South Sudan opposition fractured by infighting

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Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers ride on a boat on the Nile river on their way to Aleleo, Fashoda State, on October 16, 2016, after the SPLA accused the opposition forces of attacking their defensive positions in the area.

JOHANNESBURG – As the protracted conflict in South Sudan between the followers of President Salva Kiir, and the armed supporters of former Vice President and opposition leader, Dr Riek Machar, grinds on, new intra-fighting between factions of the opposition is adding another complication to any possibility of peace.

Gunmen from Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) have withdrawn from Nhialdiu, a key town in oil-rich Unity state, which borders Sudan, after briefly capturing it.

The Sudan Tribune has reported that the withdrawal from Nhialdiu, and its subsequent recapture by government troops, cast doubt on the possibility of resuming oil production in the area due to the ongoing conflict and the town being in a war zone.

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What was most significant, however, about the withdrawal of the opposition forces was that it followed two days of infighting between SPLA-IO supporters who back Machar and those who back his successor, Taban Deng Gai, who was appointed by Kiir.

On the instruction of Kiir, Gai wants oil production to resume as soon as possible but his opponents say this is not possible with the ongoing conflict.

“The withdrawal of rebels could signal a new phase in the intra-rebel fighting that pitted more moderate factions against conservatives across the Upper Nile region in past months, undermining the wider battle against forces loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir,” the Tribune reported.

Following Machar fleeing the country, after bloody clashes broke out between government forces and his supporters in July, Kiir controversially replaced Machar with Gai – a move seen as a deliberate tactic to employ the divide and conquer strategy in a bid to weaken the opposition by creating a schism within the movement.

“All the fronts in Upper Nile region are falling apart due to this in-fighting, and the regime is taking advantage of it. This is what Kiir and his lieutenants are trying to accomplish,” said a senior member of Machar’s SPLA-IO.

Gai, a former mining minister, is considered more moderate than Machar, and in the eyes of Gai’s critics more pliable in regards to acceding to Kiir’s wishes.

His appointment led to charges that South Sudan’s August 2015 peace agreement was now dead in the water as Gai’s appointment is seen as illegal according to Machar and his supporters, and the international community.

Furthermore, following Gai’s appointment, a senior member of the armed opposition told the Tribune that the newly appointed first vice president used money to lure some commanders into joining his faction.

The unnamed official further emphatically denied reports that the opposition forces had kidnapped humanitarian workers in Nhialdiu, claiming they had voluntarily escaped to the rebel controlled areas for security and protection.

The armed opposition official was reacting to reports in which the state government claimed rebels kidnapped up to 20 humanitarian workers after managing to briefly overrun Nhialdiu.

Northern Liech State Information Minister, Lan Tungwar, however, claimed that Machar’s supporters had abducted the aid workers after their brief capture of Nahaildiu.

Tungwar added that when government soldiers forced Machar’s followers out of Nhaildu in the subsequent recapture of the town, the opposition fighters had then taken the aid workers with them.

Furthermore, the state government strongly condemned the incident, saying measures would be taken to ensure the abducted workers were safely brought back.