Less than three years on from South Sudan's historic vote for independence from Sudan, Africa's newest state is at serious risk of descending into civil war. According to reports, over 500 people have already died in the violence this week, though experts suggest this is a significant underestimate.
Fighting has spread from the capital Juba, and violence is now being reported in the majority of the country's ten states with civilians seeking shelter in UN compounds. In recent hours, one UN compound in Akobo, Jonglei State, has come under attack from youths rather than military forces. Three peacekeepers and an unknown number of civilians were killed.
To further understand the worrying situation, Think Africa Press has assembled seven experts to give their views. In the first half of this piece, we asked them to analyse the present situation; in the second, they look at what could be done and by whom to improve the situation.
The current crisis in South Sudan is inherently political, but has ethnic undertones. This does not mean, however, that it can be reduced to a Dinka vs. Nuer conflict. Tensions had been building within the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) since former vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer, announced his intention to challenge President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, as head of the party. This is important because whichever individual heads the party would be the presumptive SPLM presidential candidate in the 2015 elections.
After Kiir sacked his cabinet, including Vice-President Machar in July, Machar continued to pursue power through political means. As someone who was an architect of the split within the SPLA in 1991 and was responsible for some of the divisive Dinka-Nuer ethnic violence of the 1990s, Machar has spent over a decade since he reconciled with the SPLM/A reforming his image so that he can be cast as a statesman and potential successor to Kiir. However, what started as a political dispute within the SPLM runs the risk of crossing the ethnic conflict line – a line that will be difficult to uncross given underlying civil war-era Dinka-Nuer tensions. The government of South Sudan has not made any overt references to ethnic conflict, and has in fact rounded up a multi-ethnic set of alleged co-conspirators comprised of former SPLM insiders. However, with Kiir referring to Machar as a “Prophet of Doom” and making references to Machar’s destabilising role in the 1990s, there is a danger that people in South Sudan may read between the lines, making what started as a political dispute metastasise into an ethnic conflict.
There is undoubtedly a relationship between the political struggle and underlying ethnic competition. But as seen by the various tribal identities held by the many arrested and opposed to President Kiir, it is not the driving factor as much as the personal ambition of leaders and their immediate supporters. Genuine ideas about the future of the state and political party are also central.
The ethnic competition we are currently seeing looks to be a tool. Ethnicity has clearly been instrumentalised by some to build forces and polarise politics into a situation they can better take advantage of. Without the polarised environment, figures such as Machar, SPLM general Peter Gadet and others would have a much more difficult time raising and directing forces.
The more powerful identities driving things at the moment are the layer below the aggregate tribal group and more on the lower sections and communities. There are Nuer amongst the group supporting the President and there are many Dinka with Machar. Also don’t forget the many other ethnic groups involved: Shilluk are a large community and on both sides, the Mundari are playing a key role in current fighting around Juba, as are the various smaller but no less important Equatorian groups. It is dangerous to frame this situation as fundamentally ethnic between Dinka and Nuer, especially since, as we see happening, this rhetoric can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.
Also we cannot ignore other historical animosities and grievances that desperately require reconciliation for South Sudan to move forward. This considered, the immediate conflict was/is at its core political; a competition for power between elites and the future of the SPLM and thus control of the state.
It is impossible to separate the political and the ethnic at this point in South Sudan’s development. Any tensions between leaders such as Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are always going to be interpreted by some people on an ethnic level. That means that there is always going to be a risk that political disputes can spill over into ethnic conflict. It is clear that this is already starting to happen in some places. Sources in states around the country tell me that as soon as violence started in Juba, they received calls from friends and family that it was ethnically motivated. Whether true or not, that perception is extremely dangerous and could trigger fighting in tense spots around the country.
What the regional and international community are desperately trying to do, beyond offering safety to people caught up in the fighting, is to encourage local leaders to undermine the ethnic conflict narrative. And that pressure is working; everyone from Kiir to members of the ruling party to opposition leaders have encouraged people not to engage in ethnic violence. The critical issue at this point is whether people are listening to them.
The trigger for the crisis was undoubtedly the political competition between Kiir and Machar, and indeed the wider splits within the SPLM. Lots of Machar's fellow accused are not natural bedfellows, but over the last few months they united in opposition to Kiir. They come from many different ethnic groups, including Kiir's Dinka. That said, several accounts suggest the actual fighting began because Nuer soldiers in the presidential guard were disarmed. Since then, the ethnic dimension has grown sharply. There have clearly been targeted killings of Nuer by Dinka, and vice versa. This has the potential to truly devastate the country. It also reflects wider tensions in society: every year, thousands of civilians die in inter-ethnic clashes. However ethnicity is not the only fuel for the fighting, and nor is it divorced from a political context. Many of the Nuer soldiers now in rebellion once fought for the Sudanese government, which is one of the reasons they are disliked and distrusted by Kiir's supporters.
There are a number of actions that must occur simultaneously in order to calm the current situation and prevent the escalation of violence.
Firstly, the political leadership in South Sudan must work to resolve their differences through peaceful and constructive mechanisms to bring an end to the violence that we have seen this week. Resolving current differences through peaceful mechanisms is the only way to lay the foundation for peaceful political contestation in the run up to 2015 and for national reconciliation. Equally critical at this moment is that political and military leadership regain control of all armed forces to ensure they do not continue to take matters into their own hands.
Secondly, the emerging humanitarian needs of those affected by the latest violence must be urgently met. Tens of thousands of people are already seeking refuge at UN compounds, churches and other establishments. Their humanitarian needs are increasing daily as they remain cut off from access to food, have limited access to water, and sanitation conditions continue to worsen. This will require commitment and swift action by the government and its military to ensure that humanitarian actors have safe access to affected communities, and by local and international humanitarian distribution agencies to deliver much-needed support. In addition to the new needs arising from this conflict, all efforts should be made to ensure existing humanitarian distribution by the World Food Programme and other organisations in Jonglei and other areas of need in the north continues uninterrupted.
Lastly, it is imperative that human rights are respected by all parties and groups involved, and that security is provided to all civilians, regardless of their communities of origin.
Any external response clearly requires a mixed strategy. South Sudan’s key neighbours must rise to the moment. Much depends on the role of Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and with African Union support, in brokering dialogue and, if possible, a political way forwards. How far this is now realistically possible with – and importantly beyond – elite SPLM protagonists remains questionable, but it is a vital start. South Sudan’s other key external partners – the US, UK and Norway together with China – should do their best to support this effort.
Attention gravitates to high politics. What, and how much, can be done beyond Juba, in the regions and localities most affected by current violence, is also critical and cannot be overlooked. Currently, reporting that civilians are seeking shelter in six of South Sudan’s ten states, it now falls on local authorities, the UN mission in South Sudan and NGOs to do what they can to protect civilians, monitor violations and, if at all possible (and as mandated), deter violence. Right now, amidst escalating violence, the scheduled elections are a long way off. What is more apparent, unfortunately, are the limits to what has been achieved in the name of reform by more than a decades worth of long, hard South Sudanese and international efforts. If anything, however, these and recent events confirm that it is the now more overtly militarised politics at different levels within South Sudan that is the real driving force – and, ultimately, a political resolution within South Sudan is the only way to meaningfully address what is happening.
Local groups such as the church have called for peace, regional foreign ministers have visited, and world figures like US President Barack Obama have made statements. There is a clear understanding of the dangers here. That said, events are moving so fast that these measures aren't working. They should be redoubled. Regional mediation and international pressure did eventually end the second Sudanese civil war – but only after two decades and two million deaths. It would also help enormously if the UN peacekeeping mission in the country was much more robust, and prepared to intervene militarily, but sadly this seems unlikely.
In a memo to the US government, my organisation, the Enough Project called for clear and visible steps to help avert a return to civil war in South Sudan. We've urged the immediate dispatch US Special Envoy Donald Booth to Juba to facilitate discussions among stakeholders and actively support African-led mediation efforts. The IGAD has already sent a delegation of foreign ministers to Juba. The group met with senior government officials and the political prisoners. They can now push for assurances of due process and humane treatment. The ICRC should be allowed to visit this group regularly and publicly report on the conditions of their captivity. IGAD engagement is a good first step, but local religious figures could also contribute to a political solution.
While conflict mediation efforts proceed, it is essential to mobilise the humanitarians to protect civilians immediately. Donors should allocate emergency funds to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis across the country. We were encouraged to hear that the UN Security Council is already meeting on South Sudan on 19 December. They should use this opportunity to draft a council resolution on the crisis, condemning the recent attack on the UN mission's compound in Akobo and directing the creation of safe havens in key locations across Sudan. While civilians are already sheltering in UN compounds in at least five of South Sudan's ten states, many remain in churches and other vulnerable locations. Safe havens could make a significant difference on the ground, as political negotiations proceed.
The UN needs to mobilise and get armoured personnel carriers on the streets with relatively robust patrols to help secure space for civilians. Communication for families and individuals who have lost touch in the chaos needs to be implemented. Public and private pressure needs to be placed on key leaders. It is critical we contribute to stalling things from going over the precipice to all out civil inter-fratricidal war. Water is in shortage and it is very hot too. The numbers of displaced is going to be massive. Humanitarian assistance needs to be a priority with the UN and others doing what they can to secure the space for it. There needs to be better information and the UN and groups such as the ICRC are the only ones with the physical and political cover to be able to get clear information out. There are few journalists and those that are there, largely independent, are under significant threat by all involved. Reliance for information of the situation should not be just on Twitter and Facebook.
Western governments and those in the region need to be more diligent in policing the comments of those in their territory that might spread incendiary, radical and ethnic hatred. Many countries have laws that would allow police to reduce the level of this kind of language. There is space to pull the situation back from the brink and key leaders need to implore Kiir to manage the crisis differently.
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For further reading around the subject see:
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