BY: ANTHONY DiROSA
On July 30th, 2013, the AIPR Blog described a deepening ethnic conflict in South Sudan’s Jonglei state fueled by cattle-raids and retaliatory attacks. South Sudan’s micro-level conflicts were worrisome for a new country seeking to reconcile and move forward from decades of war, but far more worrisome– and–dangerous was the larger militia-based violence between the SPLA and Yau Yau rebels that was driving the country into ruin from the top down. Since July South Sudan has experienced a sharp escalation in the severity and scale of its internal conflicts, but in a different way. An attempted coup d’état last month has ignited an internal power struggle, which has galvanized the formation of military/political factions along religious lines.
What initially began as a struggle for power between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar has now resulted in a situation where civilians, including women and children, are attacked simply because they belong to the other ethnic group. The intimacy between political and ethnic identities in South Sudan has allowed the situation to escalate beyond a political rivalry in Juba into towns and villages across the country, forcing seemingly amicable Nuer and Dinka neighbors to fear for their lives. For the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community, South Sudan represents a nightmarish confluence of ethnic, political and identity-based factors so reminiscent of past conflicts in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and Burma.
Only two years removed from its hard-fought independence from Sudan, stability has proved illusive. While inter-communal conflict and sporadic violence have plagued the country during this time, the recent outbreak of widespread violence is unprecedented and surprising to many in the international community given its scale and severity. The crisis was not wholly unpredictable either.
Rising tensions within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) have been public since mid-2012 when President Kiir, in a move characterized by many as dictatorial and unconstitutional, dismissed the entire cabinet as well as several democratically elected governors from neighboring states. These tensions reached a breaking point on December 14th when the top leaders of the SPLM criticized ex-Vice President Machar (who was dismissed in July) at an SPLM National Liberation Council meeting, prompting Machar and his allies to angrily walkout. What followed the next day––and whether or not it was a coup––has been debated extensively. Nonetheless, political divisions within the leadership in Juba have split the country along political/ethnic lines and led to widespread atrocities and attacks on civilian populations. Although the immediate cause of the South Sudan crisis stems from political instability in Juba, there are many deep-seeded, long-standing grievances that need to be unearthed in order to understand how to bring the country back from the brink.
Serving as a foundation for the political crisis in Juba (and the eventual outbreak of violence) were a myriad of deeply entrenched political and economic grievances. According to Mehari Taddele Maru, a research fellow at the NATO Defense College, these included: the persistent, undemocratic nature of the government in Juba, increasing competition over the country’s resources, particularly oil, and low levels of delivery of basic services to the public. “It was a matter of time before the SPLM leadership had to face the mounting grievances of the population” according to Maru. Christopher Zambakari and Tarnjeet K. Kang at African Arguments also posit that the “SPLM dysfunction reflects itself the dysfunctionality of the South Sudan state.” Dr. Peter A. Nyaba, a South Sudanese leader and former Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research believes that the country’s problems (originating in the SPLM) stem from “failure of the leaders in Juba to organize functional government institutions sensitive to the concerns of the citizens, to develop distinct political ideologies [not based on ethnic affiliations] and the failure to institutionalize power relations within the SPLM.” According to Nyaba, these failures have amounted to an autocratic-like governance style that is supported by ethnic lobbies and backdoor business deals, thus turning state institutions into a “limited liability enterprise.”
This is partially due to the over-centralization of power in Juba since the formation of the South Sudanese state in 2011. With ethnically diverse communities outside the capital now being controlled from Juba and having their requests for constitutional accommodation denied by the SPLM, it is no wonder why tensions have finally boiled over. In fact, a 2011 Crisis Group report identified precisely the same problems and forecasted the danger of not reconciling grievances by failing to reshape political and institutional arrangements. The report warned of the dangers of the SPLM’s “politics of exclusion”, an overly centralized, authoritarian government in Juba, and stressed the importance of political accommodation over a “winner takes all mindset.” Furthermore, Crisis Group specifically pointed to the fact that decentralization had been championed in rhetoric but was being neglected in practice, and that the growing center-periphery dynamic in Juba would be replicating the model in Khartoum that the South had just escaped from. The premonitions many experts had in 2011 have been realized. The current leadership in Juba, by shifting their focus to winning political battles, ignored the growing discontent of its citizens and within the SPLM. They have not taken seriously the process of building an effective, transparent and responsive government in order to move the country forward.
Furthermore, according to Khalid Mustafa Medani at The Guardian, the SPLM has “stifled all criticism, delayed the implementation of badly needed constitutional and security reforms, and pushed through laws restricting the operation of non-governmental organizations.” The grievances directed at the SPLM also stem from the conduct of the state’s security forces that have unlawfully imprisoned journalists and activists and murdered numerous SPLM political opponents and rivals.
Another major factor behind the conflict in South Sudan is the battle for control of the nation’s oil producing regions, which has pitted factions divided along ethnic/political lines against one another, both in government and across the country. The fact that South Sudan’s oil industry accounts for 98% of the government’s revenues annually, making it the most dependent on oil revenues in the world, creates a highly politicized issue with a lot at stake within the SPLM. According to Medani, the government in Juba allocates 38% of oil revenue to military and security, and only 17% to education and infrastructure. Meanwhile, agricultural production has declined sharply over the last decade––80% of South Sudan’s population relies on livestock and agriculture for their basic needs. Oil revenues have been used by Dinka and Nuer leaders (within the SPLM) to forge ties and cut deals with local leaders in the oil-rich Unity and Blue Nile states along political/ ethnic lines. It is no coincidence that control of Bentiu and Malakal, the capitals of two oil rich regions, has been fiercely fought over by rebel and government forces in the last month. Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, believes that “the opposition hopes that by capturing the oil fields, they’ll gain the upper hand in cease-fire negotiations by halting the government’s main source of income.” While oil is not the cause of the conflict in South Sudan, one of the world’s least developed countries, Patey importantly points out that “oil is the prize at the conflict’s end.”
Since fighting began last month the toll on the people of South Sudan has been staggering. Witnesses and U.N. officials have reported severe human rights violations by both sides, including ethnic massacres, summary executions and widespread looting. The Satellite Sentinel Project, a human rights group, recently released images showing the destruction of civilian homes and markets in two South Sudanese towns, Mayom and Bor, by government and rebel forces. Furthermore, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, claimed that mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and sexual have all been documented. “Quite a number of child soldiers have been recruited in the so-called White Army,” he said, referring to the Nuer tribe’s militia fighting in Jonglei state.
The UN has repeatedly warned that it is documenting and collective evidence of atrocities committed in South Sudan and would hold to account leaders on “all sides” if they failed to stop them. Despite reaching a preliminary ceasefire agreement this week in Adis Ababa, recent reports indicate that sporadic fighting and atrocities are continuing in disputed areas. South Sudan is unlikely to see lasting peace come quickly and easily given the scale of atrocities and destruction that has taken place in the last five weeks. The United Nations believes that over 10,000 have been killed and more than half a million have been driven from their homes. In Addis Ababa, Getachew Reda, spokesperson for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desaleg, conceded that “there has been so much bad blood involved now, and there is so much misunderstanding and hard feelings already for the last month, so it would be foolhardy to expect the two parties to come together just at the snap of a finger.”
The Way Forward
The path to peace, from Juba all the way to Unity, Blue Nile and Jonglei states, will be long and require both sides to address the long-standing issues that have existed even prior the country’s independence. Christopher Zambakari & Tarnjeet K. Kang at African Arguments recently stated, “Without resolving the societal issues facing South Sudan, democratizing the political party, opening up the political space, and addressing the root causes of the conflict, the country will only defer its problems to a later date.” Additionally, the authors at African Arguments believed the biggest obstacles to preventing future violence is reform of political and security sectors. “This includes the transformation of the SPLM from liberation movement into a democratic political party in addition to the completion of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of rebel groups and the professionalization of the national armed forces,” they noted. Princeton N. Lyman, Jon Temin, Susan Stigan at Foreign Policy warned about the dangers of reaching a weak and narrow agreement in Addis Ababa. “Such a deal would ignore the broader population and its needs, perpetuate the trend of exclusionary and corrupt politics, and do nothing to address root causes of instability.”
The future of South Sudan must be guided by an inclusive and wide-ranging agreement involving different segments of society that addresses the fundamental, long-lasting problems in South Sudan’s political system. The only effective and sustainable approach to ensure stability for the people of South Sudan is one that tackles political devolution/ decentralization, the oil issue, the reconciliation of long-lasting political-ethnic rivalries, and justice for those responsible for mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. The costs of failing to do so would be too steep.