The SPLA is a rebel group, which fought for South Sudan's independence from the politically dominant North during a long running civil war, ending with a peace deal and a compromise on autonomy in 2005. Over the years it has seen over 20 000 children pass through its ranks - some forced to work as porters and cooks, others forced to kill. During some of the worst parts of the civil war (when the conflict became embroiled with skirmishes between Sudan neighbouring Uganda) the Sudanese government enlisted the help of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) against the SPLA. The LRA is a Ugandan rebel group based upon a warped version of Christianity combined with ethnic Acholi nationalism and relying heavily on the use of child soldiers (I highly recommend Matthew Green's excellent book The Wizard of the Nile for a comprehensive insight into the group and its insane leader Joseph Koney). With the support of Omar Al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum, the LRA (renowned for abducting children, forcing them to kill peers who try to flee, and using young girls as sex slaves for generals), despatched terrified and indoctrinated youngsters to attack those equally frightened and abused children of the SPLA.
To make things even worse, Uganda's government – led by Yoweri Museveni (who remains president), concurrently funded the SPLA and forcibly recruited many children into its own army...whilst ironically condemning the use of child soldiers on the international stage.
During these dark years, leaders from all sides effectively sent children as young as 4 to fight and kill each other- an appalling crime that stole the youth of thousands and led to Koney's indictment at the International Criminal Court.
This week's announcement and the SPLA's favourable move away from such a tragic situation is undoubtedly political. In January, the people of South Sudan will vote in a referendum on independence - and will almost certainly choose to secede from the North; when this happens, the SPLA will become the official army of the world's newest state and many of its leaders will become the official politicians. In the bid for recognition, allies and trade that will follow, the new government will certainly not want an issue like child soldiers (and with it the criticism of the international community and dedicated rights groups like the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers) hanging over them.
Nevertheless it is a huge step forward and one that should be unrestrainedly welcomed. The SPLA operate in a region which for decades has seen children conscripted, abused and sent to fight wars in which they want no part. The departure from this is a historic shift and a positive sign for the impending South Sudanese state. However, the problem is far from over: whilst the Lords Resistance Army and other such groups continue to operate, and national armies such as Uganda’s continue to prey upon their countries' young, those working to free children from conscription (and those undertaking the arduous process of rehabilitating ex child soldiers) still have much work to do.
Ultimately the SPLA's move is a glimmer of light in a situation far darker than any of us could ever truly comprehend.