Acrimonious Acronym: South Sudan's SPLA Used to Mean Hope Against Sharia Law. Now Rebels Twist It

Soldiers in South Sudan with the SPLA

In 1983 there was a mutiny in the Sudanese Army. The leader of the group was the now-famous John Garang de Mabior. Garang and the mutineers founded the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, also known by its acronym, the SPLA.

The SPLA was comprised of Christians, Muslims, and indigenous Nilotic people, rebelling against the Khartoum regime. They disagreed with the imposition of Sharia Law and forced Arabization. They fought on the side of the southern Sudanese and the marginalized groups throughout Sudan. Supported by the international community, the SPLA fought a war for 30 years. It was a war that brought forth the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. The acronym “SPLA” has become associated with fighting for freedom, justice, and peace.

But the movement has not been without its share of troubles. In August 1991, just as the tide of war was turning in favor of the rebels, internal tensions resulted in the split of the SPLA. Two factions, the SPLA, under Garang, and the SPLA-Nasir, under Garang’s former associate, Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, emerged from the infighting. Khartoum, the SPLA's casus belli, supported the SPLA-Nasir. The rivalry resulted in the death of tens of thousands, Southerner-on-Southerner violence.

The warring factions reached a mediated peace accord in 1994, but the split established a naming convention that continues today. Rebel splinter groups are going by the name SPLA-Something. A simple issue of naming has a genuine impact in modern-day South Sudan.

The South Sudanese have a rich history and deep roots in their new country. Regardless of their heritage or ancestry, most are proud of their independence. The SPLA won them freedom from an oppressive regime and it gave them their own nation. Yet, much like the split between Shia and Sunni in Islam, they disagree with the path forward. Violent rebel groups, born from disagreement, are fighting the government on many fronts. The problem is that they all want to be the SPLA. They all want to claim its history, and all want to determine its future.

In December 2013, then-Vice President Riek Machar led an attempted coup d'état. Following its failure, he fled Juba and formed the SPLA-IO, IO meaning "In Opposition." The SPLA-IO joined with the young, hapless boys of Machar’s "White Army" militia in committing atrocities across South Sudan.

As in 1994, after much death and destruction, the SPLA and the SPLA-IO reached a peace agreement in August 2015. The warring parties alone did not forge the doomed peace agreement — the African Union, United Nations, United States, United Kingdom, and Norway influenced the deal. Many South Sudanese believe the outside parties forced them into compliance. The agreement would fail, and many South Sudanese knew it. The United States, in particular, should see the problem with such power-sharing agreements. To quote Abraham Lincoln – and Jesus – "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Riek Machar and the SPLA-IO returned to Juba in 2016 under the mediated settlement. The SPLA and the SPLA-IO were to share power in Juba. History repeats itself, and again, Riek Machar attempted a coup d'état in July of 2016. The walls of the Presidential Palace in Juba still bear the bullet holes and RPG scars. It’s a painful reminder President Salva Kiir Mayardit has refused to plaster over. Machar and his SPLA-IO again fled into the vast South Sudanese wilderness. Wounded in his flight and refusing to return to Juba, Machar went into exile.

Walls with bullet and RPG scars The walls of the Presidential Palace in Juba, South Sudan, which still bear the bullet holes and RPG scars of the ambush by the rebel SPLA-IO. Photo credit J.M. in Juba.

Per the power-sharing agreement, the First Vice President had to come from the SPLA-IO. Taban Deng Gai of the SPLA-IO assumed the position on 23 July 2016. Taban's ascension further fractioned the opposition forces. He emerged from among them, but not all agreed with his tactics. Taban Deng Gai tried to make peace with the government. He, unlike his predecessor, saw political and non-violent solutions to the country’s problem. With this decision, the SPLA-IO fractured again.

Some IO forces remained loyal to Riek Machar, while others chose to follow Taban Deng Gai. Today, there exist no less than three "SPLA" groups; the SPLA (referred to by the media and others as the SPLA-IG, “In Government,” as way to neutralize their right to sole possession of the acronym), the SPLA-IO (RM), and the SPLA-IO (TD).

The UN reports on these groups without providing context or background. Field reports don't require background. But because of the lack of context, when these reports are quoted and presented to Congress, for example, there is a lack of understanding that these are separate parties warring against each other.

The SPLA-IO (RM) and SPLA-IO (TD) are rebel forces. They ambush civilians on the roads and highways of South Sudan. They battle with the government. They are responsible for the majority of violations of the 2017 Ceasefire Agreement. But to an outside observer they would appear to be battalions of the same army against which they fight, one unified group opposed to peace in South Sudan. They appear to be one unified group at war with the peaceful civilians of the nation. It is almost impossible for the casual observer to differentiate between these groups. Thus, it is more comfortable to observe all SPLA-named parties in the same light of brutality.

These difficulties in differentiation are by design. The actual scope of the complexities may be an unexpected victory for the likes of Riek Machar. He and his allies desire to keep for themselves the shared history of victory over Sudan. The blame for all rebel atrocities now unjustly falls on the shoulders of the government.

There are differences between the SPLA, SPLA-IO (RM), and SPLA-IO (TD), with painful and complicated explanations. They are too complicated to explain in today's media environment in which most news fits within the 280 characters permitted by Twitter. The modern consumer of news media has little patience for in-depth analysis of a faraway war.

Thus, violent rebel groups hide behind the smokescreen of the SPLA acronym. They commit mass atrocities. They kill civilians. They attack the legitimate government in Juba and the casual observer will never be able to differentiate between the groups. They all wear camouflage uniforms, all carry the same weapons, and all bear the same name. They appear to be the same force united in a campaign of terror against vulnerable men, women, and children.

The Government in South Sudan is not evil, but it is not perfect. Far from it. Plagued with myriad problems, internal and external, they appear overcome by events. Internal politics plague the circles of power, like a dysfunctional medieval court. Intrigue and rumor are the currency of the day. Forced alliances and murky allegiances introduce uncertainty; and uncertainty leads to conflict. That conflict directly impacts the people of South Sudan. They are still recovering from the events in July 2016.

Mediators are busy trying to bring the groups together. They are trying to "reunite" an SPLA that never was. These are very different groups with divergent views of the future of the country. It is marriage counseling for a couple that was never married. They will never be able to live under the same roof.

There is still talk of bringing Riek Machar's SPLA-IO (RM) forces back to Juba. His negotiators are busy in Addis Ababa and around the world. They are striving to influence his third ascent to power in South Sudan.

Machar claims no responsibility for the atrocities of his SPLA group. The warring parties, "in opposition" to the government appear to operate with impunity. The confusing names have confused the watchers. The devil has not convinced the world he doesn’t exist. He has convinced the world that he and G-d are one and the same.

There is a small book that I keep with me whereever I travel. I found it when I was a teenager, and make a habit of reading it every once in a while. It's The Alchemist by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho. I will leave you with a quote from that book, a warning for South Sudan’s future:

Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time. - Paulo Coelho