The president of South Sudan spent Friday in a peace summit with regional heads of state, discussing the crisis that erupted last weekend after an alleged coup attempt. At the same time, the government warned of a shadowy rebel army, covered with white ash, marching through the jungle to re-attack the northern city of Bor.
Of all the horrific episodes in the long civil war between South Sudan and Sudan, a standout was the 1991 “white army.” Tens of thousands of armed young men of the Nuer tribe, covered in white ash to stave off bug bites, marched through Jonglei state into its capital Bor, murdering thousands along the way.
The leader of the white army was Riek Machar, who first was on the side of South Sudan’s resistance but later switched to support Sudan. He later switched sides again, helping South Sudan win independence, and became the newly independent nation’s vice president.
Machar is now accused of attempting a coup last weekend. Minister of Information Michael Makuei Lueth says Machar has called back his ash-covered army to retake Bor and the capital, Juba.
“He has mobilized them again — 25,000 armed youth. And he’s saying, ‘I’m going back to Bor. I’m going to march on Juba,’ ” Lueth says.
‘What’s The Approach?’
The United Nations doubts the number is as high as 25,000. But the agency is worried enough by the threat that it has requested three attack helicopters, out of fear the youth will attack the U.N. compound where 15,000 civilians have taken refuge.
Tony Banbury, U.N. assistant secretary-general for field support, says that if the youth make it to the compound, it will be too late.
“What’s the approach that you take? Do you try and negotiate with them? Do you open fire and keep firing until you’ve expended the last bullet, and create an incident that will be etched in the memory of the people for a decade or more?” he asks.
A potential army of youths is only one of the challenges facing humanitarian efforts in South Sudan, where more than 100,000 people have fled their homes. Toby Lanzer, the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, says the recent rainy season has left many roads impassable.
“We have to conduct many of our operations by air. So running an aid operation in this environment, when you don’t have precise information, is really very, very difficult and very expensive,” he says.
His office has appealed for $166 million just to provide the basics — blankets, water, food and basic medical care — through March. And then there’s the politics.
“As humanitarian coordinator, I’m dealing with the consequences of a political struggle which has turned particularly violent,” Lanzer says.
A Deep Political Divide
That political struggle, brewing for half a year or more between Machar and President Salva Kiir, came to a head last weekend, when the government accused Machar of launching a coup. Minister Lueth revealed what he said was a rebel flag captured in Machar’s house.
“This flag it is a cloth, which means it was something they planned a long time ago. This is not the flag of our country. They planned to change the flag in case they took over,” he says.
The flag he showed was a flag unlike any country’s. The stripes and colors were similar to the South Sudanese flag, but in the very center, in a white circle, was a cow. Cattle are currency in South Sudan.
But even this apparent smoking gun won’t convince many in South Sudan who believe President Kiir — himself accused of corruption and tribal favoritism — manufactured the coup to solidify power. There is a deep divide in this country about who’s a rebel and who’s legitimate, and that’s what makes the U.N. peacekeeping mission so challenging.
“Both in terms of peacekeeping and humanitarian programming, we have a difficult role,” says Lanzer. “And of course, there’s a path that needs to be navigated carefully.”
Carefully and diplomatically. In Nairobi on Friday, Kiir met with neighboring heads of state, as well as U.S. Envoy Donald Booth. Kiir made a major concession, agreeing to release nine out of some 12 high-level officials arrested for plotting the coup. Only a few hours earlier, his minister had said that all the men would likely be hanged.
The president also said he’d sit down with Machar for talks, though he didn’t say if Machar would — again — be invited back into the government for the sake of peace.