Understanding the South Sudan conflict outside the ethnic box

Sunday January 5 2014

A wounded child sits next to a relative after receiving

A wounded child sits next to a relative after receiving treatment at the Malakal Hospital in the Upper Nile State of South Sudan on December 31, 2013 following heavy fighting in the the past few days. AFP photo 

By Christopher Zambakari & Tarnjeet K Kang

Inside-out. On December 15, soldiers loyal to Riek Machar mutinied and in the subsequent days, the conflict kicked up a storm across South Sudan. Scholars Christopher Zambakari, & Tarnjeet K Kang discuss the situation in the world’s newest state.

The Republic of South Sudan is facing the most serious political crises since its historic vote for independence less than three years ago.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the conflict that started on December 15, 2013, when an exchange between soldiers quickly spiraled out of control and spread through the capital city and engulfed most states, has now resulted in more than 180,000 people being internally displaced, and a death toll estimated to be over a thousand. The conflict is primarily raging in the states of the Greater Upper Nile.

Former vice president Riek Machar, and forces loyal to him, claim to be in control of key parts of Jonglei and Unity states, which include oil sources that are critical to the country’s economic viability. Peace talks are underway in Ethiopia, under the auspices of the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
Although the focus is on reaching an agreement on the cessation of hostilities between government forces and the forces loyal to Machar, the political crisis that fractured the ruling political party, the national army, and incentivised numerous rebel movements in the country demands a truly comprehensive peace agreement that can address the root causes of the conflict.

Key events
In the months prior to December 15, key events created an environment that challenged the political power of President Salva Kiir. These included the firing of Machar, the dissolution of Kiir’s cabinet, as well as the dismantling of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)’s leadership structure.

While the speed at which the conflict has unfolded came as a surprise to many, several factors contributed to the tense environment. The Greater Upper Nile region, which includes the towns of Bor and Malakal, has been at the center of recent battles between SPLA soldiers and rebelling factions. The state of Jonglei in particular has continued to experience conflict before and after South Sudan’s independence 2011.

The media has largely presented the situation as a conflict between two sides, Kiir and Machar, or worse yet, reduced a political crisis to a tribal conflict.

This failure in diagnosis obscures the real motives behind the struggle within the SPLM and the increasing division within the army (SPLA). Secondly, the formulation of the problem is restrictive. By presenting it as a Kiir vs Machar struggle or Dinka vs Nuer war, analysts have also failed to come to terms with the complexity of the political environment in South Sudan.

Douglas Johnson, an expert on Sudanese history noted that “what we are seeing in South Sudan is the convergence of two parallel conflicts that have been developing over time.” However, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Those who are in opposition, the 11 high ranking officials who were arrested soon after the start of the conflict, are leading members of the ruling party. They come from diverse ethnic groups. Similarly, Kiir’s government is composed of a diverse group coming from different nationalities. Thus, this conflict cannot simply be about ethnicity though it has taken on an ethnic dimension. It is about politics and a struggle for power.

The second dimension that needs to be considered is the army. South Sudan’s national army is composed mainly of different factions that fought against the regime in Khartoum. Several of these disparate groups were integrated into a national army when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was being negotiated and more were incorporated during the transitional period that followed. The army has been loosely structured and key commanders have retained loyalty to their former militia leaders.

The process of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) has ultimately been a failure. Only 10,000 have been demobilised of an estimated 150,000 former militia. More than 6,000 people have been killed in South Sudan between 2009 and March 2012.
The majority of incidents leading to death have occurred in the states of the Greater Upper Nile, where the conflict is now raging over control of the oilfields.

The new political crisis is the convergence of two different conflicts. It is now impossible to disentangle them and resolve them separately.

Hence lies the opportunity for mediators in Addis Ababa to come up with a comprehensive peace agreement that straddles the old grievances that led to the proliferation of multiple armed groups in South Sudan and the recent insurrection exemplified by the events of December 15.

Mediating peace in South Sudan
IGAD and the African Union have taken the lead in mediating between the warring parties and talks are set to begin in Ethiopia between rebels and the government.

President Kiir has agreed to enter peace talks after meeting with regional leaders, yet has stated that he will not entertain the proposal of a power-sharing agreement with Machar and declared that the “alleged coup plotters” should not be rewarded with political power.

Machar has demanded the release of all 11 South Sudanese leaders arrested at the beginning of the conflict, and thus far, all but three have been released. IGAD and the AU have strict policies against supporting deposition by force of a democratically elected president.

However, Uganda has already initiated a military approach by dispatching its troops to South Sudan with a mission of “securing critical infrastructure and installations in South Sudan.” Rebel groups have accused the Ugandan Air force of bombing their forces around Bor, in Jonglei state, a claim denied by President Museveni’s government.
Without an understanding of the key stakeholders and issues driving conflict throughout South Sudan, in addition to the political crisis within the SPLM/A, durable peace cannot be built on military intervention by outside actors such as Uganda.

Sustainable peace requires a democratic process, which in turn requires that all the key stakeholders be accounted for in the process leading to an agreement.

Even if Kiir and Machar agree to a deal in Ethiopia, without including other rebel groups that are active in the country, the peace agreement will only be partial.

Similar to previous peace agreements in Sudan and South Sudan, such as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) of 2005; the Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement (ESPA) of 2006, which excluded certain members of society and armed groups, the new agreement, can potentially contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Durable peace requires democracy in the very process that leads to an agreement. If IGAD and the AU ignore the lessons from previous agreements, South Sudan will only defer its problems to a later date.

A holistic and inclusive framework that includes the needs and rights of civilians, and the interests of all political actors, is a starting point for long-term political stability in South Sudan.

As the country prepares for democratic elections in 2015, a power-sharing agreement is a possible alternative if a compromise cannot be reached between the government and the opposition. There is also a need for the government to broaden political space, accommodate dissent, and allow for greater freedom of speech, press, and assembly.
It is important to remember that there has been growing disillusionment with the peace dividends across South Sudan. Violence in South Sudan is issue-driven.

Factors contributing to instability of incidents within and between communities, proliferation of armed groups, failure to bring together different nationalities into an inclusive framework of a nation, identity politics (inclusion/exclusion, belonging and demand for ethnic homelands), and power and resource struggle above and below.

Armed movements are incentivised by the continued socio-economic disparity, structural inequalities, lack of unity between the different ethnic groups in South Sudan, failure to build a national army, and bad governance.

Dr John Garang, the late chairman and Commander-in-Chief of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), once noted that “under these circumstances the marginal cost of rebellion in the South became very small, zero or negative; that is, in the South it pays to rebel.”

The prevention of armed movements requires that issues that enable and motivate them be addressed. Even if an agreement is reached in Ethiopia and hostilities ended between Kiir and Machar, the problems of violence will remain a reality until the underlining issues are resolved.

The bigger challenges will be political and security sector reform if violence is to be prevented in the future. This includes the transformation of the SPLM from liberation movement into a democratic political party in addition to the completion of the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration of rebel groups in addition to the professionalisation for the national armed forces.

The cost of failure in finding a workable political solution to the national crisis in South Sudan will inevitably lead to the destabilisation of the whole country, jeopardise the fragile Republic and ultimately engulf the whole region. Without resolving the many issues that produce incidents with violent outcomes, South Sudan will be plagued by the same problems seen in Sudan, in many countries in East Africa, and democracy will once again become illusive.

On the evening of December 14, 2013, a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army caused a political crisis, beginning as a mutiny, in South Sudan.
President Salva Kiir announced that the coup attempt was put down the next day, but fighting resumed on December 16 and spread beyond the capital, Juba, to the region around Jonglei which is prone to ethnic instability, again largely along ethnic lines.

At least 1,000 people were reported to have been killed and over 800 other people were injured.

Kiir blamed former vice president Riek Machar (pictured) for instigating the “coup” but Machar denied any knowledge of it and instead blamed Kiir for playing power politics. Bor was seized by the South Sudan Liberation Army on 19 December.

On the same day, a UN compound was stormed in Akobo, Jonglei, resulting in the deaths of two Indian UNMISS peacekeepers.

Dr Zambakari is a Doctor of Law and Policy (LP.D.), Northeastern University, and a Rotary Peace Fellow, University of Queensland, Australia.
Ms Tarnjeet is Ph.D. Student, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign