South Sudan: Understanding the Problem is Half the Solution

Published in Gurtong Trust on January 31st, 2014

Back in elementary school days when we lived as internally displaced people (IDPs) in Khartoum, our teachers used to advise us to keep our cool and not panic during finals. We were often forcefully reminded with a stick that to pass an exam, “understanding the problem is half the solution (fihm al sou’al nusf al-ijaba).”

Now that an agreement on cessation of hostilities (CoH) has been signed by the warring parties in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa exactly a Week ago, it is important to clarify some aspects of the 6 Weeks period of devastating internal armed conflict that engulfed South Sudan going forward. As the conflict was arguably a moving target with its meteoric evolution, many analysts were left challenged and puzzled on how to characterize it.

Some analyses that could not make do without emphasizing the ethnic dimension of the conflict were met with outrage and drew the ire of many South Sudanese. Most bemoaned what they saw as Western media bias/wrongful representation of the latest internal armed conflict in South Sudan.

Many were rightly concerned that a one-sided and reductionist reporting of the atrocious conflict by the media fraternity could fuel revenge attacks and exacerbate a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives mostly civilians, displaced over half a million others and devastated untold livelihoods and properties. Others were angered by any reference to the two dominant ethnic groups and the main parties to the conflict, the Dinka and the Nuer from which the incumbent President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Dr. Riek Machar on whose behalf the conflict is being fought come from respectively.

Perhaps what needs to be clarified about the ethnic dimension of the conflict should be in line with how Rebecca Nyandeng Garang, the widow of the late Chair of the ruling Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) party recently articulated. Mrs. Nyandeng Garang now an opposition member against President Kiir’s leadership is quoted several days ago by Sudan Tribune as stating that: “Kiir had illegally trained private army of 15,000 men from his tribe, which he used to start the violence in the South Sudanese capital, Juba.”

What I find richly informative about the ethnic dimension of the conflict in Mrs. Nyandeng Garang’s statement is the use of the phrase “from his tribe” in reference to President Kiir. This characterization was startling given both Nyandeng and Kiir are from the same Dinka ethnic group but not necessarily from the same tribe or clan, which suggests kinship rather than ethnic belonging should inform the so-called ethnic dimension of the conflict. The implication is that the conflict may be tribal-cum-ethnic on one level but a political power struggle overall.

Indeed there are Dinka members and several other members from other ethnic groups within the mostly Nuer dominated opposition group under the general command of Dr. Machar. There are also members of Nuer and from other South Sudanese communities within the mostly Dinka led group aligned with the government and President Kiir.

Moreover, Kiir’s political detainees seven of whom were acquitted of the attempted coup allegations and released yesterday hail from several tribes and ethnic groups, including from Kiir’s own Dinka ethnic group, but again perhaps not necessarily from his tribe or clan. Such a diverse composition of the warring parties blurs or redraws the ethnic lines of the conflict. The conflict can therefore, be characterized as a violent struggle over political power across ethnic, tribal, clan and interest cantons, which accounts for the presence of both Dinka and Nuer members as well as others in both camps of the divide.

As for the ceasefire, it obviously means the world to the suffering poor masses of South Sudan most of whom are from the peripheries and rural areas who are simply trying to make ends meet with minimal support from the political leadership and state institutions. People just want to return to their normal lives and should not be made to pay a heavy price in a conflict most are not well-informed about its political dimension let alone its confusing ethnicity. Two Nuer men probably from the same area, tribe or clan may have found themselves pitted on opposing ends of the divide pointing the barrel of their guns at each other and thinking what exactly is going on. The same may be true of two half relatives with the other half in Dinka, Shilluk, Bari or other who may have found themselves in a bizarre confrontational position as a result of the violent conflict.

Most victims of the conflict have no political opinion to be victimized in a conflict through targeted killings for the only crime that they hail from a particular ethnic group, tribe or clan. For this reason the signing of the CoH agreement by the belligerents was overdue. The international community, and the regional organs tasked with mediating the conflict must be applauded for their robust and tireless efforts that culminated in ending the violence. But more needs to be done to sustain the effort if lasting peace can be forged in South Sudan.

Already one week into the signing of the CoH agreement and it is yet to be translated into any meaningful cessation of hostilities on the ground in the embattled areas in South Sudan. Violence perpetrated by both parties continues to be reported and ceasefire has already been badly breached. All conflict stakeholders must be urged to end the violence at once. But it is also important to note that in order for the ceasefire to hold, mediators must be made aware of the several layers of the violent conflict at interplay simultaneously, which does not seem to have been reflected in the document of the CoH deal.

For instance, before the deadly violent outbreak in Juba mid-December last year, South Sudan was already fraught with rampant insecurity and inter and intra-communal cycle of violence. Many reports have detailed how violence festering on the communal level has kept death toll at the same level in places like Jonglei State as during the protracted civil war before the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

Another aspect of the violence is also related to the activities of rebel groups such as that led by David Yau Yau in locales like Jonglei State. Equally pertinent is that much of the violence was also created by the traditional practice of cattle-raid, practiced particularly by the cattle-keeping communities like the Dinka, the Nuer, Murle and others as shown in the last piece. There were at least two incidences of cattle-raid activities that were reported that occurred concomitantly with current internal armed conflict but with little known direct connection to the political turmoil.

I recently read another report about cattle raid and attack on some villages in the Greater Upper Nile Region by the White-Army (a militia group made mainly of Nuer youth and aligned with Dr. Machar), several days after the signing of the CoH agreement. This tells us that while on the political level the violence may have de-escalated (which I actually doubt), on the communal level particularly related to cattle raids, the violence seems to continue unabated. This is in part because cattle-raid may have not been captured in the text and spirit of the CoH deal. Overall in order for the ceasefire to hold, there must be a strong political will by the political leadership in both sides of the aisle as well as by all conflict stakeholders across the board, including those with stakes motivated by other issues, such as revenge and cattle-rustling, to end the violence.

Meanwhile, it is imperative that the international community and the regional bodies mediating the conflict must not lose sight of the conflict just because a deal on a CoH has been signed by the warring parties. Media houses and the media fraternity who have done an exceptional job covering a complex conflict, must remain vigilant and continue to report on developments going forward even after the ceasefire agreement. In South Sudan, ceasefire just means that the conflict has been transferred to another level, preferably to the negotiation table, but there is also going to be some coveted violence that will remain under different guises, as the conflict is a multilayered and interconnected one. While one layer may have ended other layers may continue and if not arrested in time may cause further political tensions leading to another surprising violent eruption that may risk undo the whole CoH agreement and send us tumbling back to square one.

The pertinent questions that should guide our conflict interlocutors going forward as they attempt to find a lasting solution to the conflict should be: why are the South Sudanese fighting and who are the conflict stakeholders? Why did they fight long costly and bloody wars against successive Khartoum regimes in the first place? What are the grievances and the underlying causes of the conflict? Have they been genuinely addressed by the previous Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) deal and the secession of South Sudan into a sovereign and independent state? What role has the political leadership and governance issues also known as proximate causes played and contributed to the current violent outbreak? What roles have wanton corruption and nepotism played in triggering and fuelling the conflict?

As the prominent Swedish peace scholar and practitioner, Peter Wallensteen has aptly observed in his book chapter entitled “Strategic Peacebuilding: Concepts and Challenges,” in order for a sustainable peace deal to be reached and lasting peace to hold, understanding the history of the conflict is vital, because “there is a strong correlation between earlier war experiences and relapse into renewed war.”

Answering these questions therefore, and devising strategies on some form of a follow-up and accountability mechanism to ensure justice is served for crimes committed and wanton human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians across ethnicities should begin to steer South Sudan back on the path to sustainable peace. Some form of transitional justice is therefore necessary in any final outcome of any lasting peace deal in South Sudan.

It will be a difficult task as those implicated on both sides of the divide in committing gruesome human rights abuses and perpetrating atrocities against the civilian population are likely to resist punitive justice and accountability that may seem incompatible with their life and freedom. In such a scenario a hybrid justice mechanism that balances both restorative justice and reconciliation on the one hand and some form of retributive justice on the other, must be sought to aid lasting peace efforts in South Sudan.

There are ample customary retributive and restorative justice approaches and practices in the many local South Sudanese cultures that can be consulted. The local agents for a reconciling justice mechanism that may seek restitution or reparation as a form of retribution for any loss incurred on victims or their surviving relatives are naturally the traditional leaders and elders of the affected stakeholders. Religious institutions can equally play an integral part in restoring and amending broken societal relationship by presiding over a national healing and reconciliation exercise. As such these key parties, namely religious institutions and traditional leaders and elders are indispensable and must be actively involved in the second step of the peace negotiations going forward.

Women and youth not only constitute the majority in South Sudan, but are also most affected by the conflict and poor political decisions. They must therefore be invited and included in the peace process to determine the future they envision for themselves and South Sudan. All conflict stakeholders, including those who are yet to pick up a gun, the civil society and other political parties all have an integral role to play in charting out a peaceful and bright future for South Sudan in an inclusive and commensurate peace process.

On the whole a serious pondering over the above questions should yield an idea on the underlying as well as the catalytic or triggering factors to the violent conflict that must be amicably addressed to promote sustainable peace with justice in South Sudan. In the process the mediators and all involved conflict actors should be able to reach the conclusion that first: on the political level, the conflict is essentially a violent struggle over who grabs a lion share of political power, a trademark feature of the SPLM.

Whoever wields political power also controls economic and geographic power and preside over fair or unfair system of justice, including distributive justice of national wealth and resources across various interest groups. In turn this as has been abundantly clear, particularly since the signing of the CPA, creates a destructive competition between South Sudanese across many fault-lines over resources, and entrenches a medieval oppressive system of political patronage and feudalism. But while South Sudan is endowed with sufficient resources for all to have a piece, there is simply not enough for greed and exclusivism, which are sure recipes for violent conflicts.

Second, a feudal and clientele system of governance in a country as ethnically diverse and deeply divided as South Sudan leaves the impression of cultural dominance by one or two ethnic groups, which invokes the bitter memories of colonial subjugation and cultural domination associated with our Khartoum days. Such an outlook will have a profound negative bearing on any chance of creating a just and equal state and a unifying sense of national identity, as some will continue to be reminded of second or third class citizenship statuses in their own country.

Additionally, popular grievances of those who feel excluded from access to social and economic services resulting from such an unjust political structuring will remain unaddressed and ultimately soar, leading to disgruntlement and endless cycle of violent conflicts. The Khartoum wheel of center-periphery dynamics and economic marginalization need not be reinvented in South Sudan going forward.

Third and lastly, our conflict interlocutors and all stakeholders should be able to conclude on conflict underlying causes and triggering factors that the political leadership is in charge in matters of South Sudanese life and death, particularly as the society is highly ethnically conscious. The leaders must be strongly encouraged to avoid playing ethnic cards and charge popular emotions or incite one community against another.

Phrases such as “this is your power that some are trying to wrestle away from you” or opening old wounds inflicted by the tragedies South Sudanese inflicted on each other in the 90s and associated with the frailties of liberation struggle must be deliberately avoided. Such sentiments are divisive and harmful. They are not befitting of a national leader and contribute to sowing hatred across identity lines. The leader must be strongly encouraged not to be seen as a divisive but as a unifying figure in all his/her policies and national decisions.

As part of the idea of understanding the problem as half the solution, I had an opportunity yesterday to speak about the conflict in South Sudan, where I raised some of these issues to an Australian audience, through the national Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio aired here.

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