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South Sudan: Fighting Rages On As Kiir & Machar Watch Helplessly

From January to May, the United Nations documented 415 incidents of intercommunal violence, compared with 129 such incidents during the same period two years ago—an increase of 220 percent. 

It’s been two years since South Sudan’s leaders signed an agreement to end a crippling five-year civil war that killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, yet peace remains elusive.

The country is reeling from escalating communal violence and a deepening humanitarian crisis, made worse by an ongoing political stalemate.

In February, President Salva Kiir swore in opposition leader Riek Machar to once again serve as his deputy in a unity government, providing a glimmer of hope that the war-torn nation might turn a corner. It was the latest attempt for the two leaders to share power, after the last one collapsed in 2016, when violence erupted in the capital, Juba, forcing Machar to flee the country on foot.

While major fighting between their rival forces has halted for now, violence between various armed groups and makeshift community militias has spiked in many parts of the country, as experts warn that the main drivers of conflict are not being addressed.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, left, swears in opposition leader Riek Machar as his first deputy, Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 22, 2020 (AP photo by Charles Atiki Lomodong)

“This peace deal presses pause on the main power struggle, but doesn’t create any clear path to resolving it,” Alan Boswell, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for South Sudan says.

“Discontent is extremely high, and there is no sign that the leaders have a plan or vision for uniting the country or moving it forward.” He added that as long as power is monopolized at the top, conflict will continue between the country’s diverse ethnic groups.

From January to May, the United Nations documented 415 incidents of intercommunal violence, compared with 129 such incidents during the same period two years ago—an increase of 220 percent. A report last month by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said fighting has killed and injured hundreds of people and displaced more than 80,000 since June. Hundreds of women and children have been abducted, and girls as young as 8 have been raped, according to the report.

One of the U.N. commissioners, Andrew Clapham, said in the report that “the armed conflict in South Sudan has transformed into a series of localised conflicts, often presented simply as cattle-raiding.” But, he added, these conflicts are becoming “increasingly politicized,” with cattle herders operating as organized militias that have been “provided with light weapons and heavy artillery,” under “the command and control of the main parties to the conflict.”

Compounding the rise in intercommunal fighting are increasing attacks by armed groups not party to the February peace deal. Last month, six bodyguards for Vice President James Wani Igga were killed by the National Salvation Front, a militia that is not a signatory to the agreement, near the town of Lobonok in Central Equatoria state. The U.N. peacekeeping mission is opening a temporary base near Lobonok to address the unrest, David Shearer, the head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, said at a press conference earlier this month.

Yet as violence engulfs pockets of the country, the new government is squabbling over Cabinet positions and gubernatorial appointments. The government is refusing to accept the opposition’s choice of a notorious rebel leader, Johnson Olony, for governor of Upper Nile state. Olony has been accused of committing human rights atrocities, and Kiir has said his appointment would spoil the peace process, according to local media reports.

Key security arrangements also remain unresolved, particularly the formation of an 83,000-strong unified national army, comprised of opposition and government soldiers. The unification effort, which was supposed to be completed by the time Machar returned to Juba in February, has suffered from a lack of funds and political will. Reports persist of soldiers living in dire conditions without access to food, water or shelter at training sites.

The government is trying to reassure citizens that it’s on the right track. In a speech in July, Kiir said the nation’s leaders were working “tirelessly to overcome challenges associated with peace implementation,” and urged people to support reconciliation efforts. But Machar’s press secretary, James Gatdet Dak, told World Politics Review that the peace deal’s sluggish implementation has made people “concerned, rightly so.”

“Discontent is extremely high, and there is no sign that the leaders have a plan or vision for uniting the country or moving it forward.”

Many South Sudanese are desperate for peace, and their patience is wearing thin. “Nothing has changed,” said Juba resident Ajang Garang. “People in Juba still go to bed at night and fear for their lives.”

Some even think the peace deal is more of a hindrance than a path to progress. “The peace agreement has become a hurdle to meaningful conversations about rescuing the country. It gives the government an element of legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve,” Peter Biar Ajak, a South Sudanese activist and economist who spent 18 months in jail as a political prisoner, told WPR. After being pardoned in January, he first fled to Kenya, then to the United States, claiming that Kiir had ordered him to be abducted from Kenya or killed.

“It is very clear that South Sudan cannot be at peace with Salva Kiir in power,” Ajak said. He is urging the international community to hold the government accountable to the peace deal so that elections can be held in 2022, as per the agreement.

Some governments are speaking out, accusing South Sudan’s leaders of fueling a culture of impunity and using the country’s resources for personal gain while ignoring its citizens. Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Juba released a statement blaming “irresponsible actors” with self-interested agendas for years of civilian suffering. South Sudan, it said, was facing enough problems without adding “greed, and short-sightedness of the individuals who hold power” to the equation.

Almost 6.5 million people in South Sudan are severely food insecure, according to the U.N., a situation that could be exacerbated by the recent invasion of locusts that have proliferated across East Africa. And hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by floods in recent months.

In August, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that the recent violence and floods were leaving thousands of people homeless and at risk of malnutrition and disease, and that the coronavirus pandemic was making it harder for humanitarian aid to reach those in need. Bed capacity in the ICRC’s surgical wards have been reduced in order to adhere to physical distancing, limiting the number of patients that can be helped at a time, the group said.

Displaced people have a harder time implementing coronavirus prevention measures and seeking medical care if they feel sick. This includes the more than 180,000 people living in squalor in U.N.-protected camps across the country, who are unable to physically distance or easily access soap and water.

The camps, which have been a safe haven to hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese forced to flee violence since the civil war erupted in 2013, will now face more challenges. Earlier this month, the U.N. peacekeeping mission said it had begun withdrawing its troops from the camps. While it will still provide humanitarian assistance, security will be the responsibility of South Sudan’s government.

Yet the country’s security forces have a dismal record of adhering to and enforcing the law, and rights groups are concerned that the withdrawal of peacekeepers will only diminish any confidence civilians might have in their government. “It’s too soon,” said Edmund Yakani, executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a local civil society group. “The public still doesn’t trust that their government is able or willing to protect them.”

Written by Sam Mednick  and first published by World Politics Review| Find original