BY: Samuel Atabi, South Sudan, MAR/30/2017, SSN;
Several diplomats and key experts have one view of the civil war raging in South Sudan: No side can win the war by military means. For a young rebel recruit, this can be a devastating statement, for in taking up arms, he believes he can remove the dictatorship that is causing, in hundreds of thousands, the death, rape, displacement and suffering of South Sudanese.
A close examination of the statement, however, reveals that it is actually shorthand for a much longer one which says something like: “You South Sudanese do not have the requisite quantity and quality of armaments for a knock-out victory for one side or the other.”
True, there is parity, at least in doctrine and skills on both the rebel and government forces; after all, all of them are products of the same SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army).
Stalemated outcomes from battlefields of the war that started in 2013, attest to this conclusion.
But the question that needs to be answered is this: “Is it always true that African rebels, fighting against an unjust government, cannot win outright militarily?”
As a Devil’s Advocate, in this instance, my answer to this question should be a resounding “NO.”
Recent history of civil wars in the region is replete with spectacular military victories against sitting, arguably, dictatorial governments. As a raft of testimonies below will show that these victories came about because the various insurgents did receive generous military support from foreign allies or sympathizers.
To avoid a convoluted recounting of these testimonies in a report format, I would rather animate the very leaders of these victorious insurgents to speak for themselves. These testimonies are based on historical facts.
I call upon President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (YKM) of the Republic of Uganda as the first witness.
YKM: “In 1981, a fascist government of Uganda, led by Milton Obote, rigged and stole a general election in which my party was poised to win. We did not take this insult lying down. I, together with others moved to the bush to start an armed struggle.
In the bush we formed a coalition called the National Resistance Movement (NRM), with its military wing named the National Resistance Army. I will spare you a lot of details.
But in five years we fought fierce battles against the government troops (the UNLA) and won. In 1986, in a final battle of Kampala, we comprehensively defeated the fascist army who retreated to the north of the country.
After forming the government, we pursued the remnants of this army, killed many of them but spared those who surrendered.
The only persistent group from this old army was the LRA (the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army), which, as I speak, we have reduced to just a dozen or so soldiers and are now hiding far away from Uganda, probably in Central African Republic.
It was not easy though. The White people (Museveni routinely utters this phrase) refused to give us arms. But my late friend, Col. Muamar Gaddafi of Libya came to our aid. We were able to arm ourselves sufficiently to face the government in Kampala.
If you have time, I can also add that we trained and armed the Rwandan Patriotic Front of Paul Kagame and others. These guys later returned to their country, Rwanda, to defeat another tribal and fascist regime there and form a government.
These two stories were straight military victories. I do not accept any crap that insurgents cannot, a priori, defeat an unpopular sitting government.”
Our next witness is Mr Meles Zanawi (RIP), Past President of Federal Republic of Ethiopia to give an account (from wherever he is) of insurgent’s victory in that ancient African country.
MZ: “We founded the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) around 1974. We were encouraged in this by our erstwhile comrades in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).
By that time, the EPLF had fought for over thirty years against the government of, first, Emperor Haile Selassie and, later, against that of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, without success.
After studying the war situation intently, we in TPLF decided to broaden our appeal to other Ethiopian ethnic groups and formed a coalition with a multi-ethnic movement called Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF, a mouthful).
The three fronts, EPLF, TPLF and EPRDF, together mounted a decisive military campaign in the early 1990’s against Mengistu. Finally, in May 1991, the long and arduous stalemate in the war against the regime was broken.
As we were approaching Addis Ababa to wrench the power from the oppressive government, Mengistu, himself, fled the country. The date was 21 May 1991. The rest, as they say, is history.
But let me say this in conclusion: the Eritreans were able to gain their independence through this direct military defeat of the Mengistu’s regime; it was not a negotiated settlement. The same can be said of our assumption of power.
We were decisive in our victory because of arms supplies which our allies and friends gave us. These creative and deeply caring allies and friends must remain unnamed for the time being. Yes, insurgent can defeat an uncaring government through military means.”
Because of the limitation of space and time, I will not bother you with further witness testimonies. But from the stories given above, it is now abundantly clear that, insurgents, given certain circumstances and arms, can indeed achieve military victory over their governmental opponents.
Despite all these glowing testimonies, it is still important to ask whether the rebel organizations in South Sudan (now believe to be over 40) can defeat the Kiir’s tribal autocracy in Juba.
For an answer to this question, we now call upon Dr Riek Machar of the SPLA-in opposition (SPLA-IO) to give a justification why the rebels deserve military support in order to succeed like his Ugandan and Ethiopian counterparts.
RM: “I will not detain you with minutiae of the war since its eruption in 2013. But I can say this: the SPLA-IO composition, aims and strategy are constantly being reviewed in the light of lessons learnt following the violence of July 2016.
Although the number of the rebel movements is now reported to be over 40, the reality is that all of them, except very few, are aligned with SPLA-IO. Even the few ones are welcome to join us. This alignment makes our command structure and control very manageable.
In addition, politically, as some organizations such as the International Crisis Group have acknowledged, the SPLA-IO is now a truly multi-ethnic army. Our forces are now widely spread throughout South Sudan: from Equatoria, Western Bahr el Ghazal, Jonglei, and Upper Nile to Unity states.
In all, we represent all the 64 tribes of South Sudan. This contrasts sharply with the SPLA-in government (SPLA-IG) which has become a mono-ethnic monolith that is led by a President controlled by self-appointed, reactionary and tribal Jieng Council of Elders (JCE).
Our aim is anchored on peaceful resolution of the conflict through the August 2015 peace agreement. Our war effort is defensive and ultimately aimed at bringing the government in Juba to a negotiating table.
From the media reports, the government has set its face against any peaceful dialogue that will include the opposition. Yet, in the meantime the SPLA-IG continues to kill civilians in thousands, rape them in thousands and send them into refuge and internal displacement by the millions.
Furthermore, reports of the government concluding military alliances against our forces are increasing on daily basis. In the face of this intransigence, on the part of the government, what are we in the opposition to do?
We believe that the people of South Sudan are entitled to self-defense against the brutal Kiir regime in Juba. That is why we now appeal to all peace loving governments and people to support us with arms to resist and eventually force the government to the negotiating table.
We need field guns, assault rifles, heavy and light machine guns, rockets, anti-tanks, shoulder-held anti-aircrafts and others. Yes, we need the famous Stinger anti-aircraft missiles for defense against the mercenary-operated Juba regime’s aircraft and helicopter gunships. (We understand the unease of supplying the Stingers to rebel forces such as the Afghan anti-Soviet forces that later passed them on to the Al Qaeda for use against the US forces . We are not terrorists neither are we anti-Americans).
Additional to our self-defense needs, the military hardware will assist us to degrade the forces of Juba with their allies should there be a need for prior military action before an international force or any interim trustee government is deployed or installed in Juba. (We are open to persuasion about these issues).
UNMISS, the UN forces in South Sudan, are reluctant to engage militarily with the SPLA-IG despite their wide-ranging and robust mandate.
I will conclude by reminding the international community that, in the past, appeasement of a determined genocidal regime such as that of Hitler’s had led to the death of millions of Europeans and Jews.
Kiir’s regime is equally determined and genocidal. To avoid a similar fate for our people, the removal of the regime requires the use of military means.
Like Churchill’s appeal to the Americans during the Second World War, we in South Sudan ask you to “give us the tools and we will do the fighting”. You know where to get me and I will be waiting for your call.
Samuel Atabi is the Devil’s Advocate; all the words are his and can be reached at email@example.com