Soldiers who are supposed to form the unified armed forces for South Sudan currently in various military training centers say that they have completed training and are ready to graduate.
The forces are drawn from the parties to the 2018 revitalized peace agreement which stipulates that South Sudan should train and graduate 83,000 personnel to take charge of security during the transitional period as part of the security arrangements.
At the beginning of the month, the Minister of Defense and Veterans Affairs, Angelina Teny, said the unified forces would be graduated before May 31, 2021, as the UN Security Council demanded the completion of key provisions in the peace agreement before the end of May.
Minister Angelina said the government is currently putting down strategies to ensure the successful graduation of the unified forces.
However, with just two weeks to the end of May, several commanders and soldiers who have been in training and cantonment sites for two years told Radio Tamazuj they are yet to get official communication regarding the matter.
The commander in charge at Mapel Military Training Center, Brigadier General Wol Dhel Thiep, said they are made preparations accordingly and are waiting for the graduation.
“We have just heard it directly from the media after the presidency held the meeting. The security advisor responsible for the graduation, Tut Gatluak, announced over the radio that people are ready for the graduation. This was announced on TV, he said before 30 May, but we don’t know which date really, it is not clear,” Gen. Thiep said. “It is the security advisor and security arrangements responsible, not Bilpham (military headquarters). We have not received an official letter from Bilpham on the graduation before 30 May. It was just announced over the radio that let everybody be ready.”
He said they have completed all the training requirements and are ready to graduate and deploy the forces.
“We are now going for two years since 2019 and the training was accomplished in 2020, now we are waiting for graduation,” According to Gen. Thiep. “Everybody is aware that the soldiers have finished their training but the government was in the process of the formation of the Transitional Legislative Assembly and we were aware that after the National Assembly, they will move to the security arrangements. We have 3,000 forces ready.”
Several soldiers at the training center confirmed their readiness to graduate and be deployed.
A Sergeant Major, Ngor Akol Thiep, said they are ready but have not received essential equipment including uniforms and boots.
“We went to Mapel Training Center in 2019 and we finished all the training. We are waiting for the government to come and graduate us if possible,” Sergeant Akol. “My message to the government is, just to bring the equipment that is needed in Mapel Training Center like uniforms and food items because the people are lacking food here. There is no food and no medicine in Mapel.”
Another soldier, Philip Mayar Mading said, “We went for the training on 13 December 2019. We are ready for graduation because we have been at the training center for two years. Nothing is remaining, we are waiting for the government.”
Western Bahr-el-Ghazal hosts over 7,000 forces at training centers including 4,000 troops at the Masna Biira Training Centre.
In Eastern Equatoria State, several commanders reiterated that they have not received official communication regarding the scheduled dates for graduation, unification, and deployment of forces despite their state of readiness. They demanded that the government clarify the matter.
Major General Patrick Ohiti Osfaldo, the SPLA-IO’s commander of the Tafeng Division at the Irube cantonment site said, “We did not get any information but we are hearing rumors that there is graduation but no official communication. We are expecting the forces that we sent to different training sites to be graduated. The forces in phase two are now ready but I cannot tell their number because we have challenges in the cantonment since last year. No food came in the cantonment, everything needed for the cantonment did not reach.”
“Some of the troops have gone to the bush to look for food. As the head of the Tafeng Division, my message to the government is that I need my people to graduate on time so that phase two will get a chance to go for training. The government should see to their needs. Things were promised but did not reach the cantonment,” he added.
Capt. Michael Tut Dual of Irube cantonment site said forces cannot be stationed in the training for long without graduation.
“On the issue of graduation, there were challenges in the previous round, now we are ready but we have food challenges. All this is in the hands of the government because for us we are people of the bush. What is happening in the town, we don’t know,” Capt. Tut said. “Before phase two is taken, all their logistics have to be availed because people have scattered in the bush to search for where to get soap. They are within, now those in the training have spent two years plus, their things are brought but do not reach them and that is the reason why they scatter from the site because there is nothing.”
Andrew Abalu, a soldier said, “If this graduation comes, we don’t have any problem and we will go, but if not we will stay because we have waited enough. It is now not our work, it is the government. Whether they are working or not, we are just waiting for them. It is now a South Sudan issue, not just SPLA-IO or SPLA in the town. They have to be helped so that this peace becomes real.”
Brigadier Gen. John Tor Biliu, the head of Owinykibul Training Center-the main military training base in Eastern Equatoria State also confirmed the readiness of the forces to graduate but said no official date has been communicated.
Gen. Tor says the situation of the forces is not good and that this has forced many soldiers to abandon the training and cantonment sites to look for food.
“We heard information like that but they did not clarify the date of graduating forces but they said forces will graduate this month. The forces are actually outside the barracks. They are doing some work, searching within the communities to get some food because up to now food has not reached the site,” Gen. Tor said.
He emphasized that the troops’ welfare should be made a priority.
“First of all, their food should be given to them so that they return to the site. After food, I encourage the departments responsible for the training of unified forces to organize the committee that will first come for screening because it is done differently. There is one for soldiers and the other one for demobilization (DDR), they have to send a team to do that a few days before graduation,” he added.
On Thursday during a telephone interview with Radio Tamazuj, South Sudan’s Minister of Information and government spokesman, Michael Makuei Lueth, said the unified forces cannot be graduated without firearms.
“There is a lot of confusion about this matter. The armed opposition was trained but they don’t have firearms up to now. No army is graduated without guns, that means they are not an army,” Makuei said.
According to Makuei, the arms embargo by the United Nations is impeding the pass out of forces currently in training and or cantonment.
“Secondly, we have an arms embargo imposed on us by the United Nations. Even if we have money to buy from a friendly country, that will not be possible. That is why we are appealing to the UN Security Council to lift the sanctions so we can purchase firearms for the armed opposition who are going for training without guns,” Makuei added.
He said the government of South Sudan is now confused by the UN’s double standards.
“We are now in the situation that we cannot graduate forces and we call them an army without arms. On the other hand, the same UNSC is urging our government to graduate the army. So we are now confused about the objective of this statement. If you graduate a soldier without a gun, what is the difference between a soldier and an ordinary civilian? Guns are the symbol of security and strength, not a uniform,” Makuei reiterated.
Makuei said it is unrealistic to pass out forces without weapons. “But at the end of the day, the leadership of the parties to the agreement should be the final,” he stated.
Donald Booth, the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan who visited Juba last week told a local radio station there that South Sudan does not need more weapons. He said the country can still graduate the unified forces without purchasing new arms.
The formation of a unified army in South Sudan is a cornerstone of the peace agreement. The soldiers have been undergoing training since late 2019.
The unity government has in the past blamed financial constraints for the slow implementation of the security arrangements