Country Listing

Sudan Table of Contents




SPLA soldier guarding a cattle vaccination program near Kapoeta, June 1988
Courtesy Roger Winter


SPLA-built bridge on road between Kapoeta and Torit in eastern Al Istiwai, 1990
Courtesy Roger Winter

The SPLA was formed in 1983 when Lieutenant Colonel John Garang of the SPAF was sent to quell a mutiny in Bor of 500 southern troops who were resisting orders to be rotated to the north. Instead of ending the mutiny, Garang encouraged mutinies in other garrisons and set himself at the head of the rebellion against the Khartoum government. Garang, a Dinka born into a Christian family, had studied at Grinnell College, Iowa, and later returned to the United States to take a company commanders' course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and again to earn advanced economics degrees at Iowa State University.

By 1986 the SPLA was estimated to have 12,500 adherents organized into twelve battalions and equipped with small arms and a few mortars. Recruits were trained across the border in Ethiopia, probably with the help of Ethiopian army officers. By 1989 the SPLA's strength had reached 20,000 to 30,000; by 1991 it was estimated at 50,000 to 60,000. Many members of the SPLA continued their civilian occupations, serving in individual campaigns when called upon. At least forty battalions had been formed, bearing such names as Tiger, Crocodile, Fire, Nile, Kalishnikov, Bee, Eagle, and Hippo.

In addition to Garang, who as commander in chief adopted the rank of colonel, other senior officers included a field commander, a chief of staff, and a chief of staff for administration and logistics. Most of these officers, as well as zonal commanders, held the rank of lieutenant colonel, while battalion commanders were majors or captains. Promotion was based on seniority and the number of battles fought. Consequently, most of the senior leadership and field commanders were members of the Dinka group. Others were from the Nuer and Shilluk groups. Members of some other groups from Al Istiwai were given commands to help win over members of their groups.

The SPLA claimed that its arms came from captured government stocks or were brought by troops deserting from the SPAF. It admitted to having received a considerable amount of support and matériel from Libya before 1985 because of Libya's hostility toward Nimeiri and its desire to see him overthrown. It denied receiving arms from Ethiopia, although it operated from bases in Ethiopia, and outside observers believed that that country furnished the bulk of the SPLA's weaponry. The government's claims that the SPLA had Israeli advisers and received equipment from Israel were generally discounted. Its small arms included Soviet, United States, and German assault rifles. According to The Military Balance, 1991-92, the SPLA also had 60mm mortars, 14.5mm antiaircraft guns, and Soviet SA-7 shoulder-fired SAMs. Other sources claimed that the SPLA had captured or otherwise acquired howitzers, heavier mortars, BM-21 truckmounted rocket launchers, jeep-mounted 106mm antitank recoilless rifles, and about twenty armored vehicles. It had a supply of land mines that were widely used.

Amnesty International and Africa Watch have cited deliberate killings by the SPLA of SPAF and militia prisoners captured in combat, and of civilians believed to be informers or opposed to the insurgency movement. Although about 300 government troops were being held by the SPLA as of mid-1989, there were reports that after the capture of Bor, surrendering soldiers, possibly numbering in the hundreds, were shot. Indiscriminate SPLA rocket and mortar attacks on government-held towns resulted in many civilian casualties.

Data as of June 1991