Tambura’s proxy conflicts: a tale of a county spared from war, but destabilized by South Sudan’s peace deal.
Two years after the start of the South Sudan civil war, an interim peace accord fell down amid renewed fighting between Machar and Kiir’s army.
The fighting rapidly expanded throughout Equatoria, sparing Western Equatoria but not Tambura. Although the current peace deal has been in existence for some time, its implementation has been gradual.
Experts, UN officials, and military sources say the battle in Tambura involves both local and national political figures.
According to a report acquired by NCMP, a “strong alliance” of Avungara politicians has been “coordinating efforts in Juba to limit the influence of Alfred Futuyo [the half-Balanda opposition-appointed governor of Western Equatoria]… while boosting their own authority in the state.”
They are suspected of helping former Azande rebel leader James Nando, who joined the conflict in August.
Nando is suspected of some of the worst atrocities. A UN source said that Nando told UN and government officials in Tambura that his orders “only come from the blue house,” a National Security Service-run penitentiary, the UN source said.
According to the New Humanitarian magazine read by NCMP, the National Security Service involvement can’t be ascertained. Analysts say Kiir’s party has consistently undermined and degraded the opposition.
Nando said he was acting in self-defense when his troops were attacked. The goal is to smear his name and bring him down, he claimed.
Some accounts indicate they fought alongside the powerful Balanda militia, headed by Angelo Davido, who was previously known for his role in fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan military group.
However, although admitting that his troops had slain and raped people, Lam Paul Gabriel maintained that Nando’s soldiers had attacked first. “Some soldiers feared they were being targeted,” Gabriel said.
Thousands of government and opposition troops are stuck in training centers, waiting to join a unified army.
Analysts blame the agreement’s power-sharing provisions for much of the current unrest. The deal stipulates that each side gets a fixed number of governors, county commissioners, and other local posts.
Due to this structure, Juba elites chose leaders that people do not recognize, disrupting what some politicians consider as their control zones. Most governors in Western Equatoria were previously chosen for their strong ties to Kiir’s party and the native Azande Avungura clan that dominates Tambura.
However, in mid-2020, Machar chose former opposition commander and half-Balanda (a minority group in Tambura) Alfred Futuyo to the office.
Militias have recently killed hundreds of people in the region. Politicians in Juba were accused of aiding an Avungura-led militia, backed by troops loyal to Kiir’s party, while an opposition-backed Balanda militia was established.
Observers say both parties wanted to govern the state before the 2023 elections, and they chose Tambura because of the political tensions between Azande and Balanda.
“Control of local authority has the potential to gain an incumbency advantage,” said Mark Millar, a Norwegian Refugee Council analyst in South Sudan.
An incumbent advantage before elections may aid local governments in several ways. They may use governmental power to rig elections or stifle media, civil society, and political opposition.
In the absence of a democratic process, whoever controls the ballot box would win, said a South Sudan expert who declined to be named owing to the sensitivity of the issue.
Under Western Equatoria, the Avungura think their dominating position is in risk.
According to Ferenc David Marko, a researcher for the Small Arms Survey, which tracks conflict in South Sudan, the combat in Tambura and other regions of South Sudan is mostly between community militias.
“Now that the nation is officially at peace, politicians from both sides of the civil war cannot fight on the battlefield,” Marko continued. “They invented techniques to radicalize the margins.”