By Andrew Edward Tchie*
South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is in a more difficult position than it ever has been in before. Tens of thousands of civilians have died and several thousand have been steeped into ethnic conflict since the war began between the Dinka and Nuer ethnicities in December 2013. Fighters from both sides (SPAL- Government and SPAL-iO) went on a killing rampage, raping, and pillaging their way through towns and villages. Now, more than two million people have been forced out of their homes, according to senior officials at the United Nation Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
Alongside President Salva Kiir, former Vice President Riek Machar has presided over a vicious internecine conflict that has hit Africa since the ending of the second Sudanese conflict, which ended with the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005. While external pressure has continued to mount on both parties to end the conflict, both Kirr and Machar’s roles seem to have changed from instigators and leaders of this vicious bloodshed to chief negotiators in ending the fighting. Both parties were forced to sign the peace agreement with an immediate ceasefire, which would later lead to a government of national unity with Machar once again in the vice president’s office. Nonetheless, it has not worked out the way many would have intended. Both sides have repeatedly broken the ceasefire and Kiir has been reluctant to cede power. This has been evident by the president’s recent unilateral decision to create 28 states in a clear attempt to derail the peace transition. This decree was initiated a day after the agreement was signed with the SPLA-iO. As pressure continues to mount on regional and international groups (IGAD, IGAD plus, UNSC) to end the conflict, it appears that external efforts to get the parties to comply with significant agreements and recommendations have been successful. What these international and regional players need to focus on now is how these elements can and will affect local dynamics and how these factors will play out in the coming months.
Undermining internal factors
Recently, Chief General Paul Malong Awan has warned of possible unrest because he and other members serving in the cabinet and army could be removed from their posts as part of the formation of the Government of National Unity. Sources claim that the army General and five current serving generals from his home districts left Juba to attend two high profile meetings with lawmakers, ex-cabinet ministers, and members of the ruling party (SPLM) at the SPLM headquarters. This move is a critical shift that should not be underestimated, and, if not controlled by President Kirr, could divide the SPLA, further derailing the peace process.
This will only lead to the continuous grave human rights violations experienced by thousands and create complex accountability issues over additional faction groups. General Paul Malong Awan was accompanied by the deputy in charge of operations, Lt. Gen. James Ajonga Mawut, head of military police, Major Gen. Akec Adim, head of training, Major Gen.Charles Dut Akol and the Division Two commander, Major Gen. Butrous Bol Bol. This should now be raising alarm bells within the international community, all of whom are key players within the SPLA.
The IGAD agreements that force the two main parties involved in the fighting to form a Government of National Unity as soon as possible has and may continue to cause many within the SPLA/government ranks to reposition themselves due to the potential loss of power. This inevitable reshuffle within the government and party ranks seems to be adding to the tensions that will eventually trickle down to the various states that some of these disarrayed leaders now control. Although, President Kirr’s call for the newly appointed governors to respect the fact many of the newly formed states will potentially go to SPLA-iO leaders. The decision by the president to not withdraw the formation of the 28 states until after a Government of Unity is formed or conduct a consultation or an independent inquiry into the matter may have now contributed to the stabilization of the peace agreement. It is also probable that in many of these newly formed states civilians will reject the newly appointed governors. In the former Upper Nile state, for example, many of the civilians residing there have rejected selected governors because some of the representatives are not from the newly formed regions or are from a different ethnic group.
Local ethnic dynamics
While the decree by the president continues to playout in different states in several ways, the former Upper Nile state is one such state impacted by the creation of 28 states. Recently, three key moves have shown potential signs for fighting. The first is the new appointment of Governor of the Eastern Nile based in Malakal, Chol Thon Balok, who directed his state government last month to end employment of those who now fall under the other two newly created states. The governor who is from the Dinka ethnic group claimed that, because of the new presidential decree, he had the right to end the employment of government employees from these districts who do not fall within these newly created districts. Instead of creating harmonisation and unification between the different ethnic groups, this dichotomy only adds to the already strained and confused ethnic tensions that exist in the former Upper Nile state. It is unknown how this move and other similar ones will play out in the lives of the everyday people who live along the Eastern Nile, Western Nile, and Latjor (Formerly Upper Nile State).
This move has created immense debate and will continue to add to the already strained relationships between the three dominate ethnic groups. While the sitting government immediately revoked, the orders of Governor Chol Thon Balok, who dismissed Collo and Nuers from Malakal town, what is unclear now is how many employees, are affected and whether this will lead to further tensions. It is also unclear which employees will go where and how state authorities will fairly and systematically execute this process. In the end, this will not help renew the confidence that civilians need to have in their leaders. Neither will it help to bring the peace that so many civilians so desperately want now in South Sudan. It will also add to the instability, contribute to the fractionalisation of society within the newly formed states, making civilians’ chance at peace doubtful.
The second move to place Malakal town into Dinka hands, the state capital that has traditionally been seen as Shilluk land, takes land away from the Shilluk community, who have always claimed that Malakal town belongs to them. This move has severe ramifications because it creates a situation in which those in power at the national level are making decisions along ethnic lines and further fractioning society. This will only divide the three major communities (Shilluk, Nuer and Dinka) and heighten tensions within the state and the UNMISS Protection of Civilian site where many civilians from this state have resided since the conflict in 2013. Given that many Shilluk leaders who have publicly proclaimed that they are ready to take up arms and fight, the future peace in the former Upper Nile state looks bleak.
A third dynamic that revealed potential signs for unrest was the news that the Shilluk king had been dethroned, which lead to his speedy return from Juba back to the Shilluk Kingdom. Many see this move as significant because the king is a supporter of the government. It is crucial that those working on the ground and commissioned with mandates towards peace continue to monitor this situation. Finally it should be considered that most of the forces in Malakal have not heeded to UNMISS’ calls to withdraw SPLA forces from Malakal to cantonment sites that will house joint integrated forces. While South Sudan is externally dealing with national issues and taking steps to adhere to international pressure. The leaders running South Sudan, and to some degree the international community, have once again failed to take into consideration local issues that will eventually filter their way to the top.
What arises from all this is a situation that looks set to continue with no clear solution at hand. In many conflicts, as time goes by and the magnitude of the crisis grows, innocent civilians have to suffer increased levels of violence and bloodshed, and this is the consequence of intensified war. Nonetheless, if a state can inflict so much damage and exercise so much power without feeling the consequences of its actions, what is to stop other players from carrying out the same acts in the future?
*Andrew Edward Tchie is a PhD student and associate fellow in Government at the University of Essex and a member of the Research School on Peace and Conflict based at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).