The Conflict in Upper Nile

"A new report from the Small Arms Survey’s Human Security Baseline for Sudan and South Sudan describes, for the first time, details of ongoing efforts by the Padang Dinka elite in Upper Nile to forcibly displace the Shilluk from the east bank of the Nile—with support from the Government of South Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The campaign has included the killing of civilians, the razing of villages, and forced displacement as tools of war. The SPLA has collaborated by cutting off food and humanitarian access to the communities under attack. Furthermore, evidence reveals that the attack on the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) protection of civilians (PoC) site at Malakal on 16–18 February was a carefully planned assault by the SPLA and Padang Dinka militia forces backed by the state government. UNMISS is unable and unwilling to protect the Shilluk civilians at the PoC site and elsewhere in Upper Nile.

The report, based on previous fieldwork and investigations, interviews with key informants, and a review of public and confidential documents, also finds that the implementation of the partition of Upper Nile into three new states, as directed by South Sudanese president Salva Kiir, is a tool in this campaign, and is a ‘fundamental obstacle to peace’. 

‘A War Waged on Civilians’, released today, describes how, since March 2015, the Padang Dinka military and political elites of Upper Nile have carried out a sustained and systematic campaign to push the Shilluk off the east bank of the White Nile. The campaign has targeted Johnson Olonyi’s Agwelek forces, using Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters to strafe his troops’ bases on the west bank of the Nile. These operations have been aimed at consolidating control of the east bank of the Nile, including areas contested by the Shilluk: Akoka, Nagdiar, Pigi, and Malakal, the state capital. 

According to the report, the Padang Dinka elite has used militia forces in a campaign that is fundamentally a war waged on Shilluk civilians. Padang Dinka militias have burned Shilluk habitations, raped Shilluk women, and forced the Shilluk to flee to the west bank of the Nile. The SPLA has assisted in this campaign by systematically denying humanitarian actors access to Shilluk populations, limiting the Shilluk’s access to food, and using attack helicopters to strike at civilians. 

The militia forces engaged in these attacks are from Akoka, Baliet, Melut, and Renk counties. They were formed in 2014 and operate outside of the SPLA’s military command structure, although they often work with them. They receive their arms and ammunition, including Israeli Galil ACE assault rifles, from the Internal Security Bureau of the National Security Service. Funding for the militias is provided by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, in which China has a 40 per cent stake, and administered by Stephen Dhieu Dhau, the Padang Dinka minister of petroleum.

The current campaign is the latest in a series of historical actions by state-supported actors against the Shilluk communities of Upper Nile. Since 2005, and the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the Shilluk have been steadily marginalized in the state. Meanwhile, the Padang Dinka—previously one of the less influential Dinka lobbies—have risen to prominence, under the general leadership of Dhau. Shilluk marginalization has been evidenced by the creation of new counties during this period, including Akoka and Pigi counties, which places territories contested by the Shilluk under exclusive Padang Dinka control. 

In the context of Upper Nile, Kiir’s decree of 2 October 2015, which split the state into three new states, should be seen in light of this longer-term trend. The decree turns the east bank of the Nile into a Padang Dinka-majority county called Eastern Nile state. This new entity includes Malakal, leaving the Shilluk with a non-contiguous Western Nile state that is intended to legally formalize the occupations that the Padang Dinka have already achieved militarily. 

Although the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has made claims to the contrary, the new states continue to be implemented. Chol Thon Balok, the governor of Eastern Nile, has appointed a cabinet and commissioners for the counties. His appointments for county commissioners include militia leaders. He has also terminated the contracts of Shilluk civil servants. This latter measure builds on a campaign of harassment against Shilluk civilians that continued throughout 2015, when Shilluk members of the Upper Nile administration were denied their pay.

Kiir’s new map of Upper Nile is a fundamental obstacle to peace. It is the culmination of the Padang Dinka campaign to control the east bank of the Nile. It will never be accepted by the Shilluk. The result is likely to be an interminable war, with the Shilluk resisting from the west bank of the Nile. Meanwhile, the SPLA and the Padang Dinka militias are likely to continue attacking from the east bank, both on the ground and through air assaults, so as to erode the capacity of the Shilluk to support themselves—while simultaneously heralding a humanitarian catastrophe.

As of mid-February 2016, the only significant Shilluk presence on the east bank of the Nile was in the UNMISS PoC site. This population represented a problem for the Padang Dinka campaign. The SPLA and Padang Dinka militia attack on the PoC site on 16–18 February was part of its overall attempt to remove the Shilluk entirely from the east bank of the Nile, through forcible population displacement. Despite UNMISS claims about ‘youths clashing’, the attack was a carefully planned assault by the SPLA and the militias. UNMISS is unable to protect the Shilluk civilians at the PoC site. Its peacekeepers are unwilling to use force to protect civilians, despite a mandate that enables them to do so. In March 2016, further attempts by armed Padang Dinka to enter the PoC site indicated that the possibility of a further assault on the site is very real.

While the Shilluk have been displaced from Upper Nile, the South Sudanese government has been relocating Padang Dinka from Equatoria to Upper Nile, to settle in areas in Baliet and around Malakal from which the Shilluk have fled. This indicates the degree to which the Padang Dinka war on the Shilluk has national backing. It is also a strategy familiar to the Government of Sudan: occupy an area militarily, displace the population, and then try to sanction one’s land-grab by moving civilians into the area. It is a massive campaign of forcible population displacement—waged militarily, politically, and demographically. 


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