The Death Squads in South Sudan

7 May 2019

By Hilde F. Johnson*

Developments in Sudan are making us all hold our breaths, as we wonder whether paramilitary forces with a past in Janjaweed’s killing operations, will carry the day, and continue the terror we witnessed lately; or whether transition towards civilian rule may still happen. The role of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and the engagement by the region and the international community, is likely to be decisive.

In Sudan, the use of paramilitary militia and the national security apparatus, with its numerous agencies, has been critical for retaining the old authoritarian NIF- regime ever since 1989. The operations of these security forces were harshly criticized by the SPLM/A at the time. Rather than learning from the mistakes of their Sudanese brothers, building institutions characterized by the rule of law and a national identity, the South Sudanese government under Salva Kiir’s leadership has copied the Khartoum-model, and have made ample use of their tools and techniques. A common joke among many South Sudanese these days is that we now have «two countries, one system».

While we have seen frequent use of paramilitary militia during the soon-to-be 6- year-old civil war in South Sudan, the critical role of the national security apparatus in the country, warrants special attention. A recent UN Panel of Experts report states that the National Security Service (NSS) is one of the most significant obstacles to the prospects for peace in South Sudan.

Aggrey Idri and Dong Samuel Luak were two well-known South Sudanese. Both were living in exile in Nairobi, Kenya due to the civil war – Aggrey,a prominent member of the opposition movement SPLM-IO; and Dong, a human rights lawyer. On 23 and 24 January 2017, respectively, they disappeared without trace. Rumours were rampant about their fate; including that they had been kidnapped in Nairobi by South Sudanese security agents, and taken on a planeto Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Their families never got a message that they were alive and have worried about their fate for over twoyears.

The UN Panel of Experts has a clear mandate from the Security Council, and that is to monitor and verify events in South Sudan that may be of relevance to UN sanctions. The last report from the Panel was released in April. Once again, the Panel proved to have done a very thorough and credible job in its investigations. The Panel has corroborated evidence that Aggrey and Dong were in fact kidnapped in Kenya by South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS), at the instruction of its Director of Internal Security, Lieutenant General Akol Koor Kuc. It was personnel from his Internal Security Bureau who transported both of them on a chartered flight on 27 January 2017 to South Sudan, facilitated by South Sudan’s embassy in Nairobi.

Aggrey and Dong were taken to the headquarters of the National Security Service, the feared «Blue House». That same night, they were transported from solitary confinement to Luri just outside of Juba; a large presidential and security complex where President Salva Kiir also has his private farm. There, on 30 January 2017, both were killed by Akol Koor Kuc’s personnel. This, the Panel says, is confirmed by multiple, highly credible and well-placed sources. The news prompted strong reactions both in South Sudan and internationally. South Sudanese authorities claimed, however, that they didn’t know what happened to the two exiles and blamed the Kenyan authorities for their disappearance. The Kenyan government’s diplomatic silence on the matter was telling.

Few countries have security services that kidnap their very own citizens abroad, and then proceed to transport them home and kill them. This is what South Sudan did; involving even their embassy in facilitating the operation. Not only that, the UN Panel’s report reveals a number of other deeply disturbing things:

Interrogations in “The Blue House”, and other secret detention facilities around Juba, make use of beating and torture; like electric shocks. The NSS has its own two small killing squads – by name «Outside Tiger» and «Inside Tiger» – who undertake extrajudicial killings, both under the command of Lt. General Akol Koor Kuc. They have carried out a number of targeted killings, including of journalists and civil society activists and perceived critics or political opponents, including in refugee camps abroad. All this according to the Panel.

What the report does not say, is that the Tiger Batallion is the name of the Presidential Guard; and that «Tiger» was the proud “nom de gerre” of then SPLA Commander Salva Kiir, under the liberation struggle, a name he still uses when opportune. In the run-up to the civil war in late September 2013, President Kiir was for example quoted as saying, in third person: “The ‘Tiger’ has now taken out its claws and is ready to crush their faces. Blood will flow

The report further documents that NSS has been able to secure power and autonomy in South Sudan through a number of commercial income streams, including several petroleum and mining companies that operate in the country, and through infiltration of both government authorities and civil society. For those of us who have followed developments in Sudan for the past 25 years, this all looks familiar. The South Sudanese have learnt a lot from their colleagues in Khartoum; and what many have called “the deep state”, controlled by former president Bashir and his NCP-party.

National Security in South Sudan also has its own interests in South Sudanese oil companies in order to secure a solid income. According to the Panel, this comes in addition to their income stream from the national budget; obscured under the budget line for the President’s Office. In total, the annual increase in the NSS’ income, has been more than 58 percent; and this at a time of deep economic crisis and hardship in South Sudan, where the people of the country have suffered from lack of public funds for delivery of basic services like education and health. This is made possible because the NSS is under protection of the Office of the President; no one really questions the budgetary allocations made to the President’s Office.

The Panel states that the security services of South Sudan, and in particular the bureau for internal security, operates outside the rule of law and official state structures. It has resisted the imposition of many of the commitments in the revitalized peace agreement for South Sudan (the R-ARCSS) and does not appear to see itself as bound by its provisions. We have also seen this before.

Neither did Khartoum’s security agencies after the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). They continued to operate largely as prior to the CPA. Instead of preparing for change, following the signing of the peace agreement (R-ARCSS), the National Security Service in South Sudan has increased its own forces with another 3,000 new recruits; all of them from Salva Kiir’s and the Director General Akol Kuur Koc’s own areas and ethnic group.

Indeed, also the Juba government’s systematic use of ethnicity as a hegemonial tool appears to be copied from Khartoum, as seems the use of ethnically mobilized paramilitary militia. Ethnicity is the obvious card to use for anyone on the continent wanting to gain or retain power. But it is a very dangerous one, and particularly when armed and mobilized for security reasons, as has been the case both in Sudan and South Sudan.

No wonder then that the UN Panel sees the National Security Service as one of the most significant obstacles against implementation of the peace agreement (R-ARCSS) in South Sudan, and to the trust that needs to be built between the parties and signatories to the agreement. Its powers, and the desire of NSS to retain them beyond the agreement is seen as a major threat to peace, security and stability of the country. Indeed, the most recent developments in Sudan have showed us what can happen when security forces and agencies operate in parallel to, or outside the law; de facto becoming “the deep state” in themselves.

The parties to the peace agreement recently agreed to extend the deadline for establishing a transitional government in South Sudan by another 6 months; until 12 November 2019. If new delays are to be avoided, the government in Juba has to show the political will and determination to reboot the country’s security services and restructure the whole security apparatus; amongst other things. They do not need the interim government in place to do that. On the contrary; it should be done before such a transitional government takes office. If this does not happen, there are few chances that the delayed peace agreement for South Sudan will ever be implemented. The status quo will reign, with or without the presence of Riek Machar and the other opposition leaders in the government.

* Hilde F. Johnson is the former SRSG of UNMISS in South Sudan, and the author of several books on Sudan and South Sudan; including “South Sudan, The Untold Story – from Independence to Civil War”, IB Tauris, London, June 2016, and “Waging Peace in Sudan, The Inside Story of the Negotiations that Ended Africa’s Longest Civil War”, Sussex Academic Press, January 2011.

*This OpEd was first printed in the Norwegian daily newspaper, Vårt Land on 7 May 2019, now in an updated version and translated.