SOUTH SUDAN: ADDRESS STICKING-POINTS TO AVOID CONFLICT RECURRENCE

2014-01-27 00:00

South Sudan Civil War Adversaries Sign A Ceasefire Agreement.
Photo by AFP

The world’s youngest country, South Sudan, is dominating international news for nearly sliding into an escalated civil war. Prior to July 2011 independence, South Sudanese were entangled in a decades-long civil conflict in Sudan. This conflict culminated in the secession of South Sudan after painstaking mediation processes by the international community.

Two and a half years later, the people of South Sudan awake to yet another conflict that threatens to undo the slight achievements made to date. This conflict emerged as a result of the ‘power struggle’ between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar.

President Kiir had his entire cabinet, including Machar, dismissed in mid-July 2013; and offered no logical explanation for their sacking. However, reports claim that he was overly intolerant of criticisms members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) continue to level against him; some of whom were fired on accounts of corruption.

Shortly after being sacked, Machar -- as reported by the BBC News -- explicitly made his intentions clear that he "will challenge President Salva Kiir for the leadership of the ruling party" in the build-up to the 2015 election. This was what Machar had previously hinted. Critics, like Machar, accuse Kiir of trying to eliminate political rivals in a bid to consolidate his grip on state power.

With that said however, tensions between the central government of South Sudan and rebels intensified after allegations surfaced that Machar masterminded a battle that erupted among presidential guards on 15 December, said to have amounted to a ‘coup attempt’, according to Kiir.

Subsequently, the country became severely divided along the ethnic/tribal lines. The Dinka and Neur groups to which Kiir and Machar respectively belong started exchanging targeted attacks and reprisals. That’s when a political quagmire took a turn for the worse – conflict assumed an ethnic dimension. By the time of writing, the battle-related death-toll estimate according to the UN stand at only a thousand (1000), while the International Crisis Group put it at ten-thousands (10 000) since mid-December 2013. Disturbingly, mass graves were discovered by the UN in South Sudan’s towns of Juba and Bentiu. In addition to these, more than 100 000 civilians are said to have fled to neigbouring countries; some 490 000 internally displaced; while over 70 000 currently occupy the UN bases in South Sudan.

Following weeks of fighting, warring parties signed a cease-fire agreement (on January 23)to halt all hostilities and prepare for what promises to be lengthy and crucial political negotiations hosted by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and backed by the African Union (AU) as well as the UN.

Now..,there are pertinent sticking-points that need careful consideration if South Sudan’s ‘all-inclusive’ political dialogue is to yield peace and defeat the odds sliding back into conflict. Simply put, for negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction/development to bear any fruits, both parties’ needs have to be met; incompatibilities be eliminated or, at least, political compromises be made, so as to inhibit the likelihood of conflict resumption.

Before delving much into these sticking-points, it must be emphasised that Kiir’s misdeeds under his rather despotic style of leadership must be at the core of political negotiations if durable peace, stability and prosperity are to be achieved. Firstly, President Kiir may have powers constitutionally bestowed upon him to ‘form and dissolve a government’, but his move to dissolve the cabinet was seen as politically motivated in some quarters. Although it is within his right to dissolve the cabinet, issuing a presidential decree (calling for Machar and allies' dismissal) amid confrontations did not only arouse suspicion but also authenticates the view that Kiir cannot tolerate disparagement, especially within the ruling party’s ranks. Upon its establishment under Resolution 1996 (2011), the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was installed primarily to: provide good offices, advice, and support to the Government of South Sudan; promote popular participation in political processes; guarantee confidence building; and establish capabilities to prevent, mitigate, and resolve conflict among other objectives. Initially, the mission comprised 7,000 peacekeeping troops and recently, it was expanded to 12, 500 as accorded by Resolution 2132 (2013).

It can be argued, therefore, that Kiir blatantly disregarded the mandate of UNMISS; or could this have been another missed opportunity by the UN to heed early-warning signs of an impending conflict and avert its outbreak? The practice of preventive diplomacy by the UN has gained momentum since the 1990s genocide cases of Bosnia and Rwanda.

Perhaps UNMISS was put in place to preserve peace and prevent the (re)emergence of interstate turmoil between Juba and Khartoum over their outstanding issues. Instead, an intrastate turbulence between Kiir and Machar took everyone by surprise – alas, even UNMISS couldn’t act proactively to quell a power-struggle that bred a full-scale confrontation between ethnic groups.

It is surprising that, in the wake chaos, Kiir adopted a hardline stance towards the UN. Prior to the signing a cease-fire agreement, he accused UNMISS of acting like “a parallel government” and backing the rebellion by Machar and cronies. As to why Kiir never conceived this in his mind when UNMISS military personnel entered his territory remains unclear. Or could it be that he expected the UN to work like a parallel government to the detriment of civilians?

The UN like IGAD and the AU seldom take sides (but remain neutral) when involved in conflict prevention, resolution, and management efforts. However, this goes against the backdrop of the perennial nature of influence wielded by ‘powerful countries’ in cases of intervention. These countries are usually (mis)construed to be spearheading interventions in pursuit of their own geopolitical objectives (or national interests).

The least Kiir can now do is cooperate with the international community for one noble reason: the UN is bound by international law to intervene where grave human-rights violations systematically occur – precisely what South Sudanese have been confronted with since the outbreak of conflict.

IGAD, as a regional body to which South Sudan belongs, is currently spearheading concerted international efforts with the AU and the UN to restore peace and stability in that country. Thus, political willingness from the warring parties is of great significance here.

This brings me to the second sticking-point. Whilst accusing UNMISS of siding with the Machar faction, Kiir ignored Uganda’s unilateral deployment of troops to his country.

Uganda’s foreign ministry spokesperson defended his government’s role in South Sudan, referring to it as critical and consistent with ‘regional efforts to resolve South Sudan’s security situation’. However, calls for his country to withdraw its ‘biased’ troops suggest otherwise.

If Ugandan troops are operating in South Sudan outside the ambit of any recognised regional/international framework then this will jeopardise mediation efforts.Is it because of Uganda’s stature as a not-so-powerful country that the international community has remained somewhat mum?

Worse than South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) is gripped by a protracted internal conflict that was instigated by the Seleka rebel coalition group which seized power through a coup ousting Francois Bozize in March 2013.

Michael Djotodia, the rebel-turned-president, ascended to state power after Bozize fled the country with fear of being persecuted. CAR has been plagued by conflict ever since; compelling Djotodia to table his resignation amid heightened tensions between the country’s Muslim and Christian religious militia groups. Djotodia is now succeeded by the interim president, Ms. Catherine Samba-Panza, who promises to return the country into stability.

When the UN Security Council authorised the deployment of African-led peacekeeping troops in CAR, France insisted on contributing about 1,600 troops to boost the African forces there. Though authorised by the UN, many of us are still predisposed to the think that French involvement in CAR is not entirely altruistic. France, as often alluded to, still maintains relations with its former African colonies and perpetually gets involved in interventions whenever Francophone countries spiral into internal conflicts.

So, if Uganda’s role in South Sudan was never warranted, then its troops must immediately be withdrawn irrespective of whether they are supporting the central government or rebels. Nation states must not meddle in other countries’ internal affairs willy-nilly; instead, they must work under recognised regional/international frameworks.

Failure to see Ugandan troops’ departure from South Sudan risks stirring the warring parties back to the battleground. What we certainly know is that, despite the signing of a cease-fire agreement with negotiations nigh, there will be reports on scattered skirmishes signaling the appalling extent to which South Sudan is fragmented in just a few weeks after the conflict erupted.

Therefore, involving individual countries would only deepen clashes with the possibility of causing regional/proxy wars in this sense: every country with strategic interests in South Sudan would either side with the government or rebels – with the purpose of either changing the regime or preserving the status quo. It is therefore desirable for interventionists to enter other countries' territories under the umbrella of organisations like the UN and the AU.

The last sticking-point is that, the warring parties were applauded for signing a cease-fire agreement which came into effect on January 24, 2014. But Kiir’s government had eleven (11) of Machar’s loyalists detained for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government during the mid-December confrontations.

While the signed agreement calls for parties to ‘undertake every effort to expedite the release of the detainees’ (albeit no specific time-frame was stipulated), the government insists on having them investigated as per the country’s judicial processes. I am of the view that, should these detainees not be released, conflict might resume.

The pro-Machar loyalists might protest for the immediate release of their allies and protests, as we all know, can lead to a chain of events especially in a country as fragile as South Sudan. Certainly, negotiations wouldn’t be fair if one or the other faction is under-represented or not represented at all, right? This is why the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, called for the detainees’ release and their involvement in comprehensive peace-talks.

Though still very early to make projections about the post-conflict South Sudan, Machar will not simply abandon his ambition of running for president in the 2015 elections.

In addition to the call for detainees to be released, Machar may, at least, demand that the dismissed cabinet members be reinstated or at best, push for his own return as vice president (if not president) if an inclusive government is anything to go by. In any case, these wouldn’t bode well for Kiir’s expectations because of his deep-rooted distrust towards (real and perceived) political opponents.

The IGAD-led mediation process will only succeed if the explored sticking-points are taken into consideration. For peace and stability to be fulfilled, structural remedies for these root-causes of conflict in South Sudan must effectively be employed.

For instance, promoting  national-identity over ethnic/tribal identity schism; doing away with political intolerance (particularly within the SPLM/A), (re)building trust and confidence among government officials and the people of South Sudan; upholding justice by bringing those accountable for battle-related deaths to book; and equitably distributing the country’s wealth among citizens. Twitter:  @Tshepho_Mokwele Personal Blog: Tshepho Mokwele Online

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of News24.

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