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South Sudan’s South: Conflict in the Equatorias
South Sudan’s South: Conflict in the Equatorias
Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict
Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict
South Sudanese SPLA soldiers inspect a burned out car in Pageri in Eastern Equatoria state, 20 August 2015. AFP PHOTO/Samir Bol
Report 236 / Africa

South Sudan’s South: Conflict in the Equatorias

The 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan reached a milestone with the formation of a transitional government in Juba in April. Yet fault lines like those in the Equatorias remain outstanding. A committed, inclusive political response is vital to stop low-level conflicts continuing indefinitely.

Executive Summary

The formation of a transitional government following Riek Machar’s return to Juba in April marked the most significant milestone of the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) that ended the twenty-month civil war. Yet the ARCSS, designed to address a war primarily fought between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) in the Greater Upper Nile region, is an imperfect solution to other conflict fault lines, notably in the Equatoria region. Conflicts there are driven by a combination of national governance issues – federalism, security sector reform and a new constitution – that the ARCSS addresses – and localised grievances. Though the Equatorian conflicts appear to be on the wane, the agreement’s ability to address national political and security governance issues as well as regional-specific questions about the status of Equatorian opposition forces will determine if they revive.

Conflicts in the Equatorias, particularly in the west, intensified following the ARCSS signing, leading to persistent violence and displacing more than 100,000 people in eight of the region’s 23 original counties. The SPLA-IO capitalised on mounting grievances with a deliberate policy of support and incitement to rebellion, helping turn localised violence into low-level armed combat. This prompted retaliation from Juba that further escalated the situations. 

At its core, the multiple Equatorian conflicts are based on political differences and unresolved grievances between the national government and some local communities, not between the government and SPLM/A-IO. Many Equatorians believe the government and its army (the SPLA) serve a single ethnic group, the Dinka (who are cattle keepers, government officials, businesspeople and soldiers throughout much of the region); many Dinka believe they bore the greatest burdens of the independence struggle, including famine and the depredation produced by raids on their communities, while areas such as Western Equatoria were largely spared. Nevertheless, most Equatorians are not rebelling against the government, and where there is fighting, different armed groups have their own casus belli

Though they were not then a battleground, South Sudan’s civil war created the conditions for new conflicts in the Equatorias. After fighting broke out in December 2013, old suspicions about Western Equatorians’ commitment to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) seemed vindicated, as the region struggled to meet a government recruitment quota, and many sought to keep out of what they saw as a “Dinka-Nuer war”. In 2015, Equatorian governors presented an independent position to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, the regional organisation). The September 2015 sacking and subsequent detention by President Salva Kiir of the popular elected Governor Joseph Bangasi Bakosoro, the strengthening of relations between Dinka cattle keepers and the SPLA against the agricultural majority and the harsh suppression of local rebellions are seen as consequences of Equatorian “neutrality”. 

Determinations over whether Equatorian armed groups are eligible to join the ARCSS cantonment process as “forces previously in combat” at the time of signing have been complicated by the warring parties. The SPLM/A-IO has claimed the Equatorian rebel groups and operations as their own, though they sometimes have not been. The government denies the SPLA-IO is active in the region, which would make Equatorian combatants ineligible for the cantonment, but some still allege SPLA-IO ceasefire violations in the Equatorias. Mutual obfuscation is compounded by the failure of ceasefire mechanisms to investigate peace agreement breaches in a timely fashion and identify armed groups’ relationships to the SPLA-IO. Failure to find a solution for forces which joined the fighting after the agreement was signed in August 2015 could lead to continued combat, a rift within the SPLA-IO and decisions by forces not deemed eligible to continue to fight in response.

Most Equatorians want the bloodshed to end; they do not want to fight the government or anyone else. Formation of the transitional government in Juba has furthered the move toward peace; Equatorians are well-represented in it, leading two of the three security ministries, and Bakosoro has been released. The tools to end conflict in the Equatorias are available, within the August peace deal and through church-led local peace efforts in conflict-affected communities. 

The process to draft a permanent constitution, based on the principle of a federal system and with an Equatorian, Dr Richard K. Mulla, in a key position as federal affairs minister in the transitional government, gives Equatorians opportunities to present their federalism positions. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will make recommendations about ethnic composition of the security sector, its structure and counter-insurgency responsibilities and approaches within an overall security policy framework. Beyond ARCSS processes, reconciliation between agricultural and pastoral communities, supported by a balanced approach from Juba, is necessary to prevent further violence and enable implementation of the agreement. Without a determined commitment by political leaders to peace, not war, however, such efforts will fail, and low-level conflicts could continue indefinitely.

Recommendations

To build sustainable peace in the Equatorias

To the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU): 

  1. Ensure full implementation of the permanent ceasefire in the Equatorias.
     
  2. Resolve eligibility criteria for cantonment, specifically in the Equatorias and Bahr el Ghazal.
     
  3. Take steps to repair trust and badly damaged relationships with certain Western Equatorian politicians, building on ex-Governor Bakosoro’s release. 
     
  4. Address the escalation in pastoralist-farmer conflict by:
     
    1. implementing the presidential decree ordering cattle keepers to leave parts of the Equatorias; 
       
    2. providing impartial support for existing community-based structures used to negotiate cattle migration; and
       
    3. seeking to resolve conflicts in neighbouring states, such as Lakes and Jonglei, that drive cattle keepers from their homes in greater numbers.

To the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism:

  1. Investigate reported violations in the Equatorias, including military resupply of forces, in a timely fashion, paying special attention to the precise relationship between different Equatorian forces and the SPLM/A-IO.

To the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) and diplomatic community:

  1. Prioritise the following to stop conflicts in the Equatorias:
     
    1. support for the TGoNU in resolving eligibility criteria for cantonment in the Equatorias and Bahr el Ghazal; 
       
    2. formation and funding of the National Architecture for the Permanent Ceasefire and Unification of Forces to ensure implementation of the permanent ceasefire and oversee forces in cantonment; and
       
    3. making clear to the warring parties that continuing conflicts in the Equatorias would be a serious ceasefire breach.
       
  2. Ensure that Equatorian perspectives are given due weight during constitution drafting, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and other political processes.

To the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) Board: 

  1. Consider, in the context of its effort to create a new security policy framework and defence policy, the problematic nature of insurgency and current counter-insurgency policy.

To South Sudan’s church leaders: 

  1. Facilitate local peace agreements as and when appropriate between the TGoNU, armed groups and armed youth, local communities and cattle keepers.

To avoid further humanitarian crisis

To armed actors:

  1. Provide security guarantees for humanitarian actors to access and serve displaced populations transparently and impartially.

To humanitarian agencies:

  1. Maintain impartiality and transparency in accessing and serving displaced populations.
     
  2. Ensure adequate staffing and effective risk management strategies are in place, so that, when humanitarian access is secured, agencies can deliver necessary services to populations where they are located, and those populations can feel comfortable accessing the assistance.

To the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS):

  1. Accept and assist civilians fleeing active armed conflict and seeking protection inside UNMISS bases.

Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 25 May 2016

Op-Ed / Africa

Why the World’s Newest Country Has Only Known Conflict

Originally published in World Politics Review

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. As the country approaches its 10-year anniversary, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away.

Few nations have seen their dreams and hopes dashed as quickly and ruthlessly as South Sudan. A mere two years after thousands thronged the streets of the capital, Juba, to celebrate independence from Sudan’s autocratic rule, the country descended into a brutal civil war. The fallout between President Salva Kiir and Vice President-turned-rebel Riek Machar, and the subsequent fighting, exerted a terrible toll. Between 2013 and 2018, up to 400,000 people were killed and 4 million—a third of the country’s population—displaced, amid numerous reports of ethnic-based atrocities like rape and massacres.

The world’s youngest country is now approaching its 10-year anniversary, and while the war has quieted thanks to a fragile 2018 peace deal, the risk of a return to full-blown conflict is never far away. South Sudan still faces an insurgency in the south of the country and rampant localized violence elsewhere. Ethno-political tensions remain high and could be unleashed again by the next presidential election, which was originally scheduled for 2022 but is likely to be delayed. Moreover, amid the constant efforts to halt violence, avoid the further deterioration of a dire humanitarian situation and keep the sputtering peace deal on track, both external partners and many South Sudanese themselves seem to have lost sight of any vision for longer-term stability.

Maintaining the peace deal and getting the country past the presidential poll—which would likely pit Kiir against Machar, who has returned to the position of vice president under the terms of the 2018 agreement—are the most immediate hurdles. But any hope for stability demands a reset of South Sudan’s ill-suited, winner-take-all political system that fuels the ongoing tensions among elites.

Despite the fact that its divisions and vulnerabilities were apparent at independence a decade ago, both South Sudanese and outsiders downplayed the new country’s political woes, and especially its ethnic cleavages. South Sudanese had fought a long war against Sudan, but also, more often than not, against each other. Kiir and Machar, for example, fought on rival sides between 1991 and 2002, mobilizing fighters from their respective Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.

At independence, the country’s political system, which vests enormous power in the presidency, offered few mechanisms for the inclusion of rivals. This meant those locked out of power had few incentives to believe in the new state rather than rebel against it. The scramble for power and resources dominated politics in Juba and, as Kiir and his clique monopolized both, the scars of decades of infighting reopened.

Conflict soon flared, while several peace agreements and cease-fires collapsed—notably in 2016 when Machar, then vice president, fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo on foot after fighting erupted in Juba—before the 2018 pact brought a bit of respite. Kiir and Machar finally formed a unity government in February 2020. But they have achieved little beyond a delicate cease-fire, as most of the provisions of the agreement languish unfulfilled. These include the unification of forces supporting the two rivals into a single national army, the establishment of a new National Assembly, the creation of a transitional court of justice, and economic reforms. On top of all that, South Sudan still has to deal with the insurgency in its southern Equatoria region led by Thomas Cirillo, a former senior military officer who has not signed the peace agreement. Localized violence in other places rages unabated.

With this uneasy arrangement in place and ethno-political tensions so deeply rooted, the risk of a new collapse exists at every turn of the road. No turn looks more dangerous than the next presidential election, whenever it is held. Even if they seem to have lost the confidence of a significant part of their respective support bases, Kiir and Machar still look intent on facing off. The poll, if it ever occurs, could be a fatal blow to the peace agreement, given that the winner could lock the loser and his coalition out of any share of power.

Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict.

Given the current level of tensions, rival factions will surely contest nearly every step in the leadup to the poll, so foreign diplomats in South Sudan should refrain from putting pressure on the government to rush into a potentially destabilizing election. Crucially, regional powers like Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which are the main guarantors of the 2018 peace deal, will also need to push for some form of pre-election deal that ensures a share of power to the losers.

Such an outcome could avert a violent breakdown around the vote, but it still would not resolve South Sudan’s many problems. Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict. The existing centralized state butts up against the harsh realities across the country. South Sudan still lacks roads or basic institutions, and peaceful governance is impossible without broad accommodation across its diverse patchwork of communities and groups. As the International Crisis Group argues in a recent report, instead of a king-of-the-hill system, South Sudan could evolve toward a more consensual form of governance. This would give the country’s notorious elites in Juba, as well as its beleaguered but divided population, a sense of shared interest.

What would this look like? One way to begin solving exclusionary politics is by institutionalizing power-sharing at the heart of the state. Several options exist, including a presidency that rotates among ethno-political groups or regions, formally slotting government positions for runners-up or instituting diversity quotas at all levels of political and public life. None of these options would address all the challenges the country faces, but they may at least help reduce the deadly stakes of the central power struggle.

Beyond power-sharing in Juba, devolving power and resources to regional and local authorities could also reduce the temperature of national politics. Decentralization, enshrined in South Sudan’s constitution but hardly implemented over the past decade, is increasingly back in fashion among the country’s thinkers and politicians. Striking the right balance will be critical if the country heads in this direction, as decentralization can also push conflict and corruption to the local level. But devolving power and resources could also help resolve raging local conflicts by empowering local officials and opening avenues for conflict resolution outside the political gridlock in Juba.

The prospects of such changes happening soon are limited, though, to say the least. The challenge of reform lies less in imagining new options than in persuading self-interested elites to adopt them. This challenge goes beyond Kiir and Machar, although the two are likely to remain unconstructive actors at the center of the country’s political stage for some time to come. Yet even when these archrivals are finally out of the equation, the country will still likely lack state institutions and infrastructure, in addition to being bitterly divided, awash in guns and in need of broad consensus to avoid more rampant bloodshed.

Faced with such grim prospects, other South Sudanese leaders and their external partners must seize every opportunity to push for improvements, even if gradual. Reform-minded South Sudanese politicians should push for constitutional reform and champion an inclusive national conference to chart a path away from the zero-sum politics that define the status quo. External partners should be ready to push in that direction and support such initiatives, including financially. If South Sudan’s peace deal again collapses, external mediators could also assess whether efforts to patch things back together again can also go some way to address these underlying structural questions and make peace more durable.

For now, the scale of South Sudan’s challenges contrasts frighteningly with what seems politically possible to fix, and progress in that direction will undoubtedly be halting. But persistence toward a broader settlement is the only way for South Sudan to salvage the dreams that so animated its independence celebrations a decade ago.