By David Lewis
JUBA (Reuters) - When rebel leader Riek Machar fled the South Sudanese capital Juba last year, General Saki James Palaoko helped him escape government air strikes, evade the national army and slip into neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Palaoko had played only a small part in the world's youngest nation's civil war until then but helped keep Machar's rebellion alive when it was near defeat.
Frustrated by what he sees as Machar's poor leadership, Palaoko switched allegiance again this month and joined the National Salvation Front, a nascent rebel faction led by the army's former deputy chief of staff, Thomas Cirillo Swaka.
"Machar and his guards unfortunately seem to have quickly forgotten the sacrifices of my forces who rescued his life in July 2016," Palaoko told Reuters by telephone from the bush.
"Leadership is very, very poor ... Soldier, they need food. Soldier, they need medicine. Those things are not there," he said in broken English.
Palaoko is not a leading figure in the nearly four-year-old civil war that has broadly pitted the country's two dominant ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer, against each other.
But his defection shows the speed with which alliances are shifting in the civil war and how rapidly it is fragmenting, with battles now being fought on many fronts, often over local issues such as cattle rustling and access to grazing.
Swaka himself had switched sides in February, when he quit the army with a pledge to overthrow the government, citing abuses by the security forces against civilians and what he called increasing ethnic favoritism in the military.
He was the most senior officer to resign since Machar fled Juba in July last year, after he returned to the capital to resume his duties as vice-president as part of a peace agreement that did not take hold.
It was Machar's dismissal as vice-president and his rivalry with President Salva Kiir that triggered the civil war in 2013, two years after South Sudan became independent from Khartoum.
The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted about 4 million, a third of the population, stirring old rivalries between Dinka, Nuer and other ethnic groups, and highlighting the fragility of the young country.
"The Kiir and Machar conflict always papered over a major crisis," said Alan Boswell, a researcher on South Sudan.
"South Sudan was never centralized. It is a collection of diverse communities. In the war, the groups have just peeled off one by one, leaving little more than a Dinka ethnic core fighting to hold on to it all."
"DIVIDE AND CONQUER"
The South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has identified more than 40 different militia that are involved in the war. Their number has swollen as splits inside various fighting groups caused them to splinter.
The fragmentation of opposition forces has played into the hands of the government, and is at the heart of its counter-insurgency strategy.
Kiir, who has been president since independence, appeared intent on splitting Machar's movement, and the Nuer in general, when he named Taban Deng Gai, the former chief rebel negotiator, as vice-president after Machar fled Juba in 2016.
The tactic of divide and conquer has been replicated across the country with a series of peace deals with local groups which the government described as rebels though Machar's forces denies these militia were ever their allies.
A government policy of recruiting individuals from rebel militia has also increased the fragmentation, particularly among some of the smaller ethnic groups.
In the latest hot spot, Eastern Equatoria state, at least five subclans of the Acholi tribe have joined government forces while Machar's rebels are managing to recruit from other sub-clans, said rebel commander Okeny George M Lam.
"The number of militia groups has gone very high," he told Reuters from the bush in Eastern Equatoria. "They know the geography of the area, they are becoming threats, but we are taking them on."
Peace efforts have also been fractured.
The United States and other Western powers that played midwife to South Sudan's birth have not found a recipe for stemming the violence. U.S.-backed strategies such as sidelining Machar have not borne fruit.
South Sudan has launched its own national dialogue but Machar, who is being held in South Africa under virtual house arrest, is not part of the talks.
In a sign of mounting frustration with mediation efforts, South Sudan's Council of Churches has urged the wives of Machar and Kiir to try to persuade their husbands to end the fighting.
"Leaders say they want peace but we don't see this on the
ground," said Agnes Wasuk, a senior figure in the council.
Meanwhile, a foreign policy paralysis in Washington has left regional leaders to take the way on peace efforts. But, rather than speaking with one voice, they have largely worked on South Sudan on a bilateral basis.Ethiopia has the lead role to play but documents seen by Reuters show how Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is also pursuing a parallel effort to reconcile differences between Machar and Kiir, at the latter's request.
Boswell said the priority for South Sudan's neighbors was now to contain the spill-over of the conflict across the border and maintain their areas of influence.
"They are shadow boxing each other," he said. "The grand plan failed. Each has lowered its sights to mitigate the situation to protect its own interests."
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg and by Jason Patinkin, Editing by Timothy Heritage)