On the march on Bor, planes, and the parade of envoys

1. On the march on Bor

I’ve lost count of the number of references to the ‘White Army’ in the media reports of recent days.  The militia’s name appears to be innocuous:

BBC reported, for example:

The group thought to have been marching on the town are part of an ethnic Nuer militia known as the White Army because of the white ash they put on their skin to protect them from insects.

AP, Reuters and Al Jazeera provided almost identical descriptions:

The estimated 25,000 youths marching on the city are from the same tribe as the former vice president. They are known as the “White Army” because of the white ash the fighters put on their skin as protection from insects. (AP)

The feared White Army—made up largely of Nuer youths who dust their bodies with ash…The White Army are recognized by the ash, prepared from burnt cow dung, with which they cover themselves to ward off insects. They are armed with machetes, sticks and guns.  (Reuters)

The White Army – made up largely of Nuer youths who dust their bodies with ash to protect themselves against insects – clashed with government troops near the town of Bor five days after rebels were driven out. (Al Jazeera)

I’m dismayed at how uncritically this term and its description has been used and repeated.  For those from Upper Nile and Jonglei, it is a term with particular historical meaning and significance dating from the 1990s, during the last civil war.  As Skedsmo et al. explained in 2003:

Though its form and philosophy remained individualistic, this irregular ‘civil defence force’ came to be known as the “jeic in boor”, literally “white army”. The name was given mainly to distinguish it from the regular armed forces and groups operating in Upper Nile region. The designation of these armed civilians by the term ‘white’ is a reference to their lack of identification as a ‘real army’, to their “not having a uniform”, to the fact that they are “not distinguished”. The ‘jeic in boor’ or ‘white army’, is not a parallel to the historical “Red Army” which were regular rebel platoons made up exclusively of children. Including the word ‘army’ in the group’s name is thus strongly misleading as it raises associations of an organised, trained and well-disciplined fighting force. Contrary to this, the term ‘white army’ might rather be seen as a common reference to all armed civilians in the community. By obtaining a weapon, they will be ‘members’ of the white army whether they like it or not.

While Skedsmo’s definition is certainly contested, it is notable today that it is the government that has resurrected the term, with its particular connotations of destructiveness, brutality and a lack of organisation.  John Young notes:

it is clear that there were many white armies and that only in isolated instances were multiple com­ponents under one leadership. In the absence of any separate military structures, the cattle camp served as the nucleus of the army.

And to return to Skedsmo:

…the white army became a reference for a double set of activities and a double set of associations. On the one hand there is still the physical defence of the local community, usually appreciated and valued by the affected. On the other hand, there is the parallel activity by some members, youth in particularly, which contributes to further tearing down social norms, leaving the same communities with a feeling of insecurity and lawlessness.

Using this name and providing unverifiable estimates of thousands of militiamen is as much a tactic of government propaganda as it is military strategy.  Having first captured and then lost Bor so quickly, Riek is certain to want to retake Jonglei’s capital by whatever means available.  But repeating and reporting as fact that one of the civil war’s most feared militias has re-emerged needs to be done more carefully, and more critically.

2. Already a regional conflict?

Two nights ago Al Jazeera reported that ‘government planes’ had bombed militia positions near Bor; the language was nuanced on a later news cycle to ‘government aircraft.’  But South Sudan doesn’t own any military planes, although it did acquire military transport helicopters in 2011.  Later still, SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer told the same network ‘helicopter gunships’ had been used.  Perhaps these were the same Russian produced military transport helicopters, but calling them gunships would be a bit of a stretch.  And this still wouldn’t explain the reports, that don’t only originate from Riek’s forces, that jets had been involved in attacks.  For his part, Riek has accused Uganda of the bombings, which Uganda’s state minister of international affairs has denied.  However, President Museveni’s more aggressive comments on military intervention seem to support rather than detract from Riek’s allegations.  But if not South Sudanese aircraft, and if not from Uganda, then from where?  The answer must be in the region.  If this is the case, it signals a dangerous internationalisation of the conflict that makes it more likely other foreign actors will be drawn in to the conflict.

3. The parade of envoys and the new year’s eve deadline

President Kenyatta and Prime Minister Desalegn deserve some credit for acting quickly and investing personal political capital in going to Juba to attempt to defuse the situation.  The problem they faced, as with the earlier visits of the IGAD foreign ministers and various international special envoys, is that their access to one party to the conflict (the government) is much greater than to the other (Riek et al.)  Diplomacy by thuraya is not anywhere near as effective or convincing as a hard and frank meeting face to face.  Riek can be cajoled, pleaded with or threatened.  But he is not desperate to end the conflict, yet; the internationals are.  Until that balance changes, I fear today’s deadline, and others yet to be set, will come and go.  Let us hope for better news, and an imperfect peace, in 2014.


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