Why conflict-prone S. Sudan is yet to be safe for Ugandans

Ugandans board police trucks before they are evacuated  from South Sudan following renewed  fighting between President Salva Kiir soldiers and those loyal to his deputy Riek Machar in 2019. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, South Sudan became a lucrative business destination for many people around, including Ugandans. However, many foreigners have lost their lives due to the volatile security situation in the country.

On November 20, 2020, the former South Sudan Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Johnson Juma Okot, led a high-profile delegation of South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) to meet their Ugandan counterparts at the 4th Division headquarters in Gulu City. 

The meeting was meant to settle the recent series of clashes between the two forces at their common border, push for reconciliation and peaceful coexistence between the two countries.

The meeting followed an earlier incident on May 31, in which three SSPDF soldiers were shot dead by the UPDF at Goboro detachment following a clash at Maru Village in Yumbe District. 

The meeting resolved to drill forces on both sides on ensuring security and welfare of nationals of both countries once they cross into either country for work or business.

Earlier in April 2018, the Uganda police signed a bilateral agreement with the South Sudan National Police Service (SSNPS) in Kampala.
The teams agreed to set up emergency response centres, activate joint monitoring teams, share permanent telephone contacts on the Kampala-Juba highway, enhance the provision of logistical support in terms of motor vehicles and fuel allocation, among others.

Despite the agreements, on March 28 2021, four Ugandan drivers were shot dead by unknown gunmen on the Yei-Juba highway between Ganji (Lanya County), 65kms to Juba and Kullipa in South Sudan as they headed to Juba for business.

Last month’s shooting incidence, for example, betrays such agreements. On record, it is not the first time Ugandans are losing lives and properties in neighbouring South Sudan.

Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, South Sudan became a lucrative business destination, attracting businessmen from Uganda, DR Congo, Kenya, and as far afield as Ethiopia and Eritrea.

But the booming trade was short-lived as insecurity soon flared up in South Sudan in 2013, leading to attacks on foreign traders who were accused by the locals of hijacking their businesses.

But the situation was further worsened by fading hopes for the implementation of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, signed two years ago.

When Sunday Monitor visited Teritenya and Owinykibul towns in South Sudan a week ago, it established that discontent within the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and among the Dinka (power base) of President Salva Kiir over his handling of the transition has led to an increased insurgence. 

A highly-placed security official, who spoke to this newspaper at Owinykibul Town on condition of anonymity, said the security situation in the country remains volatile due to fragmentation between armed forces in the country.

“Since 2013 when war erupted in our country, we had many fugitives who left the SSPDF. Some went to Uganda, others to DR Congo and of recent, we are having very sad accounts on the rates of deaths of our soldiers because they sneak back to inflict havoc,” he said.

“The relationships between and within the two main signatories to the agreement have frayed because of political gridlock over key decisions hinged on the agreement, concerning the security arrangements,” the source said.
SPLM led by President Kiir and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) led by First Vice-President Riek Machar are the key signatories to the agreement.

“Competition within the SPLM and the elite constituencies of the Dinka ethnic group of Mr Kiir has increased since the formation of the government, with divisions emerging in Mr Kiir’s camp due to unequal redistribution of government positions,” he added.

This newspaper established that high-level leaders in SPLM and the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) raised concerns about Mr Kiir taking advantage of the fragmentation for his political survival and relying on transactional policies to remain in power.

Whereas political ruptures in Juba continue to trigger security incidents outside the capital, new splinter groups have formed within SPLM/A-IO and have questioned Mr Machar’s leadership and role in the government.

Documents this newspaper saw indicate that in January, the Jieng Council of Elders, an influential body of the Dinka traditional leadership, backed the criticism of the leadership of Mr Kiir under the National Dialogue Initiative.

In a second statement dated February 19, the council stated that “corruption in South Sudan is the driver of political competition” and warned that the country was relapsing into war because the agreement had focused more on power-sharing and ignored peacebuilding at the local level.
Amid missed deadlines and political gridlock on key provisions of the agreement, the stability of South Sudan has remained at risk. 

Since November 2020, divisions among the signatories to the agreement have widened at the same time as the signatories have confronted increased internal political fractures.

Divisions within the political bases of the two primary signatories SPLM/A-IO and SPLM have threatened the cohesion of the signatories and their commitments to the agreement.

Given the inability of SPLM/A-IO to achieve equal standing in the government a year after its formation, various government officials and civil society representatives with whom the panel spoke, questioned whether the agreement remains a viable option for lasting peace. 
Many political, military and social society leaders appear to have lost hope in the agreement following the slow pace of implementation and the shifting political stances of some signatories, which they argue, makes the agreement unlikely implementable.

Uganda hosts some 882,000 South Sudanese refugees as of September 2020, according to data from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). The refugees settled in Uganda after the 2013 civil war caused their displacement.

Political gridlock
Last month, the UN’s Panel of Experts’ on South Sudan submitted to the UN Security Council its final report detailing the worsening security situation in South Sudan and how it could potentially destabilise security across the Horn of Africa.

In the report dated April 14, to the president of the Security Council, a copy of which Sunday Monitor saw, the panel detailed that political disagreements and the deliberately slow pace of reforms by the South Sudanese government were an obstacle to peace and security in the country.

“More than a year of political disputes and disagreements over how to implement the agreement has widened existing political, military and ethnic divisions in the country and has led to multiple incidents of violence between the two main signatories to the agreement,” the panel states
“The selective implementation of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan by the government has hindered improvements in the protection of civilians and prospects for long-term peace,” the panel further states. 

The experts observed that due to SPLM/A-IO inability to influence the government’s decision-making, as well as spur implementation of the agreement, in particular the security arrangements, SPLM/A-IO was breaking apart. 

To suppress justice on one end, resolutions of a January 29 meeting of the Council of Ministers that approved the establishment of the accountability and transitional justice mechanisms outlined in Chapter 5 of the agreement, including the Hybrid Court, appear to be dropped.

According to the panel, the justices have argued that Articles and of the agreement breach the sovereignty of South Sudan to conduct investigations into past human rights violations.

“That because the articles stipulate that the majority of judges, prosecutors and defence counsels should be from “African States other than the Republic of South Sudan,” they wrote.

A source, in an interview, cautioned that political will from high-level officials to establish the Hybrid Court has been lacking because they have been concerned that they might be found guilty of gross human rights violations.    

In March, the South Sudan Civil Society Forum, a nationwide umbrella group representing hundreds of civil society organisations, addressed the state of peace implementation and the situation in South Sudan. 

The forum assessed that the implementation of the agreement had been “very limited and mainly elite-based and Juba-centric” and noted that “reforms no longer feature prominently anywhere in the discussions of the leaders of our country.”

Given the internal split, the lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio organised separate peace talks. Subsequently, in December 2020, the government and the faction led by Gen Thomas Cirillo met in Rome, but the meeting was inconclusive. 
In early March, a separate round of talks between the government and the faction led by Gen Pagan Amum and Gen Paul Malong took place in Naivasha, Kenya. 

Although the parties signed a declaration of principles aimed at fostering more dialogue, representatives of both factions have expressed doubts on a possibility of a comprehensive deal owing to the marginalisation of SPLM/A-IO, a party to the agreement. 

This newspaper established that the government’s appointment of state and local governments after a year-long delay diverted political attention away from one of the foundations of the agreement: the combined security arrangements. 

On March 5, the Minister of Defence, Angelina Teny, publicly acknowledged that cantonment sites and training centres had been deserted and added that conditions were particularly dire for women.

The Governor of Central Equatoria State in South Sudan, Mr Emmanuel Adil (in blue suit) arrives for a meeting with Ugandan officials over cattle raids and abductions in Kajokeji Town in South Sudan in March. PHOTO/FILE. 

Across the country, the proliferation and availability of small arms have enabled armed groups not associated with government security forces such as local militias and cattle-raiding groups, to perpetuate instability in South Sudan. 

“Because of how the cantonment and training processes had been conducted, even if the unified forces were to graduate and redeploy, the forces would likely be divided along political lines and be militarily unreliable,” the panel remarked. 

On one end, armed groups, lacking support at cantonment sites, regular salaries and clear command and control, have relied on their sources of revenue to support livelihoods and to finance conflict-related activities. 

For instance, the panel observed that Internal Security Bureau, SSPDF and SSPDF Military Intelligence earned off-budget revenue from natural resources by establishing independent revenue-generating companies and internal departments to manage the companies’ operations. 
However, the profits earned by such security institutions from the exploitation of the country’s natural resources remain untracked, unaudited and blocked from use by the government.

“The lack of oversight of the companies established by the security forces and of the revenue derived from independent sources has increased the risk of security services obfuscating expenditures that might threaten peace, security and stability in South Sudan,” it said.

In their recommendation, the panel demanded that targeted sanctions be slapped on military leaders whom they say obstructed the activities of international peacekeeping and diplomatic missions and the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid.

Considering the deteriorating security situation in South Sudan, the panel also called for independent evaluation of the government’s management of its arms stockpiles. 

“The committee requests Intergovernmental Authority for Development (Igad) to authorise the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism to inspect cargoes entering South Sudan that received an exemption from the Security Council Committee,” the panel wrote.

Security issue...Expert’s take
Mr Freddie David Egesa, a security expert, says Uganda and its citizens who seek South Sudan as alternative business avenues must learn the risks involved and tread carefully since the situation is beyond its control.

“What South Sudan is going through is beyond their control. This is a democratically young nation trying to study the elements of peace and tranquillity having known only war for the biggest of their life,” he said.

“The stage they are at is like the time when the National Liberation Front took power, people look at each other in terms of tribes, greed and suspicion without any foundation or platform to understand peace,” Mr Egesa says.
He says South Sudan is still far away from being safe, especially for traders from the neighbouring East African countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, DR Congo, among others, because it is very easy to get trapped in any political/tribal conflict among the polarized military forces in the country.

“Uganda as a country is being affected by this slow political improvement in South Sudan for South Sudan has been a workplace for many heads of families and breadwinners, many of whom have lost their lives there,” he added.

Background- South Sudan and neighbours 

In 2020, Uganda exported to South Sudan goods valued at $357.34m (Shs1.2 trillion), according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade. 
But experts argue that Uganda’s export earnings to the country could have surpassed or doubled earnings from Kenya or Tanzania. 
In 2020, Uganda exported to Kenya goods valued at $465.55m (Shs1.6 trillion), whereas its exports to Tanzania in the same year was valued at $95.13m (Shs336b), the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade reported.

Last month, Mr Arthur Kafeero, Uganda’s director for regional and international political affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Ugandan government was engaging with its South Sudan counterpart to ensure security from Uganda border points to Juba.
Elegu-Nimule-Juba route is a major transport corridor for Uganda and South Sudan. 
However, the death of the eight truckers sparked protests at Elegu, a major crossing point from Uganda to South Sudan, paralysing the flow of exports and the travel of passengers to Juba. 
South Sudan is highly dependent on import, mainly from Kenya and Uganda, and the drivers’ continued protests could affect the supply of goods in the country.
Drivers were pushing South Sudan to deploy the military along the transport corridor to improve security. They claim the few military escorts are insufficient to ensure their security.

“Despite the volatile situation, the government has reportedly employed tactics to obstruct humanitarian access to suit its own political, military and economic agendas, including obstructing the delivery of food and diverting it for its constituencies,” the report stated.

According to the report, the government declined to endorse the findings of the review committee but it instead released its findings on December 18, 2020 indicating that 11,000 people were in a dire state contrary to 33,000 people in the review committee report.

Figures from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released in January portrayed an estimated 8.5 million people, more than two-thirds of the population, in critical need of humanitarian assistance this year, compared with 7.5 million in 2020 and 7.1 million in 2019.  

The panel, in their report, wrote that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs noted an increase in the number of incidents of humanitarian obstruction reported in 2020 compared to that of 2019 due to active hostilities and violence against humanitarian workers and assets.