South Sudan’s third birthday today is a sad occasion. Three years ago the new country basked in international goodwill and the euphoria of having achieved independence after decades of civil war. Many world leaders turned up in the capital city, Juba, on Independence Day to wish it well and pledge their support. Yet South Sudan is now engulfed in violent conflict and its future looks highly uncertain. What went wrong and what can be done to turn things around?
The immediate trigger for the crisis was a power struggle within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. Serious internal divisions within the SPLM were increasingly evident from early 2013, although no one predicted the speed, intensity and scale with which the conflict erupted last December. The rapid descent into violence was also fuelled by a mixture of other factors including the institutional weakness of the SPLM and a continuing military mindset among its leaders, divisions in the army (into which former Nuer militia groups had not been fully integrated), lack of peace dividends especially for youth, a proliferation of weapons, and the absence of justice and reconciliation after decades of civil war.
According to the UN, both sides have been responsible for ethnically targeted attacks on civilians. The violence has left thousands of civilians dead and over 1.5 million displaced, including nearly 400,000 refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries. The humanitarian situation has further deteriorated with the start of the rainy season. The UN said last week that four million people were at risk of starvation. In the Greater Upper Nile region, where much of the fighting has been concentrated (after initial attacks in Juba), towns have changed hands several times in the fighting and much of their public infrastructure has been destroyed. Even hospitals have been ransacked and patients killed.
Oil production, the government’s main source of revenue, is estimated to have fallen by over a third since the start of the conflict. The government is borrowing heavily against future oil revenue to pay for the war, but thousands of soldiers have deserted because their salaries have not been paid. Earlier hopes of attracting foreign investment to kick-start private-sector development and more predictable aid flows through a New Deal Compact with international donors have evaporated.
The stuttering talks in Addis, led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which started in early January, have produced three agreements on cessations of hostilities but neither side has respected their commitments. The parties agreed on 10 June to recommit to a cessation of hostilities and to form a transitional government of national unity within 60 days. Talks were adjourned on 23 June amid accusations and counter-accusations by both sides as to who was responsible for the selection of civil society representatives, and complaints about the process. As of now, the talks are once again stalled. There is continued low-level fighting, especially in Greater Upper Nile. It is not clear how much control Machar has over some of his powerful local commanders and the Nuer youth ‘White Army’, or who is funding and arming his forces. Without further international pressure, the 10 August deadline for a transitional government looks increasingly unrealistic. Though both sides claim to be ready to engage, they are still prevaricating and seem to regard the peace process as a zero sum game.
There is growing regional and international frustration and exasperation at the slow progress in the Addis peace talks and the prevarication displayed by both sides. In early May, the United States announced an initial set of targeted sanctions against two individuals, one on each side of the conflict. Wider international moves towards punitive measures now seem to be gathering pace. As the Addis talks falter, many South Sudanese are also becoming increasingly impatient with Kiir and Machar, complaining that they seem more concerned about their own interests than their country’s future.
A key priority for the international community is to increase pressure on both parties to the conflict to engage seriously with the peace process and honour the commitments they have already made in the 9 May and 10 June agreements, including complying with a cessation of hostilities, allowing unhindered humanitarian access and ensuring the inclusion of a broad range of South Sudanese stakeholders in the peace process. A much greater sense of urgency is required from the parties. The longer peace is delayed, the greater the humanitarian disaster will be.
The African Union Commission of Enquiry, headed by Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, was set up in March to investigate human rights violations and make recommendations on accountability, reconciliation and healing. It needs continued assistance and encouragement to look seriously at accountability as a vital part of the reconciliation process.
The outgoing head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Hilde Johnson, who arrived three years ago with a wide-ranging mandate to support the government in consolidating peace and longer-term state building, left her post on 7 July, having seen much of her work destroyed by the current crisis. UNMISS deserves credit for allowing over 100,000 displaced civilians to take refuge in its compounds but it also needs to be as active and robust as possible in protecting civilians outside them, including by supporting the IGAD Monitoring and Verification Teams responsible for monitoring and investigating violations of the cessation of hostilities.
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