South Sudan’s Show of Strength

South Sudan Army
The South inflicted a swift defeat on Sudan in Heglig

When President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir told the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), ‘Either we end up in Juba and take everything or you end up in Khartoum and take everything,’ he was acknowledging that the stakes could hardly be higher.

What he didn’t say, in his 19 April speech at the National Congress Party headquarters, was that the Southern armed forces have proved a match for those of the ruling NCP. The 10 April takeover of Heglig by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – and withdrawal under international pressure – were a significant show of power.

On paper, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) are far more powerful than the SPLA – in materiel, training and, most obviously, airpower. Yet several Western military sources told us they thought the military balance fairly even on the ground. Tactically, the SPLA should have stayed in Heglig, said one. Militarily, it certainly could have done. NCP protestations seemed aimed at disguising the extent of the SAF defeat. The SPLA Spokesperson, Colonel Philip Aguer Panyang, said the SPLA had killed some 500 SAF men, in the town Southerners call Pan Thou. Other sources say around 3,500 troops died, of about 6,000.

Enter the Sudan Revolutionary Front, which, we understand, first drove the SAF out of Heglig the week before the SPLA took it. These were mainly Darfur fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement, with some from the Liberation and Justice Movement who had refused to join Khartoum in 2010 with LJM head El Tigani Seisi Mohamed Ateem. The SRF pursued the SAF to Khorasana, where fighting has continued.

A key reason why both SPLA-N and SPLA have been able to defeat the SAF so readily is morale. The SAF never ‘won’ the war in the South and are even less likely to defeat the SPLA now it is better equipped and fired with the Independence spirit. The SRF, meanwhile, is fighting for its people, the marginalised of the ‘New South’, and a secular state, and against a regime it believes it can overthrow. It knows it has the support of many oppositionists and potentially, of millions, as it builds its own structures and its relations with Sudan’s wide range of established parties.

Low morale and desertions

Sudan POW
South Sudan Displays POW's from the north

SRF confronts a once proud army of which the officer corps was systematically purged after the National Islamic Front coup of June 1989. Hundreds of officers were killed, gaoled, tortured or dismissed, the most famous case being that of the 28 officers shot on Ramadan (April) 1990. Ideological qualifications matter more than military ones and the SAF declined, leaving the field to the even more ‘Islamised’ security forces and the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), many of which fought at Heglig. Meanwhile, the army has lost its old recruiting grounds in the South, Nuba Mountains and Darfur. It now fights those who would once have fought in its ranks. Morale is so low that prisons are packed with deserters, we hear.

One result is that the SPLA is better placed to defend the 1,800-kilometre, still undelimited border (much of which, including by Heglig, the late President Ja’afar Mohamed Nimeiri’s regime moved southwards). Expecting, correctly, the NCP to pursue its destabilisation policy, the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) has been rearming since 2005 and much hardware is deployed near the border. ‘They’re good at moving stuff around the country undetected’, observed one Western former official, ‘and they’re ready to fight across the entire border’.

This leaves the SAF sandwiched between the SRF and SPLA. Its response is long-range and aerial bombardment, at Heglig and into the South. Satellite photographs show craters that only SAF can have produced but they don’t prove who completely destroyed the adjoining collection manifold on which nearly half of Sudan’s oil supply depended. A source close to the GOSS says it sent in engineers to shut down the plant safely and that if it had wanted to destroy the facility, it could easily have done so in ten days’ occupation. Khartoum still demands compensation. SRF strategy is to target oil installations.

Khartoum has continued the sporadic aerial bombardment of the South it launched weeks ago, targeting the tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in camps there. That is why the GOSS, and Southerners in general, were outraged that the United Nations and friendly governments condemned the SPLA’s entry into Heglig when they had been silent over the bombing, the earlier attacks on Abyei and other NCP abuses, North and South.

Having gained a sliver of international acknowledgement, though, Khartoum promptly accused Juba of implementing ‘Zionist’ and ‘crusader’ programmes and on 23 April, bombed Bentiu and Rub Kona, once Chevron’s oil headquarters. The SPLA had blocked Heglig-bound journalists in Bentiu, so several filmed and reported on air raids which the SAF denied making. The UN, which confirmed the raids, warned aid staff to store supplies, be ready to ‘self-relocate’, take shelter and ‘kindly note that shrapnel can not only travel downwards from the sky, but can also travel horizontally from the side’.

Omer’s slavery threat

al Bashir
Al-Bashir is wanted by the ICC for war crimes

Omer threatened to attack Juba, too, and in terms that would only stiffen South Sudanese resolve. Addressing PDF mujahideen in El Obeid, he shouted, ‘Despite our attempts to make them aware so that they understand and know where their interests are, they do not understand. God has created them like that. That is why the best thing to do with them is to pick a stick and make them behave well’.

This refers to a well known poem by Abu el Tayeb el Mutanabi: ‘You shall not buy a slave without a stick with him’ (to beat him with). The ‘rope of unity’ came in another reference to the master-slave relationship: ‘We will throw this rope around their necks once again, God willing’. Khartoum also responded by arresting SRF activists, including Deputy Secretary General Ezdihar Juma (house arrest) and the SRF representative on the National Consensus Forces, Alawiya Kibeida. Yet the protest contagion has spread: youth movements Girifna and Shebaab min agle el Taghir (Youth for Change) have joined the SRF, with Girifna rallying Muslim support for Christians when a Presbyterian church was burnt down in Khartoum this week. Even the cautious Umma Party leader, El Sadig Sideeg el Mahdi, ventured early this month that change was ‘inevitable’.

This, the bombing and seizures of churches across the country may help to cure what one Western former official called the ‘international community’s endemic wilful blindness’. So may the pressure of some African governments. Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda have held a series of urgent meetings and Kampala’s Chief of Defence Forces, General Aronda Nyakairima, warned on 19 April, ‘We cannot sit and watch. As a member of this region, Uganda will intervene’.

After Khartoum rejected more talks, Juba is trying to regain the international high ground. Senior officials went to Ethiopia on 24 April to tell the African Union, we hear, that the GOSS was willing to talk to the NCP but with a broader mediation team than that led by South African ex-President Thabo Mbeki. This means the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development and possibly more, on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement model. Juba is also taking this message to Europe, New York and Washington.