By Biff Boffington
A season unripe for political change
The situation in South Sudan remains in disarray as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and its armed opposition faction (SPLA-IO) scramble for power within the world’s newest state. There is still a lack of genuine will on the part of the leaders of the country to move the state forward towards a process of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. South Sudan has been consumed by fighting since December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his former vice-president, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup; this later resulted in the president issuing a public apology earlier this year. The fighting that broke out rapidly transformed into ethnic conflict, pitting supporters of Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, against those backing Machar, an ethnic Nuer. Two years later the UN has estimated that at least 50,000 civilians have been killed and a further 2.2 million have been displaced.
South Sudanese citizens live in daily fear of insecurity amid a complete breakdown of the rule of law as government forces kill and torture civilians with impunity. Evidence of this turmoil can be observed all over the country, from the attacks on the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Malakal base in February to the growth of Presidents Kirr’s capacity to reformulate and thrash parts of the peace agreement that he was forced to sign by the members of Intergovernmental Authority on Development in August 2015. Even the recent five days of fighting that occurred in Juba comes as no surprise to many living and working in South Sudan. This is a clear sign that the president and his rival, Riek Machar, have failed to take the opportunity to end the conflict that has brought escalating violence and food shortages to the country. There also seems to be a lack of political will on both sides to seek genuine and lasting peace.
Aside from the dearth of political will, there also seems to be too heavy a focus on resolving the political, economic, and social issues plaguing South Sudan on the part of the Juba political elite. While this focus is welcomed, the biggest issue that continues to have the greatest potential to jeopardise the future stability of South Sudan (if the government and the SPLA-IO do not miraculously manage to become organized in the near future) will be the emergence of “spoiler” groups that arise over the coming months and make negotiations impossible. For example, the Upper Nile state, a land historically and culturally held by the Nuer and Shilluk communities, has now been divided into three (Eastern Nile, Western Nile, and Larjok) by way of a presidential order. The order not only divides the state but also takes Malakal, the capital of the Upper Nile state, away from the Shilluk people and places it into the hands of the Dinka ethnic group. This move further divides ethnic groups that once existed in harmony and splits them further along ethnic hatred lines. Consequently, the creation of 28 states seems to be heavily conducive to the creation of spoiler groups that will only accelerate the formation of an environment that facilitates violence.
Vested interest and the need for sanctions
Given the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, it is unlikely that the international community will mount a sizeable amount pressure on the leaders of South Sudan. This is because the international community’s focus seems to be on defeating ISIS, the refugee crisis in Europe, homegrown terrorism, and establishing peace in Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Several countries have evacuated their citizens from South Sudan following days of fighting that saw hundreds of people killed. Germany, the UK, Italy, Japan, India, and Uganda have already started taking their citizens out of the country. Nonetheless, now more than ever, the international community needs to be actively engaged in the activities in South Sudan or the situation could rapidly deteriorate despite the fact that there is a fragile ceasefire now in place and fighting in Juba has ceased after five intensive days. The international community has repeatedly called on South Sudan’s leaders to move the peace agreement forward, but it has still failed to exert enough pressure to help nudge things along. Furthermore, track II diplomacy, in which private individuals meet informally with conflict parties to find common ground in preparation for formal talks, has been exhausted, and new avenues need to be found to move talks forward. Another issue is the fact that mass atrocities occurring in any one place on the globe can undermine the entire international system of collective security by calling into question the ability of the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibility as the authority tasked by law with maintaining international peace and security. Too often, the international response has been either too late or too weak, for numerous reasons. Thus, it is imperative that the international community and other leading bodies begin to act and do something about what is happening in South Sudan – now and not tomorrow.
The leaders in South Sudan will continue to play this game unless members of the international community like the U.S. and the U.K. apply considerable pressure on the leaders to move the country forward. Now more than ever is the time for the International Criminal Court to consider starting proceedings to indict both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. Given that the African Union’s human rights investigation found that both the government and rebels in South Sudan have carried out war crimes against civilians, action needs to be taken to deal with these forms of behaviour. If not, many within the ranks of both groups will feel it is necessary to continue to use violence against civilians in the future. The question that lies at the feet of the international community is whether to act or just to sit by and allow this violence to continue. Ultimately, does the world need to observe another Rwanda or Bosnia genocide to act?
In some ways, the government of South Sudan has mastered the art of being able to use the international community to receive aid and humanitarian assistance without complying with the demands of relevant international agreements. While this assistance is welcomed by many, it raises questions over whether this system is actually working and whether it is creating a society of politicians and leaders, and an overall nation, that is dependent solely on aid and not able to find its own solutions on how to reconstruct the country and establish lasting peace.
A disconsolate fate
The other issue facing South Sudan is the lack of strong, consistent, forward thinking, and dynamic leadership. The leadership of both the government and the opposition lacks good leaders and direction. Unlike their predecessor, the late Dr. John Garang, who was not a perfect leader but was nonetheless a man with vision and purpose and was potentially the only leader able to unite and reconcile the country’s diverse ethnic groups. While these are not the only characteristics of a true leader, it is these very abilities and proficiencies that South Sudanese leaders need if the country is to move forward in peaceful coexistence and reconcile with its past. In other words, South Sudan now needs a leader like Nelson Mandela, who was able to bring the various interest groups together and build bridges. South Sudan now finds itself in the throes of a vicious cycle that will continue unless the political class allows the country to establish good governance, democratic institutions, and a process of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation amongst the various ethnic groups. Realistically speaking this will take decades, but it is the only way that the country can move forward in a peaceful manner.
South Sudan is at a major crossroad, and if the people of the country do not demand peace from existing leaders, the world’s newest state seems set to fall through the cracks and suffer a disconsolate fate and a full-scale civil war yet again. Now is the time for the leaders of South Sudan to be honest about the atrocities of 2013. This acceptance by leaders would not only help many of the civilians to be able to seek closure, but it would start a process of dialogue amongst the country’s various communities. Instead of simply turning to solutions like the slaughtering of a cow to forge peace, it is now down to the leadership to start using dialogue as a tool. This will provide many of the victims with a platform for their voices and stories to be heard. This will help to recreate many of the local institutional structures that were eradicated during the civil war. This process would eventually allow many to turn to forgiveness and reconciliation over time. This is not a simple one size fits all westernised solution but rather a recommendation that would allow the country to slowly move forward with good leadership. South Sudan is an amazing country with a rich, diverse, and dynamic future, and it is now up to the everyday people of South Sudan to champion peace for themselves and to help finally move the country forward.
Biff Boffington is a student of conflict studies at the University of Essex and works as a consultant in South Sudan.