Jonglei’s Tribal Conflicts: Countering Insecurity in South Sudan
Jonglei’s Tribal Conflicts: Countering Insecurity in South Sudan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 154 / Africa

Jonglei’s Tribal Conflicts: Countering Insecurity in South Sudan

Conflicts among tribes have claimed several thousand lives in South Sudan in 2009, with the worst violence in and around the vast, often impassable state of Jonglei. Violence often afflicts pastoral communities, but in this area it has taken on a new and dangerously politicised character.

Executive Summary

Conflicts among tribes have claimed several thousand lives in South Sudan in 2009, with the worst violence in and around the vast, often impassable state of Jonglei. Violence often afflicts pastoral communities, but in this area it has taken on a new and dangerously politicised character. With the death toll over the past year exceeding that in Darfur and displacement affecting more than 350,000 people, the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) should recognise the primarily local nature of the conflicts, extend state authority and prove itself a credible provider of security lest the problems become major obstacles on the road to self-determination and beyond. International partners must simultaneously step up their support or risk seeing the South become increasing unstable ahead of national elections and the self-deter­mina­tion referendum.

Jonglei is the largest of South Sudan’s ten states, comprising some 120,000 square kilometres. Home to 1.3 million inhabitants, it is also among the most underdeveloped regions in the world. Multiple ethnic communities migrate seasonally to sustain cattle and preserve their pastoralist way of life. Access to water and grazing areas, as well as cattle rustling, are thus primary triggers of conflict. Tensions between communities are aggravated by pervasive tribalism and perceptions of state bias, the virtual absence of roads and infrastructure, widespread food insecurity, land disputes and limited access to justice. The escalating conflict cycles witnessed in and around Jonglei in 2009 have sown deep mistrust, and movement during the dry season could reignite large-scale conflict early in 2010.

Perceptions that Khartoum is instigating violence have politicised conflict in the South and created new conflict dynamics. While such perceptions are plausible given the National Congress Party’s (NCP) historical policies of destabilisation, there is little evidence to substantiate claims of involvement in the year’s increasingly deadly tribal confrontations. The size of the territory involved, porous borders and limited GoSS capacity make it impossible to rule out external interference, but the government must avoid using Khartoum as a scapegoat and instead focus on improving its capacity to provide security and promote reconciliation.

Despite a shared goal of independence, local and tribal identities remain stronger than any sense of national consciousness in South Sudan. Tribal identities are central to politics, and Jonglei is no exception. The escalation of violence has deepened divisions among its communities and its leaders, some of whom may be manipulating conflict to their own ends. Politics and the personalities driving them in Jonglei may also be related to a broader competition for control in Juba and across the South. Political jockeying is likely to intensify as elections scheduled for April 2010 and the referendum that must be held by early January 2011 approach, but leaders should work to unite, not just until 2011 but beyond. They need to weigh the consequences of tribal posturing against the benefits of a united South, since greater cooperation is necessary if they are to forge a new and viable state.

Like much of the South, Jonglei is awash with weapons, and the memory of crimes committed during the war is still fresh. Under pressure to halt ethnic violence, civilian disarmament is a top GoSS priority. Although previous operations to disarm the population yielded limited results or stimulated further conflict, another campaign is imminent. While the need to remove arms from the hands of civilians is paramount, a campaign in which force is likely to be used is cause for serious concern. Unless ethnic groups are disarmed simultaneously and adequate security is provided in the wake of the campaign, communities will be reluctant to comply. Lack of trust in government and neighbour alike means communities feel the need to guarantee their own security. Thus, security forces are likely to encounter pockets of serious resistance. Many authorities acknowledge that lives will be lost but say this is a price that must be paid for the long-term benefits of disarmament.

A young and fragile GoSS is doing its best to address a large number of priorities with limited capacity. Security sector reform is one that belongs high on the agenda, but attention has focused disproportionately on the army. The South Sudan Police Service (SSPS) – constitutionally and properly the principal institution for addressing domestic security concerns – is of abysmal quality, so the army has by default been obliged to respond to tribal clashes. But its intervention has not been without drawbacks. An inconsistent policy on engagement and a sometimes too blunt military approach to law enforcement have sometimes created confusion and resentment, limiting what might otherwise be a productive presence. Long-term investments are essential to improve both the army and the police, but near-term security gaps require immediate action from the GoSS, donors and the UN alike if the South is to avoid further bloodshed and resulting instability.

Juba has its hands full negotiating a variety of issues with the NCP, not least the details of the elections and referendum. Keeping its partner in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) from undermining the self-determination vote or otherwise manipulating these processes is a Herculean order in itself. But it must also focus internally. A more visible state security presence and some gains on South-South reconciliation could prevent further division along tribal lines, bolster both internal and external confidence in the GoSS and help refute Khartoum’s claim that “the South cannot govern itself”.

Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 December 2009

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