Key findings

  • After a lull in violence in January, armed actors are mobilizing for conflict in Upper Nile in March 2023. Johnson Olonyi’s Agwelek forces, allied to the South Sudanese government, are recruiting on the west bank of the White Nile and have moved fighters from Megenis to Wau Shilluk, where their barges are currently moored.[1] There is a further build-up of Agwelek forces in Pakang, Panyikang county.
  • The Agwelek’s targets are the ports of Atar and Tonga, key trading posts along the White Nile. The militia’s capacity to take these ports has been augmented by support from the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF), including fuel for its barges and materiel.
  • In response to the Agwelek mobilization, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO) and Nuer White Army forces are mobilizing youth in northern Jonglei and southern Upper Nile. The SPLA-IO has reinforced positions along the White Nile where Agwelek offensives are expected.
  • The new governor of Upper Nile, James Odhok, is unpopular among his own Shilluk constituency, as he is thought to have sold out to the SPLA-IO chairperson, Riek Machar. His capacity to influence events on the ground is limited. Throughout Upper Nile, fractures in the government’s control of the situation are evident.
  • The commanders of the armed groups in Upper Nile are acting with different degrees of autonomy from their Juba backers, though ultimate responsibility for rising violence lies in the capital.
  • A resurgence of violence will interrupt the distribution of urgently needed humanitarian supplies and services in southern Upper Nile and northern Jonglei.

[1] For a detailed account of the development and history of the Agwelek, see Craze (2019, pp. 31–76).