Renegade Generals Threaten Unity of South Sudan’s SPLA as Independence Referendum Approaches

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 20

As the January 2011 referendum on independence for oil-rich South Sudan approaches, ongoing mutinies and indiscipline within the South’s military may create conditions of insecurity that threaten to delay the long-awaited plebiscite. Khartoum has little interest in seeing its main source of revenue separate and the central government’s hand is seen by many in the South as being behind the mutiny of General George Athor Deng in the road-less but resource-rich Jonglei Province.

The border region between North and South Sudan is extremely tense; recent Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) troop movements in Blue Nile Province and South Darfur provoked a letter of complaint to President Omar Bashir from the leader of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS), Salva Kiir Mayardit (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 3; AFP, May 1). Both the SAF and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) have been steadily rearming with oil revenues since the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) (see Terrorism Focus, October 30, 2008).

General Athor’s Mutiny

In 2009, SPLA commander George Athor Deng (a Dinka tribesman) was promoted to Lieutenant General and placed in charge of SPLA political and moral orientation.  Athor failed to receive the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM – the political wing of the SPLA) nomination for governor of Jonglei state in April’s elections, which went instead to Lieutenant General Kuol Manyang. Like a number of would-be SPLM candidates who failed to get the nod from the party as its representative, Athor ran as an independent, finishing well behind Kuol Manyang. Unhappy with the results, Athor appears to have orchestrated a deadly attack on the Doleib Hills SPLA base (near Malakal) on April 30. The Doleib Hills area is contested between the Dinka Luac and the Shilluk of Upper Nile State. The night attack left twelve SPLA soldiers dead. Five prisoners from the attacking force claimed the order to attack had come from General Athor (Sudan Tribune, May 1). Athor appears to have been testing the waters at first, refusing to accept responsibility but admitting that the attackers “fought in my name.”  Athor suggested most of the casualties were the result of an ethnically-divided SPLA force shooting at each other (Sudan Tribune, May 2). It was later confirmed that anti-aircraft weapons, three anti-tank guns and a number of machine-guns were taken from the garrison’s arsenal (Sudan Radio Service, May 3).

Further clashes between Athor’s men and SPLA forces occurred on May 7 (Athor claimed 50 SPLA were killed to three of his men) and May 10 (Athor claimed 36 SPLA dead to the loss of seven dead and three wounded on his side) in a skirmish 188 miles north of the Jonglei capital of Bor (Reuters, May 7; May 11). Athor’s followers clashed with SPLA forces for the third time in a week on May 12. While Athor continued his improbable claims by saying his men killed 83 SPLA soldiers, an SPLA spokesman described the action as a skirmish that erupted when an 11 man SPLA reconnaissance team stumbled on Athor’s hideout in the thick forests of northwestern Jonglei, with two killed from their side and none from Athor’s group (Reuters, May 12). On the same day, General Athor announced that other armed groups were preparing to converge with his forces to attack the Jonglei capital of Bor (Sudan Tribune, May 12). Athor also boasted that he had sufficient forces to take the town of Malakal, capital of Wilayah (Unity) State (Reuters, May 3). On May 14, the mutineers mounted an unsuccessful ambush of a SPLA truck in northern Jonglei that left five attackers dead.

General Athor has since issued a number of demands, including the resignation of Kuol Manyang, cancellation of all election results, dissolution of the GoSS and an amnesty for his followers (Miraya FM [Juba], May 13). After the fourth attack, SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum said their intelligence section had “credible information” that the NCP was behind General Athor’s revolt, though Athor had already denied any connection to the ruling party in Khartoum (Sudan Tribune, May 17; al-Hayat, May 14). Though Athor has threatened to invade the provincial capitals of Bor and Malakal, SPLA authorities insist Athor is still south of al-Subat with a force of less than 100 men and only three vehicles, including Athor’s personal car (al-Hayat, May 14). However, SPLA spokesman Kuol Diem Kuol said there were signs some police and a number of South Sudan’s armed wildlife rangers (mostly former SPLA fighters) had joined Athor’s mutineers (Reuters, May 14).
Salva Kiir, whose authority is being challenged soon after a dominant election victory, appears to be losing patience with his renegade general, making a negotiated settlement increasingly unlikely (Sudan Tribune, May 17). In the meantime, the continuing insecurity in Jonglei has resulted in a lack of cultivation, threatening famine in the area (Miraya FM [Juba], May 14; Sudan Tribune, May 4).

General Dau Aturjong Nyuol, who had similarly and unsuccessfully contested the election for governor of Northern Bahr al-Ghazal state, was briefly the subject of reports tying him to General Athor’s revolt through an unnamed Brigadier working under his command (Sudan Tribune, May 5). The Brigadier later turned out to be John Jok Gai, who had passed close to Doleib Hills on his way to Malakal without an awareness of the events transpiring there. A political rival alleged that John Jok, an SPLA member since 1983, was on his way to defect to General Athor, a charge denied vigorously by the Brigadier (Sudan Tribune, May 3; May 4; May 5; May 9).  

“New Sudan” vs. “South Sudan”

Despite growing support for the independence option, there are still a few flickers of life left in the “New Sudan” unity program that was official SPLM policy under the movement’s late leader, Dr. John Garang. On May 8, SPLM Secretary for North Sudan Yasir Sa’id Arman called on Northern opposition parties belonging to the anti-NCP Juba Alliance (including Sadiq al-Mahdi’s Umma Party, Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party, the Sudanese Communist Party and the Khatmiyya Sufi dominated Democratic Unionist Party) to join with the SPLM in creating “the New Sudan.” Garang’s vision of a federal system that would reform Sudan’s highly centralized power structure that maintains power in the hands of three small Arab tribes in North Sudan largely expired when he died in a controversial helicopter crash near the Ugandan border in 2005. Garang was willing to use force if necessary to keep his concept of a unified Sudan alive, but Salva Kiir, like most SPLM/A leaders, is believed to prefer the secession option.

American Interests in Jonglei and the South

While France’s Total holds the largest concessions in Jonglei, Malaysian, Moldovan and British companies have also been carrying out oil exploration operations in Jonglei. The American Marathon Oil Corporation was forced to withdraw from the region after the imposition of U.S. sanctions on the Sudan. Jonglei Governor Kuol Manyang Juuk visited oil company executives in Houston last July, where he urged investors to set up refineries in Jonglei (Houston Chronicle, July 25, 2009). With an exception now being made to the sanctions for South Sudan, American energy interests can now return to the southern provinces. The United States is providing assistance in preparing the referendum, though U.S. envoy to Sudan Scott Gration recently told a Senate committee that “we can’t waste another minute” in preparing for the vote (AFP, May 13).

A Sudanese daily recently reported that the SPLM had prepared a document for presentation to a visiting American diplomat in which the SPLM/A offered to provide regional security and counterterrorism forces in cooperation with AFRICOM in return for logistical support, military training and funds for weapons purchases. The newspaper said the document was prepared by a committee of senior SPLA officers headed by the Minister of SPLA Affairs, Lt. General Nhial Deng Nhial (Dinka). The plan was endorsed at a meeting headed by General Salva Kiir in the presence of Deng Alor (Dinka), the second vice-president of South Sudan, and Yasir Sa’id Arman (Ja’aliyin Arab), the leader of the SPLM’s northern branch.

New Trouble on the Horizon?

Pan-Arab daily al-Hayat reported that an alliance was being formed in Khartoum between militia leader Gabriel Tanginya (or Tang), former Foreign Minister Lam Akol and General George Athor with the intention of challenging the authority of Salva Kiir Mayardit and derailing the 2011 independence referendum (al-Hayat, May 14). Dr. Lam Akol is the leader of SPLM for Democratic Change (SPLM – DC), an SPLM breakaway party created in June 2009. Lam Akol challenged for president of South Sudan in April’s elections as head of a broad coalition of opposition parties, but gathered only 7% of the vote compared to Salva Kiir’s 93%. The failed candidate maintains the voting was rigged and has the support of veteran Southern politicians such as Bona Malwal and General Joseph Lagu (Sudan Tribune, April 27). Major General Gabriel Tanginya (a.k.a. Gabriel Gatwech Chan) led a pro-government militia in the 1983-2005 North-South Civil War. After clashes with the SPLA in 2006, Tanginya withdrew his forces to Khartoum, where he and his forces were integrated into the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). A surprise return to the southern city of Malakal in February, 2009 resulted in further clashes with the SPLA before Tanginya withdrew once more (see Terrorism Monitor, March 13, 2009). The existence of this alliance cannot yet be confirmed, but it is almost certain that General Athor’s mutiny will not be the last violent confrontation with the SPLM/A.

SPLA spokesman Major General Kuol Dim Kuol claims great progress has been made in the professionalization of the SPLA.      “The SPLA has formed a nucleus air force and navy. Our pilots and engineers have been trained and local support and administrative units will follow suit" (, May 18). Nevertheless, the transformation of the SPLA from a guerrilla force to a regular army has been beset by problems related to the integration or demobilization of rival Southern guerrilla forces, incidents of indiscipline, delays in salaries and desertions. In April, three soldiers unwilling to transfer to Jonglei province were killed by SPLA military police after they looted and stole a supply truck in Bahr al-Ghazal. A month earlier, a large force of SPLA troops left for Wau rather than report to a training center near Bor (Sudan Tribune, April 19).  Despite these problems, the SPLA continues to make progress in developing a trained and unified fighting force, though there seems little chance the transformation will be completed before next January’s independence referendum.


Though not all elements in the trend can be confirmed, it appears that the SPLM is considering adopting a role as a U.S. client state in Africa in exchange for U.S. military aid or protection in the event of a renewed civil war with the North following the independence referendum. The GoSS is nearly completely reliant on oil revenues, but Khartoum will be reluctant to allow the immense petroleum reserves of southern states like Jonglei to slip from its hands. Khartoum currently collects 50% of Southern oil revenues. There are many political and tribal elements in South Sudan that have little interest in reconciliation with the Dinka-dominated SPLM/A. In the past these have been assisted by the central government’s intelligence agencies in the interest of disrupting the SPLM/A. Military mutinies are particularly unsettling in South Sudan, where they have a long history of marking the beginning of major conflicts.