Major battle looms in South Sudan after oil town clashes

South Sudan troops in Juba
South Sudan troops in Juba RFI Swahili

The situation in the town of Malakal, a strategic town in South Sudan, remains unclear after clashes this weekend. Rival political and ethnic groups are vying for control of the capital of Upper Nile State, where the country’s only functioning oilfields are located, suggesting a major battle is on the cards.


"These clashes have escalated because everybody now has the power of the gun. They have mobilised the young people," Julia Duany of John Garang University explained in a phone interview. "It’s become very pathetic. Everybody – from age 15 to 24 – is in the war fighting. It has really become very bad."

It is impossible to verify who currently controls Malakal after a recent upsurge in fighting, which South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei blamed on the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO).

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"The rebels of [former vice-president] Riek Machar have attacked Malakal from all directions, from east, west, north and south, and the fighting up to now is continuing," Makuei told the AFP news agency on Saturday.

The SPLA-IO have denied attacking Malakal, under government control since March. In a press statement, spokesperson Dickson Gatluak claimed that his side had repealed an attack by government forces.

Most of the Malakal townsfolk fled when clashes broke out in 2013. Some 30,000 people are eking out a living in a nearby UN camp for the displaced as their beleaguered city regulary swings from government to rebel hands.

"It has changed hands seven times in a year and a half," said Ariane Quentier, a United Nations Mission in South Sudan spokesperson in a phone interview. "It’s been devastated and coveted by all parties."

Malakal, like much of South Sudan, has been caught up in an ethnic conflict, carved up between President Salva Kiir's Dinka tribe and Machar's Nuer tribe.

Malakal was rife with tribal tensions even before the war broke out. They marred the celebrations that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – South Sudan’s future ruling party – held for the long awaited Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2009.

What was to be a joyful occasion turned into clashes between two communities, the Shilluk and the Dinka Ngoc, "because both sides claimed Malakal belonged to them," according to Duany

The situation has been complicated by the presence of an ethnic Shilluk general who has reportedly switched sides. Commander Johnson Olony, who first went to Malakal as a government commander, is now said to be supporting the opposition.

In a preliminary report the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the east African regional bloc whose peace initiative collapsed in March, has accused a combined force of Olony's men and the SPLA-IO of attacking Malakal.

IGAD said on Friday it is "deeply frustrated by the spread of violence to Upper Nile and strongly condemns this serious violation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement by SPLM/SPLA-IO and its allied forces."

The regional bloc has accused South Sudan's army of carrying out "grave" human rights abuses in their all-out offensive, condemning the "unwarranted and appalling actions" of the Juba government.

John Chol, a Malakal resident who has been displaced by the violence, is considering moving to the neighbouring Republic of Sudan, fearing that many people in South Sudan have lost their sense of humanity.

"When I meet with somebody from another tribe he thinks of killing me, of getting rid of me," he said in a phone interview. "A tribe is thinking of getting rid of another tribe. There is no feeling of humanity."

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011

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