The task facing British soldiers joining United Nations peacekeepers in South Sudan became more complicated on Monday when a rebel commander publicly disregard a peace agreement.
The remarks of General Johnson Oloni, who leads a militia from the Shilluk ethnic group, served to demonstrate how Britain’s contingent will have no peace to keep in one of Africa’s most war-ravaged countries.
Gen Oloni accused Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, of a “naked power grab” by suddenly deciding to replace the country’s 10 existing states with 28 new ones.
At a stroke, President Salva Kiir announced that South Sudan’s 10 existing states would be divided into 28. The government said this decree would come into effect immediately, without requiring approval from parliament.
South Sudan has endured almost two years of civil war between Mr Kiir’s government and a rebel movement led by Riek Machar, a former vice-president. The fighting has claimed tens of thousands of lives and driven 2.2 million people from their homes – 20 per cent of the entire population.
A supposed peace agreement was signed in August. This included a power-sharing arrangement allowing Mr Machar’s rebels to choose the governors of two states, Unity and Upper Nile.
Now that Mr Kiir has decided to abolish both states, this part of the deal may be unworkable.
A statement from Mr Machar said the decree amounted to a “violation of the peace agreement and a clear message to the world that President Kiir is not committed to peace”.
Gen Oloni told the BBC this plan would divide the area inhabited by his Shilluk tribe – and he would resist by force, regardless of the peace agreement signed in August.
Britain will send between 250 and 300 troops to South Sudan to join the UN force supposedly charged with implementing this peace deal. In reality, the main task of the 11,350 peacekeeping troops in South Sudan is to protect 200,000 civilians who have taken refuge in UN bases.
Outside the capital, Juba, a vast camp housing 28,000 fugitives spreads across a rugged savannah. The people here are from the Nuer ethnic group of Riek Machar, the main rebel leader. They have fled government forces drawn largely from Mr Kiir’s Dinka tribe.
James Madol, one of the fugitives, said that he went to the camp after his 17-year-old brother, Gatkuoth, was killed by a soldier inside the family home in Juba. “He thought he was safe in this country, but at night they came and killed him. He was shot in his bed by a government soldier,” said Mr Madol.
This camp is guarded by UN troops in watchtowers. In areas where the largely Nuer rebels are fighting, the situation is reversed and Dinkas have gathered for safety in UN bases.
British soldiers are not expected to be performing guard duty. A Downing Street statement said they would carry out “vital engineering work” along with “combat training and advisory support”. The Ministry of Defence declined to say when the first Britons would arrive.
They will also find that relations between the authorities and the UN are exceptionally strained. Last year, Mr Kiir accused the UN of hiding rebels inside peacekeeping bases and of establishing a “parallel government” to “take over South Sudan”. Mr Kiir has not welcomed the impending arrival of a British contingent.
The UN soldiers – drawn mainly from India, Bangladesh, Ghana and Nepal – are deployed across South Sudan’s 10 states.
But an official in Juba predicted that British troops would not leave the capital. “They will be more in a support and advisory capacity, which means they’re not going to be deployed basically – they’re just going to be in Juba,” said the official.
If the peace agreement is implemented – which may never happen – government troops are supposed to leave the capital. An alternative security plan for Juba must then be put in place. The official predicted that British troops would prepare this plan.