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Juba City - 29 May 2023

Feature: Former rebel forces in unified army distraught over nonpayment of salaries

The first batch of unified forces graduated in Juba in August 2022. (File photo)
The first batch of unified forces graduated in Juba in August 2022. (File photo)

It has been almost a year since South Sudan graduated its first batch of unified forces however soldiers from former rebel groups have complained that they are not paid salaries while their colleagues from the government receive pay.

President Salva Kiir who heads the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), First Vice President Riek Machar of the main opposition group SPLM-IO, and other opposition leaders, are implementing a peace deal signed in 2018 to end five years of civil war and to put the country on the path of democracy through elections scheduled for December 2024.  

According to the peace deal, a total of 83, 000 forces are to be graduated to take charge of security through the transitional period.

So far, a little over 50, 000 soldiers from the rival groups — SPLM, SPLM-IO, and SSOA — have graduated in parts of the country.

Several opposition soldiers sounded out by Radio Tamazuj in various cantonment sites across the country said they feel discriminated against.        

In Torit, Galdino Odongi, a former rebel soldier, says they have not been paid for four years now.

“We have not started receiving salary and I know very well our colleagues (in government) are being paid. We have stayed here in Owinykibul for almost four years now they (SSPDF) have been receiving salaries since 2020 while we watch,” he explains. “We will start receiving salaries when they put our names in the (payroll) system but is unfair that our brothers and we are all South Sudanese, some are receiving and others are not then the system is not helping us.”

He adds: “As a South Sudanese, I am not annoyed because it is our brothers and sisters who are doing these things.”

SPLA-IO’s Colonel Dominic Odemi Maring, the administrator of the areas’ Joint Military Ceasefire Commission (JMCC) team in Eastern Equatoria State, confirmed that former rebel soldiers who joined the unified force have indeed not been receiving salaries.

“What is happening is that the people who were in SSPDF are the ones receiving money but those who were in opposition, SSOA, and SPLM/A-IO, are not being paid yet. They are working because they respect and need peace in the country and because they did not go to the bush because of money,” Col Odemi says. “They survive by going to the bush and burning charcoal to feed their children. Some are cultivating or selling firewood to buy food.”

“We are feeling very bad as if there is no peace,” he adds.

In Western Bahr el Ghazal State, some of the soldiers say they are alarmed by the lack of salaries and nondeployment.

James Ukel, a police officer who recently graduated, said they are baffled by the government’s inaction.

“We graduated on 4 December 2022 as the unified force at Wau Stadium and up to now we do not understand anything. Our colleagues from the government are receiving salaries but we are not,” he laments. “We have not been deployed and we want what is going on because the rains have now started. They should let us know if they want us to return to civilian life. Otherwise, they should find solutions to our problems.”

Another former opposition soldier who identified himself as Santino Bol said they are going hungry as they await deployment.

“We have gone for months without pay or deployment. The issue of feeding is now a problem,” he says. “Before, we could rely on vegetables and wild fruits but now it has not been raining.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Gama, an SSPDF soldier who recently graduated with his counterparts from the opposition, called on the government to deploy and pay all the unified forces' salaries.

“Those of us from the government are getting paid but our colleagues from other parties are not. But even the salaries are not enough,” he explains. “But even the salaries are not enough. My children are not in school. Government should increase our salaries and start paying our colleagues, even just SSP 2,000 so that they can buy soap.”

In August last year, President Salva Kiir while presiding over the graduation of the unified forces in Juba, urged them not to pay allegiance to any other leader but to the country and the Commander-in-Chief.   

On his part, Col. Lam Paul Gabriel, the SPLA-IO military spokesperson, appealed to the government to start paying the former opposition soldiers who are now part of a unified force, describing the repeated nonpayment of their dues as discriminatory.

“As SPLA-IO, our forces were trained and merged with those of SPLM-IG forming a unified force, which is a national army of the country. So, they should have been receiving salaries immediately after graduation,” he explains. “However, to our surprise, those from the government side with whom they were unified are getting paid while excluding others. This is a bad policy, it is not good for the future of this country because all forces, be it SPLA-IO, IG, or SSOA, as we speak, are under the command of Salva Kiir as the Commander-in-Chief.”

However, Gen. Lul Ruai Koang, the SSPDF spokesperson, said the army leadership could not pay the opposition forces because they have yet to be budgeted for.

“Unified forces from SPLA-IO and SSOA have yet to be included in the budget. For the national army, that, of course, graduated as part of the unified forces, are receiving salaries because they went to the training centers with their payrolls as their names are already in the system,” he stresses. “Forces from the opposition need their name to be taken to the president for confirmation so that they are included in the system. So this is just a process and a matter of time.”     

Ter Manyang, the chairperson of the Civil Society Coalition on Defense of Civic Space (CSCDCS), who also doubles as executive director for the Center for Peace and Advocacy (CPA), said a lack of political will is at play in the nonpayment of former rebel soldiers.

“The way forward is that all soldiers in South Sudan should be included in the budget so that they protect the territorial integrity of this country and that they will not look at themselves as a tribal army,” he advises. “Otherwise, if this trend continues, there will be negative consequences related to Chapter 2 of the peace agreement. These soldiers may abandon the army and resort to criminal activities or even start fighting.”