What started this week as a trivial matter — a mid-ranking soldier’s visit to the barber in Pibor, eastern Jonglei state, South Sudan — illustrates the challenge of security sector reform and transformation in the world’s newest country.
An on-again, off-again Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) officer, James Duag Kuburin, needed his hair cut, and came to Pibor town market to get the deed done. By the end of the day, at least four people were dead, a substantial part of the town had been damaged or destroyed, and more than 2,000 people had fled their homes, seeking refuge at the local UN peacekeeping base.
Kuburin had previously rebelled against the SPLA, aligning with the militia of David Yau Yau. In December 2012 Kuburin, and nearly 200 of his men, defected from Yau Yau’s forces and accepted integration into the SPLA, although his troops had not been formally reincorporated into the army at the time of this incident.
The dispute in Pibor began when regular SPLA forces tried to prevent Kuberin from entering the town with armed bodyguards. According to Sudan Tribune, interviewing the local county commissioner: “one SPLA soldier produced a grenade and threatened to kill the armed men who were escorting Kuburin, but when the rest [of Kuburin’s forces] intervened, the grenade blasted and killed two [SPLA] soldiers. The SPLA responded by opening fire on Kuburin’s forces and chasing them out of town…Many homes were set on fire during the ensuing gun fight, forcing around 2,000 people to flee to the UNMISS and MSF [Médecins sans Frontières] camps in Pibor, which were not affected by the clash.”
While I wouldn’t want to prejudge the eventual conclusions of the investigation of this incident, it seems that the initial instincts of the SPLA — to stop random armed men from wandering around town centres — were reasonable. The subsequent escalation of hostilities, general destruction of the town, reports of indiscriminate firing on civilians and the looting of shops and homes that followed, however, was yet another failure by the SPLA to exercise restraint and act sensibly. Having a good security sector reform strategy in place is one thing: changing attitudes is quite another.