A new report from the African Union (AU) has brought to light the scale of atrocities committed during South Sudan’s 22-month civil war. These charges include rape, gender-based violence, torture, mutilation and in many cases forced cannibalism. The African Union’s report lays bare evidence which contradicts the government’s claim that the conflict in South Sudan began after the country’s former vice-president, Riek Machar, attempted a coup against President Salva Kiir in December 2013 reiterating that, from all the information available to the commission, the evidence did not point to a coup. The AU Commission of Inquiry also presented reports of sexual and gender-based violence committed by both government and rebel forces against women. Furthermore, the AU divulged shocking reports of documented extreme cruelty exercised by draining human blood from people who had just been killed and forcing others to consume it, in addition to the mutilation and the burning of bodies. The Commission of Inquiry, formed last year, was led by Nigeria’s ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo.
To put it into perspective, South Sudan–the world’s youngest nation– got its independence from Sudan in 2011. The independence of this nation was enabled by the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 9, 2005, which aimed at putting to an end 22 years of civil war between the North (Sudan) and the South (South Sudan). The agreement called for national elections and a referendum for secession of the South in 2010. Considered an extraordinary achievement in the history of Sudanese politics, the CPA addressed an assortment of controversies and challenges which characterized power-sharing, cultural and religious diversity, a transformation toward democratic governance and rural marginalization. It was no surprise that over 98% of the vote was in favor of secession from the Republic of Sudan when the citizens of South Sudan went to the polls to vote on the referendum for independence. This landslide victory in favor of secession was the South Sudanese response to a long history of acrimony, mistrust, and war. On July 9, 2011, when South Sudan declared its independence, all 192 member States of the United Nations offered their endorsement.
Following South Sudan’s independence in 2011, many assumed that years of conflict and violence in the area would be put to bed after the divorce. Of course, the assumption was based on the fact that the marriage was no longer working and secession would, therefore, solve the main ‘problem’. This, however, has not been the case. From a domestic conflict; intra-state in nature (within the Republic of Sudan between the North and the South which lasted over 22 years) to an Inter-state conflict (between Sudan and the young state South Sudan after its independence in 2011) and back to an Intra-state conflict (within the young South Sudan between the new government and rebel forces following the alleged coup in 2013). Though globally welcomed as the world’s newest state, the hopes and wishes of the international community for South Sudan have been far from what the world is witnessing. The current crisis in South Sudan amounts to a failure of the international community to ensure that this new state develops into a democratic and stable nation. From all indications, the current South Sudanese crisis proofs that; secession may not be a panacea for all divided nations.
As mentioned earlier, the latest African Union Report refutes the South Sudanese government’s claim that the conflict began after the country’s former vice-president, Riek Machar, planned a coup in an attempt to overthrow President Salva Kiir in December 2013. On the contrary, the report emphasizes that the conflict began as internal fighting between members of the presidential guard in the capital Juba, followed by violence which spiraled out of control, affecting the general population. As a result, hundreds of Nuer men, both civilians and soldiers, were gathered and shot dead in Juba. Moreover, there are reasonable grounds to believe that both sides have committed crimes and violated human rights. In a positive turn, despite the seeming ethnic nature of the conflict, the AU investigators said they did not have reason to think that genocide had been committed. In a separate report by Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan academic and member of the AU Commission of Inquiry published by the African Union, it was hinted that that Kiir and Machar be left out of a transitional government if one was to be made. The commission further recommended that, all leading members of the GOSS (president, vice-president, ministers) in power before the dissolution of the cabinet in July, 2013 be barred from participating in the transitional executive. These suggestions are imperative and relevant in the process of consolidating peace in South Sudan for the government has failed to protect the people from the atrocities committed against them. Both the government and the rebel forces are responsible for the atrocities committed and both sides ought to be held accountable.
As it is to be expected, the above mentioned atrocities have caught the attention of many international and regional organizations. The United Nations has already condemned the government and rebel forces of atrocities and crimes against humanity and said the situation would be aggravated if nothing is done to redress the situation. Above all, The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the AU and the international community as a whole need to ensure that the political leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the military command of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) take reform seriously. For the long-term stability of Africa’s newest nation, most international bodies propose democratization as a tool to ameliorate the situation. Though necessary, democratization is insufficient. Delivery of public services and economic development will be critical. It is for this reason that the transformations of the SPLM into a democratic party, and the reform of the SPLA into a state army, are prerequisites for a stable South Sudan.
The conflict in South Sudan has killed thousands of people, displaced more than 2 million others, and prompted fears of famine unless more assistance is provided and access given to aid agencies. In addition, more killings continue on both sides even as negotiations towards an effective ceasefire and the formation of an interim government continues in Addis Ababa. Investigators have found evidence of mass graves in Juba, Bor and Malakal, but have noted that there are likely to be more unvisited graves in Juba. Mass killings, sexual violence and other war crimes have been documented by human rights activists and journalists in South Sudan. Sadly, over 9.000 child soldiers have been recruited in to the army on both sides with children pulled out of school and their studies disrupted. Property has been destroyed extensively in main cities all over the country and all economic activity has been halted. This has placed a heavy burden on the citizens; political apathy is wide spread and a general sense of gloom hovers over the nation.
So far, the Presidential Commission appointed by President Kiir has failed to hold government forces accountable for atrocities and obstruction of humanitarian aid. There have been calls by many South Sudanese civil society groups to use the hybrid tribunal as a means of persecuting those responsible for all the atrocities and towards finding solutions to ending cycles of violence and impunity and human rights violations on both sides of the conflict. The African Union’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) recently presented its report and it is expected that with the new information the report presents, relevant steps will be taken to address the situation. The way forward would be to balance international legal standards and more traditional forms of justice and reconciliation. For many, there cannot be peace without justice. All perpetrators have to be brought to justice and held accountable for their actions. Integrating South Sudan’s long history of people-to-people peace initiatives will go a long way to begin the peace process. These initiatives are usually led by traditional leaders, and here the chances of healing wounds and filling crevices which have been torn apart by war are greater. Conciliatory efforts will not only ease the country’s conflict but can help put an end to South Sudan’s long history of civil war.