The current wave of conflict in Upper Nile began when the Kitgwang faction split in August 2022.[1] Initial fighting pitted Olonyi’s Agwelek against Simon Gatwich Dual’s forces. In July–August 2022, this intra-factional fighting was transposed onto a broader canvas, with the Agwelek functioning as a proxy for the South Sudanese government in a series of clashes against a broader oppositional Nuer force composed of the SPLA-IO, the White Army, and Dual’s Kitgwang faction.

After initial successes for Olonyi’s Agwelek, two major mobilizations of Nuer youth in Ayod and New Fangak in September–October 2022—with the support of the Gawaar Nuer SPLA-IO Chief of Staff, Gabriel Duop Lam—decisively turned the tables in favour of the Nuer force. In November­–December 2022, the White Army—largely under the command of the Gawaar Nuer prophet, Tut Makuach—rampaged through Panyikang county, killing Shilluk civilians, razing villages, and displacing more than 10,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) to Kodok. By the end of November, Nuer forces were advancing on Kodok itself. Only the decisive intervention of SSPDF Mi-24 attack helicopters prevented a massacre.

As of March 2023, the SSPDF were facing another major military decision. While the Agwelek could take Tonga by moving its forces south from Wau Shilluk, capturing Atar would require SSPDF acquiescence to Olonyi’s barges moving south; however, since the SSPDF recently supplied the Agwelek with fuel—for its barges—and materiel, and have previously granted the barges a laissez-passer along the river, it is more likely to be a question of when, rather than if, Juba will sign off on an Agwelek military campaign.

While the regime of President Salva Kiir could intervene to prevent violence along the White Nile, the same cannot be said for the state government of Upper Nile. Intense conflict in the state in the second half of 2022 led Kiir to honour an earlier request made by Machar to replace Abudhok Ayang Kur, the SPLA-IO governor of Upper Nile, with Abudhok’s brother-in-law, James Odhok, the former state coordinator for Upper Nile. Odhok has proved no more capable of influencing events on the ground than his predecessor. The rest of the Upper Nile state government is composed of placeholders and figureheads, beholden to politicians in Juba.


[1] For further details on the Kitgwang faction, its formation, and subsequent travails, see Craze (2022a, pp. 37–46) and Small Arms Survey (2021).