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The Deepening Crisis In South Sudan


Kiir (left) and Machar

Kiir (left) and Machar

FORTY-TWO out of the last 60 years in South Sudan have been spent in one conflict or the other. Peace agreements have been routinely broken. But after the wanton killings and indiscriminate carnages, combatants in the world’s youngest country would yet realise like others that they may have to go back to the negotiating table they disappointedly recently in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

With the fresh peace efforts now in tatters, fighting resumed in parts of the country between government troops and rebel forces, almost before the South Sudanese lord of wars left Addis Ababa. This even as international frustration is mounting after President Salva Kiir refused to sign a power-sharing deal with rebels, with the United States pushing for U.N. sanctions against the government.

Fighting broke out midweek in the oil-producing Upper Nile state, close to the border with Sudan, with rebels taking areas controlled by government troops.

The US National Security Adviser Susan Rice criticised Kiir’s government for a “failure of leadership,” saying it had “yet again squandered the opportunity to bring peace” and end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and plunged the country into chaos by refusing to sign a peace agreement.

Rice disclosed that Washington was proposing sanctions “if an agreement is not signed by the government within 15 days and a cease-fire is not implemented promptly by all parties.”

Analysts are not, however, surprised at the unfortunate turn of event given the crisis that birthed South Sudan. Perhaps, if former first vice president John Garang had lived and more favourable terms were extracted from the previously larger Sudan, South Sudan would have fared better as a federation. The founder of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army preferred a highly federated Sudan with most of its components autonomous than an actual break-up. As at then, the government in Khartoum was giving in to a considerable number of his demands. But unfortunately, he died on July 31, 2005 in a helicopter crash after meeting with President Ywoveri Museveni of Uganda.

Kiir, who had more separatist agenda took over. He belongs to the other major ethnic group in South Sudan, Dinka. His rival and former deputy, Riek Machar, belongs to the rival majority, Nuer. This is beside the oil-rich Abyei, which wants its own autonomy and have been talking about break-up for over 30 years.

In the course of the liberation struggles, none of the separatist rebel groups asked themselves the advance questions on how they would sort themselves out in the event of one. Now, the chickens seem to have come to roost and Khartoum, where they left and which is now more peaceful, is probably laughing at them.

The international system is such that every country has its own separatist movements (America and many European countries inclusive), but once the system works and there is consistent dialogue, the unionists will always swing the populace to their side, because its not easy breaking a country.

Admittedly, in the former united Sudanese experience, the separation of the north and south was inevitable, especially after the death of Garang. However, break-up is a means to an end and not the end in itself. Many are still confounded that no one apparently foresaw the heterogeneity of South Sudan as a major course of concern. The division between Macher’s Nuer and Kiir’s Dinka was all too obvious and sharp; even when they were part of the larger Sudan.

At a point, Macher’s group even formed an alliance with the northern Muslims to fight the South when they were part of the larger Sudan. And, by the time of Garang’s death, the demands of the South had largely been met and the then partially autonomous South Sudan even had their President while still one country with the north. Garang probably knew the problems of the South, which was why he wanted an autonomous south within a larger Sudanese country. Yes, there is an element of power struggle, but the ethnic division and illiteracy did not help.

On the heels of the latest failed peace talks, Chatham House researcher, Mr. Ahmed Soliman said, “it was not very surprising, given the developments over the last 20 months.”

One major sticking point is power-sharing that would give each party a certain percentage of seats in the state parliaments. Even as the plan also calls for demilitarising Juba, which government supporters see as a major infringement on their sovereignty.

According to Analyst Nhial Tiitmamer at the Juba-based Sudd Institute: “It means foreign forces would likely be the ones to protect Juba, so for them, they do not want to see this.”

Adding that these are tough conditions for Kiir to sell to his constituents, Tiitmamer said: “Whenever the parties were about to narrow the gap, they would be sent back for consultations. When they got back from consultations, their positions would be hardened more.”

He said the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African block leading the negotiations, may have made a mistake in setting a deadline for an agreement, as the parties should have been given more time to work out an agreement themselves. IGAD and several other interested nations, known as IGAD-plus, insists a permanent peace deal must be signed by August 17

According to the United Nations figures, the war has displaced more than 2.2 million people — 1.5 million internally and 730,000 to neighboring countries.

The UN mission in South Sudan said nearly 70 percent of the country’s population is facing food shortages while nearly 200,000 civilians are sheltering at U.N. bases. Soldiers slaughter young boys, women are raped and millions have fled as ceasefires are ignored and the fighting continues. Meanwhile, the economy remains in intensive care.

YET, the gulf between the main contending forces keep widening alarmingly and foreclosing any prospect of peace soon, without a decisive international intervention militarily and otherwise. “The gap is too big,” one rebel official said.

Both Kiir and Machar have in the past committed to stopping the fighting, only for both sides to break their word and launch offensives. Even as many South Sudanese have grown frustrated with the inability of the leaders to make peace.

The IGAD-plus peace proposal has been widely disseminated, in an effort to get some sort of momentum behind it. However, even before these negotiations began, the government and the rebels expressed reservations.

The government doesn’t like the idea of a neutral third force controlling an otherwise demilitarised capital, Juba, and rejects the plan to give the rebels de facto control of the three states most affected by conflict (which contain the lucrative oilfields). The rebels want a dominant share in the national government, and a federal system.

South Sudanese civil society groups have also criticised the proposal for putting too much emphasis on power-sharing among the elite, rather than insisting on accountability and justice, or resolving underlying issues that caused the conflict.

Over the past 18 months, South Sudan’s neighbours have increasingly taken a leading role in mediating between the warring parties. Yet, this has been compromised by their own involvement in the conflict. Uganda is known ally of Kiir, while Sudan is allegedly providing logistics, weapons and bases to Machar’s army. Kenya, though not involved militarily, has important economic interests in South Sudan, just as Ethiopia is a leading actor in the mediation process.

Meanwhile, Machar’s rebel group was an uneasy coalition of civilian militias and military units that defected from the national army, the SPLA. A number of them had accused Machar of sidelining them in his apparent willingness to consider a power-sharing deal. There had always been concern about whether Machar could bring all his movement with him.

Most crucially also is the deepening ethnic animosity. Millions of South Sudanese have known hardly anything but war.

Under the former larger Sudan, the first north-south civil war lasted from 1955-1971, and the second was even longer (1983-2005).

After independence in 2011, it was not long before the ongoing civil conflict erupted; in December 2013. Seven ceasefires had since been agreed and broken.

Tragically, war is part of life for many. South Sudan is a militarised entity, where the military men run politics.

Those in command often have ethnic power bases, bringing an ethnic dimension to most conflicts.

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