Political tensions in former Western Equatoria state rose steadily throughout South Sudan’s 2013–15 civil war, culminating in clashes during the months and weeks leading up to the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) between President Salva Kiir and the opposition leader, Vice President Riek Machar. During the war, Western Equatoria’s populist governor, and frequent Juba critic, Joseph Bakosoro, flirted with defection from Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) but remained in his governor post until Kiir sacked him in the run-up to the accord. In the months following the peace deal, full conflict erupted across the state (see map).
The Western Equatoria war theatre consists of three primary armed groups with independent command and control. All of the groups share some origins in the Arrow Boys, a network of community defence militias mobilized to combat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and unwanted cattle herders. Two factions—one in Mundri under Wesley Welebe, the other, more dispersed, under Alfred Fatuyo—have declared their allegiance to the SPLM-in- Opposition (SPLM–IO). After the peace accord, Machar appointed both Welebe and Fatuyo major generals. A third group, led by defected security officers, rejected the SPLM–IO and signed a peace deal aimed at reintegration into the armed forces in April 2016.
The ambiguous and unresolved inclusion of the armed groups in the ARCSS—or their exclusion from it—continues drive the conflict. Both Fatuyo and Welebe maintained links to the SPLM–IO throughout the war. Whereas Fatuyo clearly did not join the opposition movement until after the peace accord, Welebe’s ties to the group were stronger.
Anti-government grievances are widespread and often expressed as opposition to the Dinka ethnic group, and its political elite, specifically. While partially rooted in longstanding animosities, such sentiment has intensified since independence, with accusations that the SPLM’s Bahr al Ghazal Dinka elite promised shared power but then championed tribal interest. Equatorians primarily cite redirected national revenue, impunity for incursions by armed cattle herders, land-grabbing, and political marginalization. (According to the paramount chief of the Azande, Wilson Hassan Peni, the Azande did not have an officer at the rank of major general at the beginning of 2015. The Azande are one of several ethnic groups claiming to be the third-largest in South Sudan behind the Dinka and Nuer.) Western Equatoria is an opposition stronghold, but the armed groups are poorly supplied and often retreat in the face of government counter-insurgency. Some early community support for the armed leaders has waned even as government military abuses amplify resentments. Community elites are divided on the wisdom and feasibility of seeking an armed solution or aligning politically with Machar. Humanitarian consequences in the war theatres have been devastating, since the counter-insurgency strategy of security hardliners seeks to punish entire communities and depopulate rebel strongholds. Armed-group withdrawals from government attack have left civilian populations vulnerable.
In the aftermath of the peace deal, Western Equatoria in particular turned into a stage for contesting the new disposition of power in the country; the conflict must be understood in the context of the new power framework created by the ARCSS.