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The SPLM-in-Opposition

The SPLM-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) consists of a heterogeneous political and military rebellion led by former South Sudanese vice-president Riek Macher, a Nuer and the number three (after John Garang and Salva Kiir) in the early days of the SPLA, who broke with the organization in 1991, rejoining only in 2002.

The SPLM-IO cohered haphazardly in the days and months following the massacre of Nuer by elements of the armed forces in December 2013 in Juba and elsewhere. That event followed President Salva Kiir’s sacking of Riek and his removal of the cabinet under claims of a coup plot. The SPLM-IO’s ranks are composed primarily of Nuer forces, including many thousands of soliders who defected from the army following the December killings, as well as Nuer ‘white army’ forces of Greater Upper Nile.

Many of the SPLM-IO commanders are former members of the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF), the Khartoum-aligned collection of forces opposed to the SPLA in the latter phases of the second civil war, and which was already politically and militarily marginalized by the time of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Other commanders affiliated or aligned with the SPLM-IO control or defend tribal interests, such as Johnson Olony’s Shilluk force in Upper Nile. Nuer SPLM-IO rank-and-file are motivated primarily by the desire for revenge and the removal of Salva Kiir from office. In contrast, the political leadership of the SPLM-IO does not have a long-term vision beyond using military victories to push for reforms and access to political power.

In August 2015, Riek signed an IGAD-brokered compromise agreement, subsequently also signed by the president. But both leaders had numerous objections and reservations to the terms, which were not entertained, and the president made it clear he was signing under duress.

Given the clear differences in objectives between the political and military leadership of the SPLM-IO, analysts expect that, despite the agreement, some of the military commanders, at least, will cleave away from the SPLM-IO and continue fighting the government under a new banner. That may already be occurring.

For a detailed description of the development and evolution of the SPLM-IO, click here.

September 2015