When rebel leader Riek Machar fled the South Sudanese capital Juba last year, General Saki James Palaoko helped him escape government air strikes, evade the national army and slip into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Palaoko played only a small part in the world’s youngest nation’s civil war until then but helped keep Machar’s rebellion alive when it was near defeat.
Frustrated by what he sees as Machar’s poor leadership, Palaoko switched allegiance again this month and joined the National Salvation Front, a nascent rebel faction led by the army’s former deputy chief of staff, Thomas Cirillo Swaka.
“Machar and his guards unfortunately seem to have forgotten the sacrifices of my forces who rescued his life in July 2016,” Palaoko told Reuters by telephone from the bush.
“Leadership is very, very poor … Soldier, they need food. Soldier, they need medicine. Those things are not there,” he said in broken English.
Palaoko is not a leading figure in the nearly four-year-old civil war that has broadly pitted the country’s two dominant ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer, against each other.
But his defection shows the speed with which alliances are shifting in the civil war and how rapidly it is fragmenting, with battles now fought on many fronts, often over local issues such as cattle rustling and access to grazing.
Swaka himself switched sides in February, when he quit the army with a pledge to overthrow the government, citing abuses by security forces against civilians and what he called increasing ethnic favouritism in the military.
He was the most senior officer to resign since Machar fled Juba last July, after he returned to the capital to resume duties as vice-president as part of a peace agreement that did not take hold.
Machar’s dismissal as vice-president and his rivalry with President Salva Kiir triggered the civil war in 2013 two years after South Sudan became independent.
Fighting has killed tens of thousands and uprooted about four million, a third of the population, stirring old rivalries between Dinka, Nuer and other ethnic groups and highlighting the fragility of the young country.
“The Kiir and Machar conflict always papered over a major crisis,” said Alan Boswell, a researcher on South Sudan.
“South Sudan was never centralised. It is a collection of diverse communities. In the war, groups have peeled off one by one, leaving little more than a Dinka ethnic core fighting to hold on to it all.”
“Divide and Conquer”
The South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) identified more than 40 different militia involved. Their number has swollen as splits inside various fighting groups caused them to splinter.
The fragmentation of opposition forces has played into the hands of government and is at the heart of its counter-insurgency strategy.
Kiir, president since independence, appeared intent on splitting Machar’s movement, and the Nuer in general, when he named Taban Deng Gai, the former chief rebel negotiator, as vice-president after Machar fled Juba in 2016.
The tactic of divide and conquer has been replicated across the country with a series of peace deals with local groups which government described as rebels though Machar’s forces denies these militia were ever allies.
A government policy of recruiting individuals from rebel militia has increased fragmentation, particularly among smaller ethnic groups.
In the latest hot spot, Eastern Equatoria state, at least five sub-clans of the Acholi tribe have joined government forces while Machar’s rebels are recruiting from other sub-clans, said rebel commander Okeny George M Lam.
“The number of militia groups has gone high,” he told Reuters from Eastern Equatoria. “They know the geography of the area, they are becoming threats, but we are taking them on.”
Peace efforts have also been fractured.
The United States and other Western powers that played midwife to South Sudan’s birth have not found a recipe for stemming the violence. US-backed strategies such as side-lining Machar have not borne fruit.
South Sudan launched its own national dialogue but Machar, in South Africa under virtual house arrest, is not part of the talks.
In a sign of mounting frustration with mediation efforts, South Sudan’s Council of Churche urged the wives of Machar and Kiir to persuade their husbands to end the fighting.
“Leaders say they want peace but we don’t see this on the ground,” said Agnes Wasuk, a senior figure in the council.
A foreign policy paralysis in Washington has left regional leaders to lead the way on peace efforts. But, rather than speaking with one voice, they have largely worked on South Sudan on a bilateral basis. Ethiopia has the lead role but documents seen by Reuters show Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is pursuing a parallel effort to reconcile differences between Machar and Kiir, at the latter’s request.
Boswell said the priority for South Sudan’s neighbours was to contain the spill-over of conflict across the border and maintain areas of influence.
“They are shadow boxing each other,” he said. “The grand plan failed. Each has lowered its sights to mitigate the situation to protect its own interests.”