In South Sudan, political gridlock, division, and intercommunal violence have raised fears that the country’s once hopeful peace deal of 2018 is at risk of unravelling. The rising level of violence has sparked international concern and is tightly connected to the intransigence of the coalition’s respective political parties. In a written statement released on Tuesday, the UN Mission in South Sudan announced there were 415 violent incidents in the first five months of the year – an increase from the 236 attacks recorded in the corresponding period of last year. Despite an absence of any overtly politically motivated violence, and the “good behaviour” of the politicians in South Sudan’s complex transitional coalition government, the “scope and intensity of the current outbreak of inter-communal violence could threaten this fragile mission,” according to the head of the mission David Shearer. Perhaps more immediately worrying is the letter’s revelation that “hundreds of people have been killed or injured, women and children abducted, cattle stolen, homes burnt to the ground and thousands forced to flee to escape.”
Much of the violence is intercommunal and occurs between rival ethnic groups. The eastern state of Jonglei has especially suffered from such conflict since the advent of the country’s new peace deal. In the most recent eruption last month, at least 240 people were tragically killed as Murle militia raided the town of Pieri and other nearby areas on May 16. Indeed, the nature and scale of this conflict simply fails square with the picture of an intact peace deal only being held back by passive political squabbling in Juba. In the span of two days, 28 villages were torched and looted, leaving many innocent citizens to be forcibly displaced from their homes. This incident received particular international attention given that three humanitarian workers lost their lives: one Médecins Sans Frontières member and two workers from a local NGO. That the attackers felt emboldened enough to murder international aid workers is in itself testimony to the level of lawlessness seeping across certain pockets of the country.
It also speaks of the deeply entrenched rivalries that have become embedded across many of South Sudan’s rural areas. The Murle violence has largely been perceived as a counter-attack to the Lou Nuer raid, which left more than 100 people dead in February. Often, these assaults are highly organized and also carry great support at times involving thousands of young men with destructive weaponry. According to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, fighting between these two communities alone has killed 658 people. Across just three months this year, an additional 592 people were abducted.
The blame for this rising tide of violence can largely be placed at the feet of the ruling transitional coalition government. For one, they have largely neglected the already fragile local economies in South Sudan’s rural areas. According to the World Bank, rural poverty in South Sudan tends to be characterized by a lack of access to services, infrastructure, and economic opportunity. As resources become increasingly scarce, competition for what is available becomes inflamed, and at times, violent. Levels of poverty and suffering in areas such as Lou Nuer were also vastly accentuated by the catastrophic floods that swept through South Sudan at the end of 2019. Homes were swept away. Thousands of cattle, the lifeline for many families, disappeared. However, the recovery process from this devastation has been largely aided by NGOs and other non-state actors as the government continually fails to redistribute wealth far beyond Juba. In Shearer’s eyes, this “economic deprivation” is a significant contributor to the rising levels of violence.
But perhaps the single biggest factor in the scale of this violence is the coalition government’s failure to complete the 2018 peace deal as they stubbornly clash over the allocation of state governments. The agreement decrees control at the state and county level as 55% for the incumbent TGoNU, SPLM-IO 27%, SSOA 10% and OPP 8% and our of this ambiguity has emerged contrasting interpretations. Last week, President Kiir’s Press Secretary, Ateny Wek Ateny, declared that Kiir’s side would not concede ground on its position to take six of the ten states, at the frustration of the smaller coalition parties. At the same time, Machar’s SPLM-IO are fixed in their position of taking three states. The regional consequences of this deadlock are now coming to crystallize in the shape of destructive intercommunal violence. Traditionally, local governors have been key peacemakers when settling ethnic disputes in South Sudan’s countryside, through their ability to provide a neutral platform upon which issues can be aired. Now, however, that channel for dialogue has been closed and leadership of South Sudan’s provinces is conspicuously absent. As Shearer surmises, “much of the lawlessness and seizing of resources by armed groups stems from an absence of authority because political parties have failed to agree on the appointment of governors and local authorities in the 10 states.”
In order to halt this brutal flow of violence, policymakers in the central government must first pause for introspection. Kiir and Machar, the main stakeholders within the coalition, must become more flexible and prioritize the appointment of local governors irrespective of their political allegiances. It would be a powerful expression of unity if the government were to allocate provinces to each of the many smaller parties which have consigned to the outer fringes of this coalition government. A move such as this would also enable greater representation of the diverse ethnic communities within South Sudan’s provinces, and would help to ease deep-seated partisan divides. If Kiir and Machar relinquished a significant share of regional control and demonstrated peace and reconciliation, it would further help to ease the inflamed polarity in South Sudanese between their respective support bases. Perhaps, most importantly, it would restore a degree of order, stability, and a political channel for dialogue and conflict resolution in some of South Sudan’s most violent and presently lawless provinces. The appointment of local governors is a vitally urgent priority for the central government, and should be placed above petty political disputes. As if there was any doubt, Augustino Ting Mayai, director of research at the Juba think tank, has recently underlined exactly how responsible the central government is for this rise in violence: “Ethnically motivated conflicts are rising because the political authorities are not in place to tackle them, and it is happening across the board.”
Secondly, the South Sudanese government must fundamentally reform the practices of its military institutions. Violence in South Sudan extends beyond just intercommunal conflict. In the south of the country, government forces continue to clash with the rebel forces that opted out of signing the transitional unity deal. Most worryingly, though, is the fact that the government appears to be driving this conflict. “The main aggressor seems to be the government. It’s full-on fighting, and the risk is that it will pull more fighters out of the current peace deal,” argued Alan Boswell of the International Crisis Group. Meanwhile, the National Salvation Front led by Thomas Cirilo has described government forces, including those of Machar’s, launching raids on its positions in central and western Equatoria.
Given that Cirilo’s reasons for not signing the 2018 peace agreement stemmed from a feeling that it would make the country’s two major political parties too powerful, and that it failed to address systemic issues of corruption, these naked acts of aggression seem astonishing. Evidently, the civil war’s legacies of institutionalized violence remain deeply imbued into governmental political decision-making. To protect the future of the peace deal, Kiir and Machar must both agree to stand down their warring troops. They must cut their military spending and redistribute this budget into infrastructure and community development. This will have a doubly positive effect, as the level of conflict which government forces involve themselves in will decrease, whilst also increasing the economic prosperity of regions such as Jonglei and begin to listen to the demands of the rebel forces.
The current ruling coalition of South Sudan, and therefore the country’s peace deal, will only stand a chance of enduring if political heavyweights like Kiir and Machar start getting used to making concessions across the board. Unfortunately, this process will require both men to overcome their rather large egos as well as their obsession with power. Based on what we have witnessed so far, a decision to find a compromise would resemble a faint miracle.
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