Rebels Shoot Down a UN Helicopter in South Sudan: Implications .
Eric Reeves, 26 August 2014 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-1p0 |
A large cargo helicopter of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was shot down today by forces under the command of notoriously brutal militia leader Peter Gadet. A rocket-propelled grenade brought the aircraft down approximately ten kilometers outside Bentiu at 3:15pm local time, killing three crew members and seriously injuring a fourth. The Mi-8 helicopter was on a routine cargo flight from Wau (Western Bahr el-Ghazal) to Bentiu, the epicenter of oil development in Unity State.
Although Bentiu itself is presently held and controlled by the forces of the (elected) Government of South Sudan, the city has changed hands twice times during the current conflict and remains subject to attack by rebel forces (Sudan People’s Liberation Army/in Opposition). These forces are led in the Bentiu area by Gadet. During the long civil war in Sudan, Gadet gained notoriety not only for his brutality and military skills, but his willingness to change sides—which he did on more than half a dozen occasions.
Gadet recently let it be known that he would shoot down any aircraft flying over areas he controlled; if the UNMISS helicopter did stray over Gadet’s claimed territory, it would have been inadvertent or ignorance of his outrageous claim of airspace. But having shot down a UN helicopter, Gadet now has no choice but to try to control what fiefdom he can carve out of Nuer territory in Unity State (Gadet is an ethnic Nuer). He has committed a serious war crime against the United Nations and he will be held accountable if he is apprehended. Knowing this, Gadet has sealed his fate and will fight viciously to control as much territory as possible, both for the power this brings and to use as negotiating leverage with other rebel commanders. He thrives in violent chaos and is ruthlessly expedient.
There could hardly be a more telling illustration of how little control rebel “leader” (and former vice president) Riek Machar has over those elements that are nominally part of the rebel forces. There has in fact never been any real command-and-control, and the more we learn about rebel operations, the more it becomes clear that they are not ordered or coordinated but essentially local military decisions, dictated by local concerns or ethnic animosities. The most conspicuous example is the Nuer youth force known as the “White Army,” which is completely beyond Riek’s ability to control.
What are the implications of this shoot-down of a UN helicopter? What does it mean for the chances of a successful agreement in Addis Ababa between the Government of South and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/in Opposition? And if an agreement is reached, what are the chances that such an agreement will halt the fighting? They seem slim.
By refusing accepting the “immediate” (i.e., unconditional) cease-fire offer made by (elected) President Salva Kiir to Riek Machar on December 27, 2013, or an earlier offer by Salva to hold “talks without preconditions,” Riek set South Sudan on a course for war that has proved impossible to change. The latest incident near Bentiu is a sign of how fragmented “the opposition” is and that Riek daily has less chance of bringing that opposition collectively to a meaningful cease-fire.
Meanwhile, civilians continue to be killed and displaced, even as more and more are succumbing to malnutrition, particularly children under five. Whether the technical benchmarks for “famine” have been reached, the reality on the ground is that four million people face severe food insecurity, according to UN figures. Perhaps one million children will require treatment this year for acute malnutrition; tens of thousands will die. Given the heavy rains and continued insecurity, their condition will only deteriorate further for the foreseeable future, with very little to expect in the way of a fall harvest because displacement and violence largely prevented spring planting.
At the same time, tens of thousands of civilians trapped in various UN civilian protection centers are living in utterly appalling conditions. In Bentiu flooding has produced unimaginable suffering and grave health risks to those within the vastly overcrowded UN center. Tensions between those inside and outside the centers are growing; ethnic animosities continue to boil; and the worst is yet to come.
Negotiating an end to the violence
The Intergovernmental Agency for Development (IGAD) is a consortium of east African nations that provides the weak diplomatic auspices for a negotiated settlement. IGAD has also undertaken to mount a cease-fire Monitoring and Verification Mission, although it has been extremely slow to deploy. Certainly the challenges such a mission faces are daunting. For example, Gadet impounded a UN helicopter on August 23 that was carrying an IGAD investigative team; the team was then force-marched for four hours; one member died from the strain of the exertion. None of the survivors could physically manage a return walk.
And yet the international community is depending on IGAD to negotiate an agreement on a transitional government that is acceptable to both sides, and to monitor a formal cease-fire (several of which have come and gone). Given the sheer size and difficulty of transport in South Sudan, monitoring will be a hideously difficult task, and will face hostility from several quarters, especially those in the rebel movement. Meanwhile, arms are pouring into South Sudan, destined for both sides of the conflict.
But it is on the diplomatic side that things will prove most contentious. IGAD has proffered a draft agreement that in effect rewards Riek Machar with the position of Prime Minister, and allows Salva Kiir to remain President. But this is deeply distasteful to both men, and has as an additional condition that the Prime Minister may not run for president in elections following the 30 months of transitional government specified in the IGAD Protocol (one version of the Protocol would extend this ban on running to the president). Many features are still to be finalized, and the likelihood is great that Peter Gadet will now play spoiler in a more consequential way; this will make any cease-fire all the more difficult, if not impossible to achieve.
Both sides in this ghastly conflict are guilty of abusing UN and humanitarian personnel, grave human rights violations, and atrocity crimes. Accountability is essential, but will be resisted by those most culpable—and many of these are very powerful men. Justice will require serious international attention.
But the international community has already failed in a variety of ways over the course of eight months of conflict, and has yet to show that it understands fully either the military situation on the ground, or the consequences of making Riek representative of the political opposition to Salva. This is a serious mistake, and gives Riek far more bargaining leverage than he deserves by virtue of political, as opposed to military, standing. To be sure, there is serious political opposition to the slow place of governance reform under Salva’s presidency, as well as deep resentment of the massive corruption that has skewed politics in Juba in disturbing ways over the past nine years. The Government of South Sudan is still too much an image of the guerrilla movement out of which it grew, and the pace of reform is far too slow, and a number of legitimate political leaders are taking Salva to task. But they have publicly eschewed a violent change of government.
It was Riek who subverted whatever chance there was for non-military political change; it was Riek who refused the offer of an “immediate ceasefire” offered by Salva on December 27, 2013. When the history of South Sudan is recorded, this refusal will stand as a moment of supreme tragedy. The first act of that tragedy is well begun, and may lead quickly to a more terrible second act in light of today’s attack by Peter Gadet on a UN helicopter.
A Russian-built Mi-8 helicopter