South Sudan in 'wildly unpredictable' crisis
- 9 January 2014
- From the section Africa
"Back to normal… almost," said a junior official rushing past me in a corridor of the presidential offices in South Sudan's capital, Juba.
These are wildly unpredictable times in a nation still grappling with an abrupt and spectacular crisis.
But there are now some tentative signs that South Sudan's President, Salva Kiir, is gaining the upper hand.
"Bentiu will be in our hands today. Or maybe tomorrow," said the government's military spokesman, Philip Aguer, as he juggled two phones and a steady stream of saluting officers at his office on the outskirts of Juba.
Col Aguer told me he was confident that the two key towns under rebel control, Bentiu, and Bor, would soon fall to a "patient" offensive by government troops.
"We may be outnumbered in Bor, but our forces are better organised. In Bentiu the enemy morale is weakened," he said.
It would be risky to bet on a quick and lasting military victory for either side here.
But another reason that President Kiir's supporters may be feeling a little more confident is the recent arrival of Ugandan troops and attack helicopters in Juba, in a move clearly designed to bolster the government's grip on the city.
I have heard credible but unconfirmed claims, from three sources, that the helicopters may have been used against rebel positions in the town of Bor, further up the River Nile.
It is no great surprise that South Sudan's long-term ally Uganda is rallying to the government's side.
More surprising, and perhaps more significant, is the growing alliance between President Kiir and his former enemy, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan.
A few years ago, the government in Khartoum would have no doubt watched with some glee as the south descended into anarchy.
But times have changed. President Bashir, faced with a shrinking budget, rising unemployment and growing internal opposition, desperately needs to ensure the continued flow of oil and associated transit revenues from South Sudan's rich fields.
And so old rivals, egged on by diplomats from an oil-hungry China, now find themselves locked in relationship of mutual dependence.
It is a relationship the rebels will struggle to challenge.
Former Vice-President Riek Machar presides over a loose alliance of military defectors, ethnic militias, warlords and other forces.
They may currently be united in their opposition to President Kiir, but not by much else.
Besides, many in the rebellion are allied with other rebel groups across the border in Sudan, making it unlikely that President Bashir would choose to back them.
Yet none of this means South Sudan is anywhere close to resolving this crisis.
The humanitarian situation is bleak, with the UN, and those foreign aid agencies that have not left, struggling to meet the needs of displaced civilians and still unable to reach many areas where it is thought tens of thousands of people may still be waiting for help, or on the move in search of it.
Then there are the peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia.
The rebels have sent what is widely viewed as an inexperienced team to the negotiations.
They have missed a chance to put political reforms at the heart of the discussions, and their demand for the release of 11 senior officials being held in Juba is a deal-breaker for the government.
Progress seems unlikely at this point.
Blasts of gunfire
The broader security situation remains deeply worrying in a country where cattle raiding and vicious encounters between rival ethnic groups have been commonplace even in the calmest of times.
Now there are bigger scores to settle, particularly after the recent ethnic violence in Juba and places like Bor and Malakal.
The government in Juba is understandably anxious to avoid speculation that could fuel tensions.
But is clear that this city, now superficially calm during the day, remains an uneasy place.
Many of thousands of Nuer civilians remain in camps beside the airport, fearful of reprisals by Dinkas.
Blasts of gunfire heard most nights are widely attributed to the search by government security forces for "suspect" Nuer officials.
Foreign embassies remain on high alert - poised to pull out at short notice.
And there is the lingering fear that the chaos that erupted here so fast and unexpectedly last month could quickly return in a frenzy of revenge attacks.
It is still not clear exactly what triggered this crisis. The government insists it was an attempted coup.
Others suspect a minor clash between rival security forces at a time of tense political negotiations may have provoked President Kiir to pounce on his rivals.
Either way, the breakdown in trust here is likely to be long-lasting and to undermine South Sudan's attempts to build a strong, inclusive democracy.
I have spoken to many people here, local and foreign, in the last few days. Given the tension and uncertainties, most have asked not to be mentioned by name.
"I fear this will get worse before it gets better," one told me. "This country's progress has been set back by years - maybe by a generation."