“We cannot turn a blind eye when yesterday’s victims become today’s perpetrators”
After decades of violent civil war north and south Sudan, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005) “ended” the conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese government. On 2 July 2011, South Sudan ultimately seceded from Sudan and became an independent state.
But after two years of independence, South Sudan has been struggling to build its infant state. Corruption, insecurity, inter-communal violence, unemployment, lack of infrastructure and development have made South Sudan one of the poorest countries in the world. The Comprehensive Agreement and South Sudan’s independence left many issues unresolved. For one, it has led to more tensions with Sudan over oil, pipelines and the status of border regions, including the oil-rich region of Abyei. Second, inter-communal conflicts in South Sudan have also continued and grown more violent in the past 6 months. Jonglei state is particularly at risk. In March, the UN United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said grave human rights violations could lead to “a deterioration in the overall human rights situation.” Last week there were new report of clashes and abuses of civilians, including killings, lootings and destruction of property. The UN and several western governments have also warned against the mobilization of armed youth.
Jonglei pretty much brings together many of South Sudan’s post-independence challenges: underdevelopment, insecurity, poor governance, fractious relationship with Sudan, and between states and the central government in Juba. As the most populated state, South Sudan is home to dozens of ethnic groups, including the Nuer, Dinka, and Murle. Conflict in the region pits the Lou Nuer against the Murle, but several Dinka members are also siding with the Lou Nuer. The roots of the problems already existed before South Sudan’s independence. The Nuer, Dinka and Murle are pastoralists who have long been fighting over cattle ownership, cattle prices, and land. During the civil war between the North and the South, these tribes were united by the SPLA and their common battle for independence from Sudan. But since independence, older rivalries and existing tensions have re-emerged and morphed into violence between ethnically based militias. In December 2011, for example, Lou Nuer fighters united under the White Army, raided Pibor, a Murle area. Civilians were killed, children abducted and cattle looted. The intent to destroy was clear. Prior to the attack, the raiders openly stated that they would “invade Murleland and wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth.”
Numerous factors drive violence between the Murle and Lou Nuer, including competition over resources, land and grazing rights, unemployment, forced disarmament by the SPLA, perception of inequity in development, and unequal political representation at the state and national level. As a minority, the Murle feel particularly politically and economically marginalized, and have a deep distrust of the government. Furthermore, other state and non-state actors, including Sudan, have been manipulating tensions and militias, thereby fuelling conflict. The proliferation of arms resulting from the civil wars has made the conflict all the more violent.
Complicating the crisis in Jonglei is a rebellion headed by David Yau Yau against the SPLA. A member of the Murle ethnic group, Yau Yau has already led two insurgencies – from May 2010 to June 2011, and from April 2012 to the present. In 2010, Yau Yau rebelled against South Sudan’s ruling party, the SPLM, later rejoined the SPLA in 2011 after being granted amnesty but rebelled again in April 2012 as a result of Murle discontent with the central government and the SPLA. Over the years Yau Yau has been a champion of Murle interests and gained considerable support from the disenfranchised, unemployed Murle youths. He now heavily recruits young people among his community in order to raid Lou Nuer villages and to fight the SPLA. The South Sudanese army has also accused Khartoum of supplying arms and munitions to the Yau Yau rebellion.
Civilians are caught up in the middle of clashes between these fighting factions. Aid workers and human rights groups have accused the SPLA, militia groups and Yau Yau’s rebels of committing abuses against civilians. To make matters worse, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has also accused them of blocking humanitarian assistance to International Displaced People (IDPs).
On the eve of South Sudan’s second anniversary of independence, a group of pro-South Sudan activists in the U.S., the “Friends of the South Sudan”, sent President Salva Kiir Mayardit an inflammatory letter denunciating government corruption and alleged human rights abuses. They accuse armed forces of conducting “a campaign of violence again civilians simply because they belonged to a different ethnic group or they are viewed as opponents of the current government”. The letter describes the atrocities as “deliberate measures taken by soldiers on the instruction of senior commanders and government officials.” Failure to prevent violent raids and clashes between southern tribes are therefore not simply due to the absence of a strong South Sudanese army. Another proof of this is the culture of impunity. Not only is the justice system weak but the Ministry has continually failed to punish soldiers and officers who commit abuses or give orders to do so – despite the President’s pledge.
Last week, I was sent a disturbing video that perhaps best exemplifies the current situation. Dated July 14, 2013, the footage shows thousands of militiamen in Manyabol, Jonglei, thought to be “returning home from the battle field.” UNAMISS peacekeepers and SPLA just stand by. South Sudan army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said two weeks ago that the South Sudanese army has also not been given orders to intervene in these “communal issues” and arguing that ir is the role of civilian authorities to take the decisions.
One of the most disturbing, absurd, and frustrating issue with the Jonglei crisis is that South Sudan fought for independence because southern tribes felt marginalized and were subject to abuses at the hands of the regime in Khartoum. They fought against corruption in Khartoum and government organized violence. Fighting for independence was these groups’ unifying cause. Now not only are the SPLA and the government failing to protect civilians, but the SPLA and ethnic militia groups are deliberately committing atrocities that echo those carried out but the Khartoum regime, including rape, killings, kidnappings, and destruction of property. Hundreds of people have already been killed and wounded, and thousands are fleeing into the bush. The victims are both victim and perpetrator, the former temporary allies have become dangerous opponents.
The Friends of South Sudan were right to warn that South Sudan “may slide toward instability, conflict and a protracted governance crisis.” Just yesterday, President Kirr fired 29 ministers, including crucial ministers, in what appears to be power struggle within the SPLM. Could the infant state slide into a full-blown crisis?