In July last year opposing forces loyal to South Sudan president Salva Kiir and his then first vice-president Riek Machar engaged in heavy fighting in the capital Juba. The date marked nearly five years since South Sudan had secured formal independence from Sudan.
The fighting in Juba may have come as a surprise to many. But it had long been expected among people living and working in the world’s newest state. The country had spiralled into civil war two years earlier after Kiir, from the dominant Dinka ethnic group, sacked Machar, a Nuer. Juba’s political crisis took a turn for the worse in December 2015 when Kiir decreed the formation of 28 new states after dissolving the country’s 10 regional states. This was just a few months after he had signed a new peace agreement.
The president’s decision has been viewed by many as a way for the Jieng Council of Elders to create states that benefit the Dinka communities. The council is a group of Dinka elites and elders who control the political scene in South Sudan. The result is that the country’s oil fields are now placed in the hands of one dominant ethnic group, further dividing and intensifying tensions along ethnic lines.
Kiir took the decision to form the new states to a new level in June 2016 when he ordered the appointed of the governors of all of them as interim leaders of the ruling party in their respective states. He did this in his capacity as chairperson of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The recent bout of unrest has led to one in five people in South Sudan being displaced as 2.3 million citizens have been forced to flee their homes. Over 720,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries in search of safety.
If violence continues and the controversial policies are not reversed, full scale fighting across the country is highly likely. Hundreds – if not thousands – of civilians are likely to die as ethnic groups form small militia groups and take up arms to defend what they see as their territory.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
The president continues to buckle to pressure from his peers in the SPLM despite calls from international bodies to reverse the presidential order. These calls have come from the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission of South Sudan, the eight-country East Africa bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the United Nations (UN)2015.
Kiir’s move is creating a detour away from peace, despite recent efforts by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to reconcile and move towards a Transitional Government of National Unity.
Civilians living in the newly created states were never consulted about their formation or the demarcation of land. Many are not happy. At the time of the decree tribal leaders in the Raja County area rejected it saying they would not accept being merged with the Dinka-inhabited counties of Aweil West and North. Under the 10 states system of South Sudan’s constitution, Raja County belongs to Western Bahr al Ghazal State with Wau as the state’s capital.
There are reports that the army has been conducting heavy military activities in several of the contested states. These include the Upper Nile, Unity State, Equatorias and Western Bahr el Ghazal. In May last year clashes between local militias and government-backed troops erupted in Lol State, one of the 28 states created by Kiir’s decree. Machar’s departure from South Sudan to Sudan and then on to South Africa has not helped quell the fighting in many parts of the country. Battles continue between forces linked to the opposition or local militias who oppose the president. As recent as October last year there was fighting in Malakal town where opposition forces attempted to take back the town, leaving 58 rebels killed.
Another civil war?
The attacks in Juba highlighted the instability of South Sudan. And it appears that the government is gearing up for another civil war.
There is also no clear plan addressing disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of the country as an integral part of a post-conflict peace consolidation.
And there are concerns that peacekeepers working under the leadership of the United Nation Mission aren’t equipped and prepared to deal with another ethnically driven civil war in the country. A UN investigation into a raid in Malakal found that peacekeepers had a “lack of a proactive mindset with regards to the protection of civilians” and “confusion with respect to command and control and lack of coordination”.
Nothing has been done to address these failures, as many of these same peacekeepers are still serving in Malakal. This means that there’s no guarantee that peacekeepers will be able to protect civilians in the way the Security Council mandate intends them to.
This situation points to gaps – and highlights the fragility – of a peace agreement that was forced through by the international community. The failure by the international community as well as international monitoring bodies to address flaws in the agreement has in fact contributed to South Sudan devolving into a failed state.
In principle, the Proposed Compromise Peace Agreement (CPA-II) hammered out in June 2016 and backed by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development member states and international community, should create a political arena which has a single coordinated purchaser of loyalties. This would reduce uncertainty and competition which in turn would reduce the price of loyalty and allow the political class to focus on longer term issues.
But state and political leaders are engrossed in short term political management. Political leaders are generally unconcerned about the urgent prospect of the country’s macroeconomic crisis. One of the indications of this is rampant inflation.
Conflict resolution, peace-building and reconciliation initiatives at local level have become extremely challenging. For example, the Upper Nile and Eastern Equatoria and Equatoria regions have become ethnic enclaves, each with its own defence forces. Inter-communal violence is widespread.
The question is whether the international community can establish a more practical peace agreement that will prevent further escalation in violence against civilians.