“Fighting in Western Upper Nile Continues to Threaten the Machakos Peace Process”
Intense offensive military action by Khartoum’s forces continues along the main new oil transport arteries in Western Upper Nile (south and west from Bentiu). Evidence of the intensity and destructiveness of Khartoum’s activities has mounted steadily since fighting broke out on December 31, 2002. Information from aerial overflights, interviews with wounded civilians, the sharp increase in newly displaced persons to Mayenjur and Liil west of Tam, as well as accounts from SPLA field commanders—all point to further egregious violations of the October 15 agreement that was to have halted such offensive military actions. The Machakos mediators and the international community must demand an immediate end to this fighting or risk endangering the entire Machakos peace process.
Eric Reeves [January 19/20, 2003]
Lui, Yei, Western Equatoria, South Sudan
The full scale and number of Khartoum’s assaults over the last three weeks has yet to be fully assessed. But there can be no doubt that the fighting in Western Upper Nile constitutes a series of major violations of the October 15, 2002 agreement, and poses yet another significant threat to the Machakos peace process. Of particular note are the continuing reports of Khartoum’s deployments of helicopter gunships. These fearsome weapons have been repeatedly sent to attack civilians, cattle, and other non-military targets—from the Adok area (at the far end of the oil road route south of Bentiu) to the Leer area (the next military objective on the oil road), as well as to the Tam area, well west of Bentiu but again on a key road that will connect oil development in this area to the main oil production facilities at Heglig and Unity. In short, these attacks have major strategic significance in Khartoum’s plans to control all of the oil production areas of Western Upper Nile.
The repeated use of helicopter gunships—confirmed by interviews with civilians injured in these attacks—is of particular note, since they directly implicate Khartoum’s regular military forces. For even though Khartoum’s proxy militia forces—armed and directed by the regime—are explicitly covered by the October 15 cessation of offensive hostilities agreement, Khartoum has expediently attempted to dismiss this new fighting as “merely” militia activities. But the use of helicopter gunships—the most potent and tactically valuable of Khartoum’s steadily increasing military assets—clearly implicates the highest levels of the regime’s military command. That the decision to launch major offensive actions was made shortly before the scheduled re-starting of the Machakos peace talks
casts an even darker and more ominous shadow over the regime’s commitment to seek a just peace with the people of the south.
Khartoum’s actions contrast sharply with those of the SPLM/A, which has dutifully shown up for the first session of new round of talks scheduled by the Machakos mediators—this even as Khartoum refused to attend. (It does now appear that, after numerous re-schedulings, the first mutually attended session of the Machakos talks will be held on January 22nd). The SPLA has also shown remarkable military restraint in the field—not only during the recent fighting in Western Upper Nile, but in holding off from attacking barges moving down the Nile carrying Khartoum’s re-deploying offensive military assets.
The military base at Adok appears from the air to have tripled in size since the October agreement went into effect; the base is now poised to support a thrust north to connect with forces that are already present on the heavily militarized oil road running south from Bentiu. Evidence of an extremely large offensive re-deployment to the west of Juba also continues to grow, giving clear indication that there is a high likelihood that this force will move toward Yei (Western Equatoria). Scores of barges have been sighted and photographed moving tanks, heavy artillery, and other offensive equipment down the Nile.
The SPLA commander in Yei (Salva Mathok) reports various, and very recent, military actions that would be preparatory to an offensive against Yei: Antonov reconnaissance flights (January 8, 2003); artillery fire over SPLA front-line positions on the Yei/Juba road (January 17); and probing moves by battalion-sized forces.
Neither the Machakos mediators nor the international community can remain silent or quiescent at such a moment without signaling to Khartoum that there is no price to be paid for clear violations of a recently signed agreement. Moreover, the military situation could quickly spiral out of control. It is exceedingly difficult to find informed sources in Western Equatoria who do not believe that Yei (which, along with Rumbek, is the key town for the future of South Sudan) is not very directly threatened militarily. The fall of Yei, or even threatening movements toward the town, could precipitate major fighting throughout South Sudan and the marginalized areas. If Khartoum is serious about making peace in Machakos, it can have no objection to the rapid deployment of a robust military monitoring force to insure that the regime does not further deploy forces to Juba or begin a larger movement toward Yei.
The posture of Khartoum’s forces in Wau (estimated by one knowledgeable source to be presently over a division strong) should also be very carefully monitored, and military movement along the road leading to Tonj and Rumbek must not be allowed.
Again, if Khartoum is serious about peace, it cannot object to monitoring measures designed to insure that its forces do not continue offensive movements. Moreover, the regime must be compelled to halt the present offensive in Western Upper Nile. Thousands of people have been displaced since the offensive began at the very end of 2002, primarily to Mayenjur and Liil west of Tam. There have been many civilian deaths and injuries, as well as much destruction of cattle by helicopter gunship fire and looting on the ground.
Humanitarian assistance and development projects for this devastated area are also clearly at risk; longer-term project are coming to seem especially futile. The population, especially the older population, is again becoming deeply demoralized by the fighting that was to have been ended by the October 15 agreement.
An immense catastrophe is all too clearly in the making. If Khartoum does not give evidence very soon of a willingness to engage in good faith negotiations at Machakos, the process will collapse. Hopes that the southern Sudanese will simply accept an expedient and unjust peace under international pressure seem both unwarranted and a disastrous moral capitulation to Khartoum. The lack of substantive progress during the last round of peace talks, and the long intervening period, should persuade General Sumbeiywo and the other Machakos mediators that if Khartoum continues to be the intransigent party, it means that the October 15 cease-fire agreement has merely been an expedient and deeply disingenuous means of gaining ground militarily. The international community must decide whether it is willing to accept this and declare openly its decision.
Indeed, the question of Khartoum’s real strategy for Machakos is squarely before the mediators and the international community; there can be no room for agnosticism or equivocation with the stakes in human lives and livelihood so very high. Is the regime’s goal to work to fashion a just peace? Is the goal to coerce from the Machakos process an unjust peace by virtue of military threats and a refusal to address key issues? Or is it rather to wait until the most opportune moment in the current dry season to launch a major offensive, very possibly on several fronts? The portents from Western Upper Nile should be deeply alarming.
Of one thing we can be sure: if the Machakos peace process does break down, if this singular opportunity for peace is lost because of Khartoum’s determination to prevail militarily, then the fighting that ensues will be the most destructive of this long and almost unfathomably destructive conflict.