Holding onto the periphery

Kiir’s regime walks a dangerous line. It has tried to maintain control of Upper Nile by peeling off Eastern Nuer commanders from Machar and making them dependent on Juba’s largesse. To prevent these commanders’ forces from constituting a genuine threat to Kiir’s rule, the regime pits them against each other—borrowing from the playbook of former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who successfully used divide-and-rule tactics to run Sudan for three decades. At present, the rivalrous government coalition in Upper Nile includes Eastern Nuer commanders, such as Ochan Puot in Maiwut; Shilluk commanders, most notably Olonyi; and Padang Dinka politicians. Fragmenting authority in the state allows Kiir to maintain his status as a power broker and ensures that all the belligerent parties remain dependent on government support. The dynamics created by this fragmentation, however, threaten to slip out of the control of Kiir’s regime, and lead to an intensified war in Upper Nile that will break apart the nominal unity of the president’s coalition.

If Olonyi’s forces successfully take Atar and Tonga with the assistance of the SSPDF, the stage is set for a drawn-out conflict on the southern border of Upper Nile, with the Agwelek controlling the riverine trade; the SPLA-IO, which appointed the nominal governor of the state, controlling much of the Sobat River; Ochan’s forces controlling the border trade with Ethiopia; and the Padang Dinka controlling much of the north and east of the state. At present, only the SPLA-IO and the Agwelek are in conflict, though there are also intermittent clashes between the SPLA-IO and Ochan’s forces. This situation could change rapidly, however, given the fragility of the government coalition.

Since 2018, violence has become the principal form of rule in South Sudan, as politicians in Juba have used clashes in the periphery to manoeuvre for positions in the capital. Violence is not an aberration in this context, but the very form of political power that state actors in Juba use to rule. Further clashes in Upper Nile are therefore not just likely, but inevitable.