Smoke and mirrors

Resurgent conflict in Upper Nile is part of a broader trend in South Sudan, which sees both the government and the SPLA-IO fight wars in the peripheries, and then attempt to mask their accountability for these conflicts by attributing them to intra-opposition clashes or inter-communal violence. As the Small Arms Survey set out in a recent report, UNMISS and some within the diplomatic core have unfortunately tended to echo the government and the SPLA-IO’s rhetoric.[1]

Both the government and the SPLA-IO leadership claim not to be involved in the conflict in Upper Nile. In this, if nothing else, Kiir and Machar are united. According to political actors in Juba, the conflict is fought between Shilluk Agwelek forces acting independently of the SSPDF and Nuer White Army forces fighting outside of the command structures of the SPLA-IO. While it is true that the Agwelek and the White Army have a large degree of independence from the dictates of Kiir and Machar, such autonomy nonetheless has its limits. Both belligerent parties’ denials of responsibility for events in Upper Nile are politically expedient rather than factually true.

Since the signing of the Khartoum Peace Agreement in January 2022, Kiir’s regime has used the Agwelek as a proxy to weaken Machar’s SPLA-IO and split the Kitgwang faction.[2] Machar’s SPLA-IO used the Agwelek’s attacks on Nuer communities on the banks of the White Nile as an opportunity to reconstitute its beleaguered authority. The SPLA-IO had been involved in extensive recruitment of Nuer youth from August 2022 onwards and had an active command-and-control role in clashes with the Agwelek from September to December 2022. Obfuscating these lines of responsibility allows Kiir and Machar to pay lip service to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS).


[1] For a detailed analysis of these dynamics at the national level and of the international community’s rhetoric surrounding these issues, see Craze (2022b, pp. 12–16).

[2] See Craze (2022a, pp. 38–46).