Baggari blues

The primary source of the tension between the SPLA-IO and Cleto lies in the R-ARCSS’ still incomplete security sector reform (SSR) process. While a first batch of the Necessary Unified Forces required by the agreement was graduated in Wau in November 2022, it has not been deployed, and SPLA-IO troops at cantonment sites remain without wages, health care, or sufficient food. Many have now left these sites and returned to farming. They feel betrayed by a peace agreement that has given them no solace.

In the absence of any meaningful SSR process, Kiir’s regime has—as elsewhere in the country—successfully persuaded opposition commanders to defect to the government. Most notably, Joseph Arop, once the deputy division commander of SPLA-IO Division 6A, switched his support to the government in February 2020, after the intercession of the National Security Service (NSS) and Angelo Taban, the former governor of Wau state (Craze, 2020, pp. 71–75).[1] In recent months Arop’s forces have been deployed on the Busseri road leading to the SPLA-IO military headquarters in Baggari, effectively functioning as a buffer force. As with other such forces (such as James Ochan Puot’s force in Maiwut county), Arop’s men are not integrated into the SSPDF, but rather receive monthly lump sum payments from the Office of the President, along with fuel and other supplies, ensuring that they have a direct relationship with the coterie around Kiir.[2]

One of the reasons for Arop’s defection was his discontent with Abdullah Ujang, who was named division commander of SPLA-IO Division 6A after Khamis was appointed to the Joint Defence Board. This discontent originates from long-standing disagreements between Khamis and Ujang. According to Vuylsteke (2018), although both men are Balanda Fertit, they come from different parts of the state, and the Balanda of Baggari—from where Khamis hails—feel they have sacrificed more for the struggle and thus should be in charge. In an interview, Khamis himself, however, offered a more prosaic reason for his dispute with Ujang: the latter man had an extant area of control that he was reluctant to give up to Khamis and Arop.[3] Ujang established two checkpoints on the road from Wau to Tombura that provided revenue in the absence of the payment of wages. With the SSR process continually being delayed, however, there was growing discontent among his forces over the amount of this revenue Ujang was keeping for himself. In March 2023, his troops effectively mutinied, and Ujang was taken to Juba, where he remains: not in detention, but not free to return to Western Bahr el Ghazal.

In a situation of brutal austerity, with neither an SSR process nor Machar providing wages for the SPLA-IO, opposition soldiers are attempting to find resources where they can. On 6 June 2023, for instance, some SPLA-IO troops arrested the head of the Women Training and Promotion programme at the Bringi checkpoint in Wau and demanded a 10 per cent cut of the USD 49,000 the programme had received for a school development project.[4] Ujang’s replacement, Tobia Felverto Uryam, a former soldier in the Sudanese army and a former member of Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), has promised financial transparency in such matters.

Underneath the discontent with Ujang was a sense that Baggari is not seeing as much development as Wau and Jur River county. Ujang refused to allow the Wau county commissioner, George Tonga, to visit the area until the completion of the SSR process, despite an order from Cleto for the commissioner to stay in Baggari. While this is the mainline SPLA-IO position, some in the movement blamed Ujang for blocking development in the area and for rejecting the relocation of the administrative headquarters of Wau county to Baggari—the same controversial issue that inflamed violence in 2012. Those who were critical of Ujang hoped such a relocation would enable development in Baggari; others feared it would allow further SPLM domination of Fertit areas traditionally opposed to the regime in Juba.

[1] The SPLA-IO forces in Western Bahr el Ghazal are structured in a sector (Sector 7) with two divisions: 6A for Wau and 6B for Raja, each headed by a division commander. In the cited reference, Joseph Arop is referred to as Joseph Dongo.

[2] For a discussion of Ochan, see Craze (2022a).

[3] Author interview with Ashab Khamis, Juba, February 2020.

[4] Author telephone interview with source in Wau, July 2023.