Is Africa Failing the People of South Sudan?

Refugee camp near Juba
Refugee camp near Juba

The situation in South Sudan continues to deteriorate, threatening to irrevocably fragment the nation. Amidst this crisis, both region and continent are failing to help.

Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban has served as Catholic bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Torit since the early 1980s. He retired in 2004, just before the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement that bought an end to the decades long civil war and eventually delivered independence for South Sudan. Bishop Emeritus Paride stayed on in Torit and been witness to some of the most tragic and harrowing moments of the civil war.

Yet, in a radio announcement declaring his resignation from President Kiir’s process of National Dialogue, Bishop Emeritus Paride declared: “I’ve never seen in the story of my life … such a great suffering of South Sudanese in the hands of South Sudanese themselves.”

South Sudan is in serious crisis. Indeed, it has been in crisis ever since it seceded from the Sudan. But the intensity of the current crisis presents an existential challenge for our 6-year-old state. For a great many South Sudanese, the viability of the state, in its current configuration, is in serious doubt.

The Transitional Government of National Unity (TGONU) appears oblivious to the gravity of the situation. President Salva Kiir’s administration still believes that a return to some sort of pre-war status quo is achievable.

In a statement to the UN Security Council (UNSC), South Sudan’s representative to the UN expressed the South Sudanese government’s intention to drive ahead with its process of National Dialogue, whilst branding opposition forces, who are to be excluded from the process, as criminals and opportunists. Whilst talking the language of peace, President Salva Kiir’s administration has made it clear that they prefer a military solution to meaningful dialogue with armed opposition groups.

For its part, the region seems equally oblivious to the scale of the crisis. Wilfully so. They have their own internal problems and hold little interest in setting inconvenient precedents by meddling overtly in the affairs of neighbouring countries.

In a recent communique, the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) “condemned the proliferation of armed groups in South Sudan”.

Little attempt is made to address the underlying causes that are driving an increasing number of South Sudan’s youth to take up arms against their government. IGAD’s encouragement of the TGONU to build “an encompassing political process determined through a credible election” strikes many as being way off the mark.

The UK’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, provided a more credible analysis of the situation in a statement to the UNSC. He noted: “As we sit safely in this Council Chamber, villages in South Sudan are being raided and plundered and set ablaze. Thousands of men, women and children are being driven from their homes, separated from their families and forced to endure terror and hunger.”

Report after report places the burden of blame for these types of atrocities on the government of South Sudan and its affiliated militias. Mr. David Shearer, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) acknowledged that “full-scale military operations by the SPLA against opposition forces and other armed actors have typically resulted in torching of houses, looting of shops and almost invariably the rape and killing of civilians.”

Below are just a few examples (by no means intended to be exhaustive) taken from Equatoria, all reported this month:

  • Around 3,000 residents of Goji, a village that lies 18 miles from Mundri Town, were forced to flee their homes following an attack by government troops.
  • 10 civilians were shot dead by government soldiers over the space of a week in the Yei River area while tending to their fields.
  • A disabled man was murdered by government soldiers in his own home in the Yei River area whilst the body of an Episcopal priest, Rev Simon Kwaje, was recovered in the outskirts of Yei Town, with locals blaming government forces for his extrajudicial killing.
  • At least two civilians were killed by government soldiers in Magwi country by government soldiers as they conducted a search for an armed group that had attacked a military vehicle in the area, forcing hundreds to seek refuge across the border in Uganda.

The vast majority of incidents sadly go unreported and undocumented. At least 40,000 civilians have fled to Uganda from Equatoria this March. Similar atrocities are being committed in nearly every contested region of South Sudan. Civilians everywhere are suffering what Boris Johnson has acknowledged as “a terrible failure of political leadership” that lies behind the bloodshed.

You will be hard pressed to find similar reports of opposition forces attacking towns and villages and deliberately targeting civilians. This is not to say that they don’t happen. But, it can be argued that the volume of attacks against civilians by government forces dwarfs those perpetrated by opposition forces.

In this context, IGAD’s demands that armed opposition groups immediately “renounce violence as a means to solving the problems of South Sudan” sound incredibly hollow. Likewise, talk of credible elections sound hopelessly premature.

Meanwhile the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) continues to take its direction from IGAD.

In a communique, the AUPSC “urges the TGONU to continue cooperating with the JMEC to ensure progress in the implementation of the Agreement” whilst praising UNMISS for “protecting the civilians in South Sudan.”

The irony of course is that the TGONU is no longer representative of a suitable quorum of armed actors currently active in South Sudan. As such, it has consistently failed to deliver a widespread cessation of hostilities on the ground. This is a pre-requisite to stabilisation and peacebuilding.

Similarly, UNMISS continues to allocate significant resources to the maintenance of the so-called Protection of Civilian (POC) camps. These camps, some now rivalling state capitals in population size, are overwhelmingly intended to protect South Sudanese displaced persons from attack by Government forces.

Festus Mogae, Chairman of the Joint Monitoring & Evaluation Commission (JMEC) noted that the ongoing “violence is a direct result of the perception and reality of political exclusion from the peace process.” He called on his regional and international backers to collectively push for a ceasefire in South Sudan and “demand the full and credible inclusion of all Parties and stakeholders in the peace process.”

IGAD, and by extension the AU, doesn’t seem to want to hear this message. Their commitment to protecting the prerogatives of the incumbent administration, no matter their flaws and failings, will always trump balanced mediation in any crisis.

I remember clearly a panel discussion held at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) a few months after the 2013 outbreak of civil war in South Sudan. A representative of the Uganda High Commission was one of the panellists. When asked why the Ugandan government appeared to favour the government of South Sudan, the response was telling: “When there is a domestic dispute,” answered the Ugandan representative, “you as a neighbour don’t come into the house and start talking with the wife. This is not proper. You must talk to the husband. And in South Sudan, the government is the husband.”

South Sudan will continue to deteriorate as long as the region, and the wider African community, continues to ignore the failure of the South Sudanese state and the profound societal damage that is the consequence of that failure.

The killing and the bloodletting can be allowed to continue indefinitely, as is sadly the case in other countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General starkly articulated the tragic outcome of this scenario: “For every child who dies, for every woman or girl raped with impunity, for every young boy conscripted into fighting and fed only hatred, angry mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, plunged into sorrow, feeding the cycle of vengeance.”

This cycle of vengeance can be allowed to continue. Or it can be stopped. The roadmap is clear:

  1. Delivering a total cessation of hostilities, enforced by an arms embargo and targeted sanctions;
  2. Restoring the peace process, replacing the charade that is the current TGONU with a more inclusive and representative body and kick-starting the hybrid courts;
  3. Guaranteeing an environment for credible dialogue, giving all South Sudanese the space and freedom to effectively participate in the transition to a sustainable political settlement;
  4. Rebuilding South Sudan’s shattered economy, providing demobilised soldiers the opportunity to build a life outside of the military.

All that’s required is a genuine diplomatic will and resolve from within the region, and the wider African community, to end the suffering of the South Sudanese people.



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