Blunders of SPLM-IO
Fighting against an established system is not theatrical. The general rule for an armed rebellion is not to appease people; it is to fight for a cause using necessary political and military means. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition’s (SPLM-IO) strategy of focusing too much on peace and ignoring arming its military wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), is not a plausible policy. If the SPLM-IO wants to win the hearts and minds of its supporters, then it must change its overall strategy, which has consisted of a series of blunders so far.
In October 2015, the SPLA-IO military intelligence personnel discovered that the current First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, who was then-chief peace negotiator for the armed opposition, colluded with the government. When the issue was brought to the attention of the SPLM/-IO leadership, they brushed it off as if that was not the case. It is worth mentioning that in late 2015, Taban was also discouraging SPLM/A-IO’s foreign friends not to assist the rebellion in any way, whether it be arms or financial.
The rebel leadership did not consider the intelligence reports about Taban’s activities, committing a mistake that the armed opposition must not ever repeat. There is no doubt in my mind that the SPLA-IO suffers because of the political decisions made by the rebel leadership.
In January 2016, Taban was recalled to the town of Pagak to consult with the leadership of the armed opposition. This occurred after Juba’s regime refused to allow the SPLA-IO to transport thousands of its soldiers as stipulated in the August 2015 power-sharing deal. But when he landed in Pagak, the SPLA-IO intelligence agents suggested that Taban must be removed from his position as the chief negotiator or else be arrested. However, the rebel leadership refused to act. It was a colossal mistake on the SPLM-IO’s part. What the armed opposition’s political leadership did not understand was that Taban was visibly furious because he had been appointed as mining minister, instead of petroleum minister, a position for which he once secretly campaigned.
During the consultative meeting in Pagak, Taban surprised the leadership of the armed opposition by declaring that SPLM/-IO has no power to reverse Juba’s demand to reduce the number of its troops even though the number of the armed opposition troops was stipulated in the agreement. After Taban deceived the rebel leadership, he flew back to Juba and resumed his duties as the chief peace negotiator for the rebels.
However, in April 2016, Taban resigned as the rebel chief negotiator, claiming that his new role as mining minister was enough and that he wanted to focus only on running his ministry. His claim was an elaborate lie. Taban was not resigning because he was committed to his new role as South Sudan’s mining minister: the resignation was merely the first calculated step to dissociate himself from the rebel leadership. What’s more, some SPLM-IO officials were quick to praise Taban as a role model because he was committed to his new assignment as the mining minister. The problem was that the armed opposition was methodically fooled by Taban, forcing some rebel officials to publicly defend him. The irony was that their defence of Taban in the media turned out to be a regrettable mistake.
In July 2016, Taban, President Kiir, and former chief of staff Paul Malong attempted to assassinate the armed opposition leader Dr Riek Machar in a meeting at Juba One (J1). Fortunately, SPLA-IO’s forces emerged victorious, killing almost all of Kiir’s soldiers who were deployed with the intent to kill Machar and then blame it on “rogue soldiers.”
Another strategic mistake the rebel leadership made in 2014-2016 was that it placed too much of a focus on peace without properly arming its soldiers. This is not to say that the SPLM-IO should not focus on peace. What I am saying is that it must find ways to supply its army wing with weapons while working for peace at the same time. One of the main reasons why Kiir is refusing peace is that he knows his soldiers are well-equipped. If the armed opposition were to be equipped with modern weapons and sophisticated missiles capable of destroying tanks, shooting down helicopters or jets, I guarantee you, peace would return to South Sudan in the blink of an eye.
When Machar and other top rebel leaders fled for their lives, most South Sudanese immediately concluded that Taban was behind the fighting and that his true intention was to kill Dr Machar and take over the leadership of the SPLM/A-IO. Prior to the assassination attempt on Machar’s life, Taban knew he was not popular in rebel-controlled areas, and he also knew that his collusion with Juba’s regime to hijack the 2015 peace pact was discovered. But he was lucky because of SPLM-IO’s inaction.
These notable mistakes must not be repeated by the SPLM/-IO’s leadership. The armed opposition must engage in the peace revitalization talks, knowing that one of its own could become another Taban. The rebel leadership must also negotiate reasonably and consider people’s demands, avoiding a repeat of Taban’s greedy strategy.
One of the SPLM-IO’s critical political mistakes was that it failed to act or use powers granted to it under the armed opposition constitution. The top leadership could have removed Taban when he was working against interests of the SPLM/A-IO while serving as its chief peace negotiator at the same time. The rebel leadership could also have used its legal powers to punish Taban or anyone the intelligence operatives deemed as a threat to the movement — and the best thing it could have done was to dismiss him from the SPLM/A-IO and allowed the intelligence personnel to arrest him. If the leadership of the armed opposition had acted in this way, all those who joined the rebellion or anyone who lied his or her way to the movement’s top leadership could have left voluntarily. The action could also have discouraged anyone who wished to join the rebellion with the intent of spying on the SPLM/A-IO. We witnessed this sad reality when Taban conspired with Kiir and Paul, among others, to kill Machar in July 2016. We know who joined him after Machar fled Juba and this is what the rebel intelligence agents tried to tell the rebel leadership. Being slow to act is not always the best strategy — it is a plan that must be scrapped if the SPLM/A-IO wants to succeed.
Taban is known as someone who would slit the throat of anyone who refuses him a position he wants. Taban is also known in South Sudan as someone who is only interested in lucrative positions. If Machar had appointed him as the petroleum minister, the July 2016 fighting would not have happened, and the 2015 peace would have been implemented. Taban is a world-class greedy politician and co-hijacker of the 2015 peace accord. Those who know Taban from his childhood would tell you the man is a very dangerous politician. This does not surprise me since he once plotted to kill Machar in Unity State during 2010 gubernatorial elections when it was clear that he forced the electoral committee in Bentiu to declare him as the winner and threatened the head of the committee unless he inflated the number of people who voted for him. Taban used all these dictatorial tactics when it was clear to him that Dr Machar’s wife and his chief rival, Angelina Teny, was the clear winner.
The notion that the armed opposition should strike a deal with Salva Kiir’s regime while Taban is a Kiir’s ally is rather perverse. Taban knows he has no future in the SPLM/A-IO’s areas because he betrayed the movement in 2016. Taban knows it, and that is why he pledges his full allegiance to Kiir’s destructive regime. It would be a mistake if the rebel leadership thought that Taban no longer posed a threat to its existence. So, remember that Taban’s 2015-2016 evil plan is still very much alive.
An armed struggle is not a joke and the leadership of the rebel movement must not continue to make the same blunders while the regime in Juba continues looking for the best way to destroy the rebellion. What the SPLM-IO decision-making body should do is to reorganize its rank and file and strengthen its political and military rules to make sure that a July 2016 J1 scenario does not happen again. The rebel leadership must also know that focusing too much on diplomacy without a strong army is useless. It is no longer feasible in this modern world for any rebel leader to succeed on a diplomatic front alone. For Kiir to accept peace, the SPLA-IO must be heavily armed, and the armed opposition must develop strategies that can identify traitors and those who joined the SPLM/A-IO with the intent of destroying it. The SPLA-IO intelligence operatives must exercise their utmost powers to confront anyone who undermines the movement’s vision for the country. Taban’s collusion with Kiir must be the last.
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