Small chances for peace in South Sudan

The Republic of South Sudan, the youngest country on earth, gained independence in a state of exceptionally difficult circumstances. Several unresolved conflicts are raging simultaneously, and the new nation faces enormous challenges if it is to develop into a peaceful and functioning state. 

In the world of international affairs, it’s known that states hardly ever wage wars on one another anymore, and if they do, it never stands between two democracies. That might explain the precarious state of affairs in new-born South Sudan, a country with roughly no democratic institutions at all, and which neighbours a hostile dictatorship to the North that loathes its new freedom and craves its oil fields.

Despite that the largely forgotten civil war in southern Sudan officially ended with a peace agreement in 2005, the situation has been highly precarious ever since, and even worsened in the last few years. The basic obstacles for a lasting peace are still present and the challenges for the young country are enormous.

“This has proved to be a particularly difficult year in the South”, said researcher Oystein H. Rolandsen of International Peace Research Institute (PRIO) in Oslo, in the fall of 2009. 

Thousands had died and 250,000 had been displaced in inter-ethnic violence across southernSudanin the first half of that year, and these numbers revealed a tragedy that had passed the eyes of the Western media practically unseen, and that tragedy is continuing today.

North/South tension

The ongoing civil strife in South Sudan is complicated by the fact that there are several separate sources of conflict to consider. First, there is the explosive tension between North and South Sudan which began in 1983 with the eruption of a civil war between the Sudanese government and a rebel group (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) in the South. Tensions turned to civil war as the national government declared Arabic as official language and adopted Islamic Sharia law in the Christian South. 

Despite the achievement of a peace agreement and the presence of an extensive UN peacekeeping mission, people have continued to die also after the achievement of official peace as well as following independence of the South. Khartoum’s recent military assaults in theborder statesbelonging to the North “poses serious dangers for the country, for its future relationship with the Republic of South Sudan and for the stability of the region as a whole.”, states International Crisis Group (ICG) in a recent report. 

According to ICG, the hardliners within the Khartoum government have gained influence since the loss of the South, which resulted in a full scale invasion of three border states during 2011. The Sudanese government refuses talks for a political solution, which has sparked a military response also from the remaining rebel groups in these areas. This has further deteriorated the relationship between the two governments and each side is accusing the other of supporting the rival’s insurgents, a situation that risks escalating into full-fledged war if the international community fails to act very soon.

“Instability must be considered in light of the complicated history of this frontline state within the “old” Sudan, the strategic interests of national powers, and the complex web of relationships and shifting alliances among the state’s political and military actors”, says Zach Vertin, Crisis Group Senior Analyst.

“Some troubles have festered for years, while more recent developments, prompted by the partition of Sudan, have exacerbated instability and intensified resource pressure”, argues Vertin.

Another recent ICG report warns of increased rebel militia activity in other parts of South Sudan where polarised politics, territorial disputes and economic isolation also fuel instability. The influx of tens of thousands of southern returnees from the North likewise complicate a rapidly evolving post-independence environment.

“Now that independence has been achieved, long-suppressed grievances will increasingly surface in an already tenuous political environment. Untangling the web of intersecting challenges will prove no easy task”, says EJ Hogendoorn, Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director.

Ethnic conflict & land disputes

In January this year, BBC reported of ethnic-based clashes in South Sudan, where thousands of armed militias are attacking villages of rivalising tribes, burning them to the ground. These attacks as well as vindictive counter attacks have resulted in thousands of deaths and have forced tens of thousands to flee their homes since southern independence, according to UN estimates. According to BBC, neither the government nor the UN peacekeeping mission have been able to contain the violence or protect the villagers from the attacking militias.

The ongoing warfare is a result of ancient animosities between different ethnic groups, hostilities that were fuelled by the warring parts in the now ended North-South civil war, where the two sides armed villagers as proxy partners in the conflict. The present conflict, furthermore, is fuelled by the presence of thousands of small arms from that same war.

A research report conducted by the Department of Peace & Conflict Studies, Uppsala University, also warns of an ongoing proxy war between North and South. The conflict is multi-faceted and involves land-disputes, water resources and cattle, as well as quarrels between government, rebel groups and local communities. Also, another source of conflict is the grave marginalization of the border statesstill belonging to (North) Sudan, where most of the resources are concentrated towards the Khartoum elites. Uppsala University concludes that the recent fighting and contested status of the border statespose a major risk of re-igniting a new war between North and South Sudan.

Johan Brosché, an expert on African conflicts at the same department at Uppsala University, argues that the nation of South Sudan was born under extremely difficult circumstances, with grave lack of recourses, a widespread ”culture of war” amongst the population, and a government consisting of former rebel soldiers.

“You must try to work on many different levels simultaneously, have realistic expectations and try to find solutions via local conflict resolution”, argues Brosché when asked how to create peace in the long run.

“Right now many conferences are starting that do not appear genuine to the local communities, and that must end. Then you have to stop the disarming, which might sound strange, but as the situation is right now disarmament creates more problems than it helps”, Brosché continues.

He also argues that when several armed factions of different ethnic groups can’t be disarmed simultaneously, it is better not to disarm anyone at all, since the situation can be used by those groups that have not yet been disarmed. A better relationship on the highest level needs to be achieved, since it is difficult to attain any development when the conditions are as tense as they are. Brosché asserts that real development in the peace process has to be achieved so that the population can see the advantages of peace. “As it is now, the situation in many places have not changed since the end of the war”, says Brosché. 

Separate from the North/South conflict and the deadly ethnic violence between communities, is the incursion into south Sudan by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels from Uganda, which is further deteriorating the already precarious situation in the South. 

According to the prominent human rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch, civilians receive little or no protection from the LRA rebels, who from 2008 and into 2012 have continued to attack and kill South Sudanese citizens. LRA attacks have increased over the last few years, killing thosands of people and displacing 400,000, the organization has reported on several occations. Despite joint efforts by the armies of several countries in Central and Western Equatoria, efforts boosted by 100 US troops to coordinate the operations, LRA attacks have continued into 2012, according to the UN based news and analysis service, IRIN News

The several interlinked conflicts in South Sudan make a lasting solution extremely complicated to achieve. Analysts say that if there is to be any chance of long standing peace, a far more focused attention is needed from the international community, regional powers and the governments of North and South Sudan alike.

Filip Ericsson

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