Riek Machar (middle left) at his swearing-in as Vice President of South Sudan with President Salva Kiir (middle right) in Juba on 22 February 2010. (Source: UNMISS/Flickr)

Fighting erupted in South Sudan on Saturday between rival factions of the SPLM-IO military wing. The SPLM-IO is one of the country’s two major political parties along with the SPLM. The clashes, in which dozens of soldiers have reportedly been killed, broke out after three generals attempted to oust Vice President Riek Machar as party leader last week. The violence poses a threat to South Sudan’s fragile peace process, which began in 2018 with the signing of a power-sharing agreement between the SPLM-IO and the ruling party, the SPLM, after five years of civil war.

A new parliament

The recent violence is disappointing after a week that appeared to represent a step forward for South Sudan’s peace process. On 2 August, 588 new members of parliament were sworn into office at a ceremony in the capital, Juba. The new parliament, announced in May by President Salva Kiir, included delegates from the ruling party and former rebel factions. 62 MPs were missing from the inauguration ceremony due to squabbles between the government and the opposition. The new parliament also came behind schedule after being delayed by President Kiir for over a year. Nonetheless, the fulfillment of what was a key condition of the 2018 power-sharing agreement marked a milestone in South Sudan’s tenuous journey towards peace and national unity.

An attempted ousting

Just two days after the new parliament was inaugurated, political chaos reemerged when rivals within the SPLM-IO announced they were ousting Vice President Machar as head of the party. Leaders of the party’s military wing, the SPLA-IO, said Machar had “completely failed” as a leader and had weakened the party’s position in the coalition government between it and the SPLM. Accusing Machar of nepotism and a “divide and rule” leadership style, they said there was “no option” other than to remove Machar as chairman of the party.

Behind the maneuver were three SPLA-IO generals based in Upper Nile state, in the country’s northeast. In place of Machar, they declared General Simon Gatwech interim leader of the party. Two days later, the SPLM-IO leadership in Juba fired Gatwech and the two other generals who led the move against Machar. A spokesman for the vice president said “the situation is in control” and that the generals were attempting to disrupt the government’s plan to merge the SPLA-IO and other groups into a unified national military. Machar has dismissed claims he has been ousted, and says he still controls the SPLA-IO forces in Upper Nile, where the mutiny occured.

Peace imperiled by political disunity

While Machar claims to be in full control, the reality is more complex. South Sudanese policy analyst James Okuk told Voice of America that the move against Machar was not a new development, but rather confirmed long-simmering divisions within the party. Gatwech’s faction has been on poor terms with Machar for nearly two years, Okuk said, and the Upper Nile wing of the SPLA-IO stopped reporting to party leadership in Juba after the signing of the peace agreement in 2018.

The deadly fighting that broke out over the weekend attests to the extent of the SPLM-IO’s disunity. More than just an intra-party dispute, the violence threatens South Sudan’s larger peace process. With an ongoing hunger crisis, a divided army, and economic recession, South Sudan already faces a continued steep path towards peace and stability. A larger split within the SPLM-IO, and the violence and instability that would likely accompany it, would put even more pressure on an already strained South Sudan — and could be the last straw for the country’s fragile peace agreement.

John Dashe
Communications Intern,
Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement