Obi Anyadike Correspondent
South Sudan’s conflict has entered a more dangerous phase. While there has been no new fighting in Juba, rebellion is spreading across the country. Refugees are fleeing into Uganda and Ethiopia, fearing yet more bloodshed.This briefing explores a crisis that has left more than five million people in need of aid.
At the root of the South Sudan conflict is a political contest for power between President Salva Kiir and his rival, former vice-president Riek Machar.
After two years of civil war, Machar arrived in Juba in April to cement a shaky peace agreement that gave his opposition SPLA-IO a stake in a government of national unity.
But that deal expired in five days of fighting in July.
Late September, Machar announced from Khartoum that he would fight on.
He was joined in rebellion by veteran dissident Lam Akol, who launched his own National Democratic Movement.
South Sudan is being held to ransom by what analyst Majak d’Agoot refers to as the “gun class” — men like Kiir and Machar, “sectarian warlords” who have used violence to “hijack” the state for “personal gain”.
It’s essentially a zero-sum game for who will be “king of the hill in Juba”, says conflict researcher Alan Boswell.
It’s a contest that Kiir appears to be winning. He has moved quickly to sideline Machar, with former SPLA-IO chief negotiator Taban Deng Gai sworn in as vice-president.
The government’s intention is for Taban to woo over as many SPLA-IO commanders as possible, and to present him to the outside world as a credible alternative to Machar.
The government maintains the idea there is still a government of national unity, based on the Addis Ababa peace agreement, a mediation effort by the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad).
“What I hear from government is a determination to move forward with implementation of the peace process,” said a Juba-based analyst.
Donors have to decide whether “we work with what we have, which is Taban, versus trying to ease Machar back into the peace process”, says Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group.
How acute the choice is will depend to an extent on what Machar does next. Khartoum, against which Kiir and the SPLA fought a bitter war to gain independence in 2011, has long meddled in the south – backing a rebellion by Machar against the SPLA in 1991 for one.
But Abdi believes the strategic calculation is changing. Through force of habit Khartoum may maintain an interest in Machar, but warming relations with Juba, and its main backer Uganda, means it would not be in Sudan’s long-term interests to arm and support him.
There is also diplomatic pressure to relocate Machar to South Africa, or anywhere that does not share a border with South Sudan.
“If he goes to South Africa that will be the end of him,” says analyst Jok Madut Jok of the Sudd Institute, who says he wouldn’t be surprised if Machar slipped back into South Sudan.
“If he can get into Upper Nile, he will be a real player, and we’ll be back to full-blown civil war.”
Ethnicity is often used to explain South Sudan’s conflict and atrocities committed against civilians. But the trigger for the civil war in 2013 was a political dispute, based on internal SPLM opposition to Kiir that was drawn from multiple sources and ethnicities.
Kiir and Machar have since mobilised key segments of their respective Dinka and Nuer communities, the country’s two largest groups. But while Kiir is seen by his opponents as promoting narrow ethnic interests, backed by the conservative Dinka Council of Elders, there is also resentment among some Dinka towards his clan, who are seen as favoured.
Neither are the Nuer monolithic. There are senior Nuer who have remained loyal to the SPLA, especially from northern Unity state.
Abdi believes the cardinal sin of the Igad agreement was to view the struggle solely as a contest between Kiir and Machar. It was a narrow rather than a universal deal, ignoring the demands of other ethnic groups and contestants for power that predate the peace process. The longer those “centrifugal forces” are going to accelerate “the longer (a credible) peace process stays in the freezer,” he says.
Boswell says: “You have two wars going on. You have a fight between Kiir and Machar’s coalitions over who will be king. But there is a bunch of smaller groups waging a war against the kingdom itself.”
Even though some groups in Equatoria have teamed up with SPLA-IO, they are all opposed to the hegemony of both sides.
“They want a structure that’s more like a political union, a lot of smaller hills rather than one big one,” says Boswell. There are many other groups like the Cobra Faction, which draws support from among the Murle in Greater Upper Nile. While former leader David Yau Yau is sticking with the government, the Cobras have joined “the struggle against the authoritarian, tribalistic regime in Juba”. The government’s approach was to buy off these community militia. But oil-dependent South Sudan is broke, and with carrots limited, the government has turned enthusiastically to the stick.
Wau, South Sudan’s second largest city, was purged by the army, allegedly on the grounds the Fertit people were supporting SPLA-IO. Human rights groups reported mass graves, and the UN estimated 125000 people were made homeless.
Overall, more than 1million South Sudanese are now refugees in the region, with about 174000 fleeing since the beginning of July.
People escaping violence in Equatoria and crossing into Uganda speak of villages being attacked and looted, women being sexually abused, and boys being conscripted.
“You can feel something terrible looming, an enormous pall,” says the analyst in Juba.
“The best scenario is an impossible one,” says Jok. “It’s to get Machar and Kiir to retire, to be replaced by a caretaker technocratic government until elections.”
There are equally few diplomatic options. For a start, the Addis Ababa process is deeply discredited. “Igad is in complete disarray. Many people no longer believe there is a cogent regional strategy to find a solution,” says Abdi.
The UN’s response to the July violence, in which its peacekeepers failed to intervene convincingly, has been to talk tough about an extra regional protection force.
Igad countries may provide some of the troops (Zimbabwe and Egypt have also volunteered), but as it wants the UN to pay for the intervention, the proposed 4000 RPF soldiers would fall under a discredited UN Mission in South Sudan command structure.
The RPF has the “pacification” of Juba as part of its mandate. But the government has made it clear it will not accept any force that could offer any real interference, and the fact its army has shown no compunction about killing UN peacekeepers, is likely to provide food for thought for any potential troop contributors.
South Sudan is such a mess that there have been calls by former US special envoy Princeton Lyman and African academic Mahmood Mamdani for the country to be placed under some kind of trusteeship for 10 to 15 years. It’s of course a non-starter. The clock can’t be put back, and there is no support for the proposal in the AU.
The solution has to come from South Sudanese, says Jok.
His best-case scenario is that Kiir gives Taban enough space to play a legitimate role, allowing him to put a brake on the excesses of the army, and build a constituency among the opposition that bleeds support away from Machar. —African Independent.