Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Machar’s backward march

Gamal Nkrumah reviews the ramifications of this week’s reversal of military fortunes in South Sudan

Al-Ahram Weekly

Former South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar’s troops undertook rites of spiritual purification, but alas it did not work for them. Machar’s men held their positions as if torpid. Yet, in the end, Bor fell to an unassailable coalition of Ugandan troops and the South Sudan armed forces of President Salva Kiir.
It was as if Machar’s men were purging their souls of sin in preparation for death, and indeed many of them did die defending Bor. As Al-Ahram Weekly goes to press it looks like Machar’s battle tricks were foiled.
Facing such a plethora of enemies, especially the leaders of the East African economic grouping, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Machar must realise by now that he cannot fight on every front. His proactive aggression, selecting strategic oil-rich target towns where ethnic Nuer — his people — are predominant is his best hope. He is aiming to overcome his foes in pitched battles.
Oil-rich South Sudan began 2014 in a state of beleaguered penury. Worse, the humanitarian situation is deplorable. Last Friday, UN human rights fact finder Ivan Simonovic declared that both government soldiers and rebels had committed atrocities. And Kiir is a president of a realm that seems bound for utter destruction. In the fire of the South Sudan crisis, the long-suffering people of the country are escaping their war-torn abode, heading north to their former oppressor, Khartoum.
Simonovic told reporters in Juba that there had been cases of “mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, widespread destruction and looting of property and use of the children in conflict”. With Machar at the brink of defeat, the Nuer people are preparing for the worst scenarios. Kiir’s men are swarming over the Nuer so quickly that the latter have little chance of survival. Except, of course, if they renounce the rousing battle cry of Machar for good.
Yet, Machar claims that he represents disgruntled groups in South Sudan, including members of the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). “The American special envoy to South Sudan and Sudan, Donald Booth, together with IGAD mediators, travelled to an undisclosed location in South Sudan to meet Machar,” read a statement signed by the self-styled Nuer leader’s former press officer Miyong Kuon. With Bor, capital of Jongolei State, now in SPLM hands and with Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity State, captured by Kiir’s men, the situation looks bleak for Machar.
Machar can no longer stake claim to captured territory. His men would have to go back to the bush. Corpses of the dead, civilian and military, pepper the countryside. Even so, in this moment of crisis, troops loyal to Machar are not daunted by the sheer scale of their imminent defeat.
South Sudan is in a parlous state of disarray. Machar’s men are on the retreat, but their tactical retreat is informed by a vein of strategic planning. Riven by power struggles, Kiir’s SPLM is not a particularly formidable force.
With resistance to the SPLM crumbling, Machar’s men are straining to release two months of pent-up frustration and aggression. Amid the gloom of an approaching disaster, the chaotic slaughter appears to have begun.
With provincial strongholds of Machar’s troops overrun, a bloody sack is expected to follow in the days to come. Machar got his first despairing glimpse of his terrible loss on the horizon in both Bor and Bentiu. Malakal still hangs in the balance.
Kiir’s successes on the battlefield broke the tide of Machar’s martial momentum that has been building since December 2013.
Nevertheless, the tremendous work of unifying South Sudan through the subjugation of his adversaries, including Machar, remains hopelessly incomplete. Kiir’s victory over the forces of Machar has not been absolute.
In the aftermath of the triumph of the Kiir camp, the door stands open to further political and military success. The huge loss of manpower in the past week left Machar’s men in a state of extreme vulnerability. Their strongholds have been stripped of their garrisons.
Machar is now confronted with a momentous choice. Much of South Sudan’s countryside has been subjugated by Kiir’s forces, but as the dry season wanes it will become apparent that one or more final pushes towards conquest would be necessary before the onset of the rainy season when Machar’s men might emerge from the jungle.

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