Keen to proclaim South Sudan as on the cusp of becoming a peaceful country, international actors have claimed that there has been a marked reduction in political violence since the signing of a peace agreement in 2018 and the formation of a power-sharing government two years later.
But analysts, conflict monitoring groups, and local residents say the peace agreement has in fact caused a significant escalation in violence, as commanders and politicians compete for power in a transitional government based in the capital, Juba, by fighting wars in the peripheries – conflicts that international actors, including a billion-dollar UN mission in the country, and the United Nations Security Council, which has sanctioned South Sudan, often chalk down to communities fighting each other.
Additionally, political elites have used disarmament campaigns to disempower groups associated with their rivals, putatively under the guise of disarming civilians – a goal the international community supports – while changes to the way local government positions are rewarded has led to a crisis of political legitimacy in much of the country.
“The peace agreement has created a series of zero-sum struggles for power, in which local politicians are accountable only to the capital and not to the communities they are supposed to represent,” said Ferenc David Marko, a researcher with the Geneva-based NGO Small Arms Survey, which monitors conflict in the country. “Often, these communities become pawns in political games.”
Tensions are likely to increase as the country progresses towards elections, tentatively forecast for 2023: Candidate selection will be an occasion for jockeying for position, and the use of violence in political negotiations is expected to intensify.
Few are sanguine about the results of that process. “We will not even get to elections,” said a politician in Juba who asked not to be named. “The only people who want elections are the international community. And believe me, they will be a disaster.”
Further violence risks deepening a humanitarian crisis that has already left more than eight million South Sudanese in need of assistance and over 4.5 million people either internally displaced or living as refugees. The number of people displaced by conflict in South Sudan has cumulatively increased every year since the signing of the peace agreement in 2018, with 144,238 people displaced in 2019, 172,447 in 2020, and 223,498 between January and September 2021 alone.
Despite the crisis, it’s now commonplace to hear people in Juba say the country is at peace – a way of thinking that appears to suit both politicians and an international community that is often keen to support the government with donor funds and political legitimacy, and to declare the beleaguered peace process a success.
“Politicians in Juba have learned that it’s useful for them to keep up the appearance of the peace agreement. Then the international community is placated and funds can continue to flow… while they fight for positions in the rest of the country,” said Marko. “It's a war they call peace,” he added.
The politicians’ war
The current peace agreement is the second between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar, now the vice-president, since civil war broke out in 2013 – two years after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan. The civil war left at least 400,000 people dead.
Top UN officials in the country say conflict between the belligerent parties has decreased despite continued clashes in the Equatorias – one of three regions in South Sudan – between the government and the National Salvation Front, which is a non-signatory to the peace deal.
The Security Council claims clashes that continue to scar other parts of the country are largely inter-communal in nature, and attributable to a power vacuum that occurred between the signing of the peace agreement in 2018 and the delayed appointment of state ministers and county commissioners in 2020 and 2021.
According to the logic of this claim, violence between communities is anarchic and the result of the absence of the state. The solution to such conflict then, for the Security Council, is increased government presence – more politicians, not fewer.
But in South Sudanese states like Warrap – where clashes between pastoralist sections of the Dinka, the country’s largest ethnic group, have displaced thousands of people – few local residents seem convinced of that reasoning.
“It is the politicians in Juba that are causing all the problems here,” said one resident of Warrap, who spoke to The New Humanitarian late last year on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.
The resident, and several others, said local gelweng – cattle guards responsible for protecting Dinka livestock – were being sponsored to attack communities by politicians seeking to parlay violence into political power.
If politicians can make an incumbent official look weak – and show that they have the backing of the local youth – then Juba may pay attention and reward them with positions in the transitional government or with military ranks in a national army promised under the peace agreement, but yet to be formed.
Warrap is not the only place where this is occuring. During clashes in Jonglei state in 2020, UN experts found evidence that political and military elites had armed and funded all sides of a conflict involving Bor Dinka, Lou Nuer, and Murle communitarian militias.
And in Tambura, an administrative area in Western Equatoria state, violent clashes from June to October last year saw dozens killed and more than 80,000 displaced after politicians allegedly whipped up ethnic hatred to mobilise people to fight.
While much of this violence has a political – rather than simply intercommunal – dimension, it is also taking place amid an economic crisis exacerbated by heavy flooding that has displaced more than 800,000 people since May 2021.
Loans from the International Monetary Fund over the last two years have helped stave off a total collapse of the government, but the state has nevertheless almost entirely withdrawn from the provision of services and wages.
In Warrap, the government is conspicuous by its absence. It offers no security to its citizens, despite being the home state of Kiir and a roll call of South Sudan People’s Defence Force (SSPDF) generals.
Soldiers in the state, who haven’t been paid for months, have sold their weapons to the gelweng, which, after decades of military backing, now rival the state for power in some areas.
In Thiet, a small town in Warrap, local gelweng said their jobs have changed over the years: While they once primarily looked after livestock, in the absence of state protection, they now consider themselves community defenders, responsible for protecting people against raids that frequently don’t just seek to acquire cattle, but target homes, resources, and women and children.
When peace creates conflict
Violence and political power have long had an intimate relationship in southern Sudan, where rebels fought a 22-year struggle against Sudanese government forces and allied militias before signing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
During the post-CPA period, Kiir bought off the Nuer militias of military leader Paulino Matiep Nhial – previously backed by Khartoum – which he feared could disrupt a 2011 referendum on secession from the north. He offered militia members ranks and wages within the South Sudanese army.
The integration of Matiep’s militias into the security forces ushered in a period in which commanders would frequently rebel and leverage violence for better ranks or political positions in the capital.
During the recent civil war, both the forces of the government and Machar’s opposition SPLA-IO group were composed of fractious coalitions of political and military leaders, often more intent on controlling local resources than on pursuing a national agenda. Frequent rebellions were once again the order of the day.
The 2018 peace agreement does not appear to have changed this basic logic of violence. Just as during the period following the signing of the CPA, violence has become the currency in which political power is traded.
The peace agreement has caused other problems too. Prior to the accord, local state and county posts were decided by state governors. But now, all such positions are decided by belligerent parties in Juba according to a power-sharing calculus.
“The power-sharing logic of the peace agreement has meant the appointment of commissioners whose roles are to repress local populations rather than represent them.”
In Warrap – which was loyal to the government during the war – this arrangement has led lifelong members of the SPLM, the ruling party, to join an opposition with which they have no real connection, just so they can qualify for places in the government.
Chosen by the SPLA-IO leadership in Juba, these candidates often have no real connection to local communities in Warrap, where residents say it is the gelweng who call the shots.
“The [SPLA-IO] commissioner in Tonj East [an administrative area in Warrap] is not popular,” explained one young Luanyjang man displaced to Tonj South by insecurity. “He doesn’t have any power.”
Similar problems have occurred in Unity state’s Payinjiar county, where Machar appointed his former bodyguard, William Gatgiek Mabor, despite objections from the local community.
Mabor was eventually replaced by someone more palatable. However, elsewhere, the power-sharing logic of the peace agreement has meant the appointment of commissioners whose roles are to repress local populations rather than represent them. These appointments have led to clashes, and a growing antagonism between the political elite and the South Sudanese population.
Community disarmament has also become a motor for violence. Ideally, such campaigns would see weapons removed from all communities involved in conflicts, but in reality political elites use them to target communities associated with their rivals.
An operation in Warrap by Rin Tueny Mabor (also known as Janafil), a former military intelligence chief and the current governor of Lakes state, provides a cautionary tale.
Carried out in late 2020, the operation targeted members of the Luanyjang group believed to have been supported and armed by Akol Koor Kuc, the director of the National Security Service (NSS) and one of the most powerful politicians in the country.
“How can you disarm only the Luanyjang? It would leave us vulnerable to attack from all the surrounding communities.”
Janafil and Akol Koor are rivals who contest the favours of Kiir and have rumoured ambitions to rule South Sudan. For Janafil, disarming the Luanyjang would have indicated Akol Koor’s weakness in the NSS chief’s home state of Warrap.
For the Luanyjang community, however, the campaign would have had devastating consequences. “How can you disarm only the Luanyjang? It would leave us vulnerable to attack from all the surrounding communities,” said Daniel Mayoor, the representative in Tonj South for those displaced from Tonj East, the homeland of the Luanyjang.
In August 2020, tensions between soldiers tasked with carrying out the disarmament and the Luanyjang gelweng turned violent, leading to the deaths of at least 148 people. The army emphatically lost the battle, and the disarmament campaign was suspended.
The army’s humiliation underlines the weakness of the state in comparison to the gelweng. And it also shows that, while the UN may call for government interventions to prevent local violence, it is the state that is often the cause of the problem.
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.