana, 2016, pp. 81–97; Craze and Pendle, 2020). As of March 2023, the Bentiu IDP camp has 102,436 residents (IOM, 2023), and represents a lucrative resource for Nguen’s cadres, who can tax traders and workers in the camp, including those selling firewood in the market and fishing in the floodwaters, as well as taxing local humanitarian workers’ salaries.

Opposition attempts to assert economic control over the IDP camp have been unsuccessful. In January 2023 Salva Kiir appointed a new SPLM-IO county commissioner for Rubkona, Dhoal Koryom Lingling, a former supporter of vice president Taban Deng Gai. Lingling has been effectively frozen out of power, just as the former opposition county commissioner, Gatluak Wichar Nyak, was before him; Apollo Manyang, then the executive director of Rubkona county, had effective power in the state, and when Nyak attempted to contest Manyang’s control of tax collection, he was suspended. Lingling is close to Tor Tungwar, but unpopular with the Leek Nuer SPLA-IO military leadership, who had selected another candidate for his position. He has little support on the ground and is powerless to wrest control of Rubkona county from Nguen.

Nguen is using his success against the opposition to mount a challenge against his major rival for power among the Bul Nuer: Tut Kew. Kiir’s security advisor faces a straitened situation, with Bol Mel recently replacing him in important negotiations, and his main political strength—his close links to the security apparatus in Khartoum—whittled down by the uncertainty in Khartoum produced by the conflict.[5] In this uncertainty Nguen sees an advantage. Following the killing of Tut Kew’s brother—the Mayom county commissioner—by the forces of Stephen Buay, head of the South Sudan People's Movement/Army, Nguen appointed John Bul Mayik—a Nguen loyalist—as acting county commissioner. In May 2023, Bapiny Monytuil, in his function as first deputy speaker of the council of state, recommended removing several SSOA appointees loyal to Tut Kew, who tried to block their removal. The only thing preventing these tensions exploding is that both Nguen and Tut Kew are very aware of the unpopularity of the Bul Nuer in the state and fear that a split between them would leave the Bul open to attack.

Nguen, like Salva Kiir, has proved a master of splitting the opposition and maintaining power. He is, however, deeply unpopular in Unity. For a decade his militia forces have raped and pillaged, predating on the civilian population. Only military force and the legitimating function of the state in Juba keep Nguen in control; he has power, but no legitimacy. In this context, elections pose a threat to his rule. Despite his best efforts, Rubkona and much of southern Unity remain loyal to the SPLA-IO. Nguen would prefer elections to be delayed, but Kiir is set on a vote, which he believes will confer much-needed legitimacy on his regime. This, though, might mean his party losing political power in Unity: an acceptable prospect for Kiir, but a potentially disastrous one for Nguen and the Bul Nuer.

[1] Author telephone interviews with Bul Nuer politicians, names withheld, locations withheld, dates withheld; author interview with National Security Service officer, Juba, date withheld.

[2] The payam is South Sudan’s third administrative level, under state and county.

[3] Author interview with informant from Rubkona county, September 2022, location withheld.

[4] Multiple author telephone interviews with international and national informants, August–December 2022.

[5] Author telephone interview with Bul Nuer politician, name and location withheld, April 2023.