Reflections on the death of Gatluak Gai
The following is a guest post by Tim Flatman
Sudan Tribune is reporting that Gatluak Gai’s deputy, Marko Chuol Ruei, has admitted to killing him. This corroborates the SPLA’s account that shortly after signing a deal with the SPLA to reintegrate his forces back into the army he had left and fought against, Gai had second thoughts, got into an argument with his own forces who were split on the issue of whether or not to trust the SPLA’s deal, and was killed in the course of the argument.
I have no special knowledge of this situation, so I cannot comment on the specifics of what happened. Rather I want to draw out potential consequences for other “rebel” groups and the possibilities for their peaceful reintegration into the SPLA. [I use inverted commas as“rebel” still has positive connotations in South Sudan – suggesting soldiers are fighting for an ideal/against Khartoum, and it is a label many feel these groups do not deserve.]
Firstly, Marko Chuol Ruei’s admission will not put the matter to rest. Especially while Peter Gatdet is still at large, his mouthpiece Bol Gatkuoth will be amongst those who continue to circulate the unfortunately plausible conspiracy theory that the SPLA killed Gai and had no intention of honouring their agreement with him. I should stress that especially after Ruei’s admission, this rumour certainly falls into the realms of conspiracy theory. It never made good political sense for the SPLA to have offed Gai so soon after he signed an agreement. Nonetheless, military figures do not always behave in accordance with good political sense, and the theory is believable enough that those who are already inclined to distrust the SPLA will believe it. The obvious point being made by several analysts is that Gai’s death will make other groups operating against the SPLA less likely to come to a peaceful arrangement, something that will have been painfully obvious to the leadership of the SPLM/SPLA.
Secondly, the deal was always flawed. By offering a double promotionto Gai, the deal itself incentivised others currently within the SPLA to take arms against it in the hope of securing a promotion through negotiated reintegration. Here the death of Gai may have an unintended positive effect. It shows how risky this strategy is, and deters others from following it. In less complicated times, the SPLM might have issued announcements describing Gai as a martyr and celebrating his achievements during the war, portraying them as eclipsing later indiscretions. Such a strategy might appease those who believed he had been out-manoeuvred into choosing opposition as a last resort in orderto guarantee survival in a hostile environment. (Many of Riek Machar’s supporters, and even his detractors, would make the same claim of his actions at Nasir in 1991, neatly drawing a distinction between his lack of judgement in allowing himself to get into a position where he no longer felt safe accepting operational commands from John Garang, and Lam Akol’s malevolent intentions in treating Dinka and Nuer lives as collateral in a doomed attempt to further his own personal ambitions.) However, the SPLM’s spin machine is at full stretch and may be unable to give this full attention at the same time as dealingwith the day-to-day issues that accompany sovereignty and top priorities like Abyei and resource-sharing negotiations.
Thirdly, the Gatluak Gai saga highlights the range of motivations behind armed opposition groups and the complexity of their relationships with key GoSS figures. The international community must bear some responsibility for much of the “tribal” violence it condemns for its acceptance of the “Dinka domination” narrative. It is in the clear interests of certain figures within the SPLM to push this narrative, and pose as unifiers. Surprisingly few figures within the UN, the academic community and NGOs seem to have the awareness to realise that when they repeat this narrative they are taking sides inleadership struggles within the SPLM. It is not unusual to hear UNMIS staff describe one former SPLA commander as an academic rather than a military figure, (intended as a favourable comparison to Salva Kiir) –an extraordinarily naive statement. It might seem extreme to say so, but blood is on their hands. In South Sudan, politics and armed opposition can often be complementary rather than contradictory. Having the connections to bring an armed opposition group to the table highlights your indispensability. When armed opposition groups issue manifestos declaring they are taking up arms because of “Dinkadomination”, and you have strong pull with Nuer and Equatorians, they reinforce your credentials as the only person capable of holding South Sudan together. Such figures may often be right in their insistence on constitutional changes and further devolution (though “devolution”often means devolving power to all-powerful governors rather than tostate parliaments, and the word itself should not be fetishised). But swallowing their narrative whole, especially when the SPLM has done so much to expand the movement from its largely Dinka origins and when Dinka do not hold a majority in the former GoSS cabinet, among Salva Kiirs advisors or in the SPLM political bureau, is tantamount to taking sides in an ongoing leadership campaign that relies in part on the existence of armed opposition groups which terrorise local populations.
Fourthly, the attitude of the international community is hypocritical at best. The Government of South Sudan is told one day that the SPLAis too large and that a smaller more disciplined force would be better at respecting human rights. The next day it is told that it should increase the size of the SPLA by reintegrating “rebel” groups back into it and possibly by encouraging large numbers of SPLA from the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile areas into its ranks. It is told it should offer battle-scarred veterans alternatives to going to the bush, but it is also criticised when it appoints under-qualified military figures to civilian posts ahead of more qualified civilians, especially former exiles with university degrees. The international community does not acknowledge that its demands are contradictory – it has a solution to every problem but no understanding of how these problems inter-relate.
So how should the SPLM deal with the six or so supposed “rebel” groups that still exist? Some may be beyond reintegration. It is hard to see how Peter Gatdet could be reintegrated. His group has been the most blatant in co-operating and accepting support from the Sudan Armed Forces. In the attack on Turalei approximately one month ago, eyewitness sources reported that Gatdet’s forces were wearing SAF uniforms and brandishing new AKMs. Nonetheless, stranger things have happened. In contrast to Gatdet, most Southern Sudanese would be delighted if George Athor would come back to the fold. It is however difficult to see how Kiir could offer him more than he has previouslyoffered. But contrary to the arrogant beliefs of the international community, the strongest calls for reintegration do not come from outside of South Sudan but from inside it. The SPLM know that South Sudanese expect them to give former SPLA renegades every reasonable opportunity to reintegrate peacefully, because they understand how you can find yourself on the wrong side of internal South Sudanese conflicts through circumstances. But if these groups consistently turndown reasonable offers, they expect GoSS to deal with them appropriately. What can the international community do? It can start by stopping: stopping making contradictory demands and stopping reinforcing narratives which disguise personal ambition and self-interested violence in a cloak of progressive anti-tribalism.