By July 1991, the SPLA was firmly in control of all Southern Sudan except for three towns of Malakal, Wau and the capital, Juba. Juba, John Garang said at the time, would fall at any moment. The SPLA had pulled out almost all its troops from the interior areas such as Bor and laid a crippling siege on Juba.
However, things began to unravel. On the morning of Wednesday, 28th of August 1991 the normal crackle of SPLA’s Military Radio relayed an abnormal message. Message, 229/8/99 bearing code names of three commanders, Sennar (Riek Machar), Alpha Beta (Lam Akol) and Ivory (Gordon Koang Chuol), broadcasted from Nasir in Eastern Upper Nile to all units of the SPLA declared that John Garang, the Chair and Commander-in-Chief of the SPLM/A had been overthrown. It partially read:
“During the past eight years John Garang has headed the Movement in the most dictatorial and autocratic fashion… To save the Movement from the imminent collapse, it has been decided to relieve John Garang of the leadership of SPLM/A. He is no longer the leader of the Movement. An interim leadership composed of the high command members listed in this message will be as of today 29/8/91 take charge of the Movement’s affairs. The struggle will henceforth be wage with a clear sense of purpose to achieve equality, justice and freedom under democratic set-up.”
The message listed Riek Machar effectively as the new Chairman and Commander-in-Chief of the SPLM/A. The message also listed 13 other points and referred people to obtain more details from a manifesto written by Lam Akol titled, “Why Garang Must Go.” (See Lam Akol’s ‘SPLM/A: The Nasir Declaration.’).
After securing Nasir on the 28th and most white people having left, the three then convened a meeting on the 29th at 5:30PM to persuade SPLA officers who were in Nasir. This meeting resumed on the morning of 30th at 8:30AM however, 40 officers who had refused to join the coup the previous day had still not changed their minds. They stated that SPLA having just lost its bases in Ethiopia and principal sponsor in May, following fall of Mengistu could not afford a change in leadership because any outbreak of intra-SPLA fighting would weaken the Movement. They told Riek and Lam that the objective was to capture Juba. When they refused after further “persuasions” Riek had seven officers executed and thirty-three detained (See Mansour Khalid, “Call for Democracy page 272, and pages 280-281 for names and ranks).
Most civilians were oblivious to the happenings in Nasir since this was broadcasted over the secretive two-way SPLA Radio (Jahaz not to be confused with Radio SPLA – SW Radio) but like all things among Southern Sudanese, rumours had started to swirl by the evening of 28th and by 29th everything had reach fever pitch. At first the rumours were dismissed as untrue until the 30th of August when BBC Focus on Africa broadcasted a joint interview by Riek Machar, and Lam Akol with BBC Nairobi Correspondent Colin Blane.
In their interview (taped on 28th and broadcasted on the 30th) the coup plotters denounced Garang as a dictator and promised that they will bring democracy to the SPLA/M and pledged that they would respect human rights citing the plight of commanders, Kerubino Kuanyin, Arok Thon Arok, Martin Majier Gai and others who had been imprisoned in 1987. They also said, they would halt the recruitment of ‘child soldiers’.
In reaction on the 31st of August 1991 the other 10 members of the SPLM/A’s High Command issued a statement that Garang was still the leader of SPLM/A (see attached photo). Garang also in an interview with the BBC said that those forces loyal to him would not attack Riek’s forces and in his messages to SPLA units urged for calm. He urged Riek to wage a parallel war against Khartoum like in Angola however, it was to no avail because prior to the coup throughout July and early August, Lieutenant Colonel Gatluak Deng Garang Abit (later Governor of Upper Nile State) of Sudan Armed Forces, had already made contacts with Riek. The government of Sudan transferred government allied militia and pro-Khartoum forces of Anyanya II around Doleib Hill, New Fangak and Mayom into command of Riek in Nasir (See Douglas Johnson, “Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil War” page 96) and urged him to attack SPLA.
In early September clashes started to break out between the SPLM/A loyalists and Nasir Coup loyalists as those still loyal to John Garang tried to escape SPLA-Nasir strongholds. The first full clashes between the SPLA and SPLA-Nasir began on the 5th of September 1991 when Commander William Nyuon Bany overran Kuac Deng 12 miles south of Ayod after a contingent of Nasir loyalist raided civilians. Three days later on the 8th of September 1991 SPLA-Nasir under Elijah Hon Tap attack Duk Padiet and Duk Payuel and on the 15th of September overran Poktap and Wernyol few days later killing hundreds. Thus began what was to become infamously known as the First “Bor Massarce”.
Riek’s marauding forces launched expeditionary campaigns and wiped out ad hoc SPLA forces and civilians as they advanced southwards through what was then Duk, Kongor and Bor districts towards Bor town the capital. On the 9th of October 1991 they captured Kongor and reached Bor town on the 23rd of November amid fierce fighting and in the process displacing the entire Jieng population from Duk to Bor. They overran Bor town at 10am in the process massacring an initial estimated 2,000 civilians and displaced thousands (see Amnesty International for later figures) and were only stopped at about 7pm in Gemeza by a ferocious counterattack by the SPLA. The scale of slaughter in Bor town was only discovered when the SPLA took back the town on the 29th of November 1991. Thousands more later died as a result of war induced famine.
John Garang years later would say Riek Machar and Lam Akol, “even if I forgive them, the history will not forgive them.” He added that, “they will be known in history as people who stabbed the movement in Southern Sudan in the back. They will be known as people who at the point of victory, when we were going to win in Juba – this was our next target still is – they stabbed us in the back. The people of Southern Sudan and the people of Sudan will judge that.”
At the time when reports of Bor Massacre emerged Riek denounced them as “propaganda” and “myth” saying he had not ordered any killings. However, on the 14th of August 2011 in tears and seemingly remorseful, at the home of Dr John Garang in Juba, he unexpectedly owned up to the heinous crimes and offered an apology and taking full responsibility for the events of 1991.
Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of 2014 post.