A school under a tree in Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan. A school under a tree in Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan. Photo credit: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
South Sudan: wrong turn at the crossroads?
by Eddie Thomas and Natalia Chan January 2017

The last issue of the Humanitarian Exchange dedicated to South Sudan, published in May 2013, was entitled ‘South Sudan at a Crossroads’. Although that edition noted the challenges facing the world’s newest state – food insecurity, communal violence, displacement and the slow progress in building state institutions – its tone was upbeat. That optimism has not lasted: the war that began in December 2013 has led the country away from the crossroads and onto a treacherous path.

A political crisis in 2013 led to schisms within the ruling of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and, in December, to the break-up of the army into factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar. Fighting between soldiers in the Presidential Guard in Juba swiftly escalated into neighbourhood battles and massacres along ethnic lines, triggering the spread of bitter conflict in Greater Upper Nile and, subsequently, across the whole country. The relatively peaceful and prosperous Greater Equatoria was drawn into the war, and there were regular clashes and growing ethnic tensions in Greater Bahr el Ghazal.

The speed of South Sudan’s collapse surprised everyone, not least the main protagonists. It exposed many illusions: the legitimacy of those in positions of power; the trust between South Sudan and its foreign backers; the capabilities of peacekeepers; the tick-boxes of international governance experts; the analysis and assumptions of donors and humanitarian and development actors. Disillusionment has been the result, making it difficult for any of these groups to respond adequately to the crisis.

South Sudan was conflict-prone before, but the scale of devastation has shocked most observers. Since December 2013, 1.9 million people have been internally displaced, and 1.3m more have fled to neighbouring countries. Almost 5m are food insecure; in 2016, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that 3.7–4m were severely food insecure – more than a third of the population and a million more than last year. Cholera, measles, guinea worm and kala’azar (leishmaniasis) are rife, and there are nearly 1.9m cases of malaria.

The 2015 peace deal and the widening war

An Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan was signed between the SPLM, SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) and SPLM-Former Detainees (SPLM-FD) in August 2015, following international and regional pressure (President Kiir submitted a 14-page list of reservations with his signature). When Machar returned to Juba and assumed his post of First Vice- President in April 2016, as per the agreement, it appeared that implementation of the peace deal could slowly move forward, though little significant progress was made. In July 2016, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of independence, tensions between SPLA and SPLA-IO soldiers erupted into intense street battles, with heavy artillery, tanks and attack helicopters deployed. Machar and many SPLA-IO soldiers fled the city. His exit and replacement by his deputy Taban Deng (signifying a split in the SPLM-IO) left the whole peace deal in question. As the fighting enters its fourth year, the context is much changed from August 2015: conflict is now widespread, the opposition is fragmented, ethnic hate speech has reached extremely alarming levels and the economy is in a far worse state.

A changed humanitarian environment

South Sudan has become one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an aid worker. National and international staff have faced growing risks on the basis of their ethnicity, nationality and perceived political or organisational affili-ations. The events of July 2016 were a grave marker of how far the humanitarian environment had changed. Humanitarian actors were more prepared than they were in December 2013, but the July violence exposed how vulnerable humanitarian workers were. Gunmen, suspected to be soldiers, looted WFP’s main stores in Juba, and government soldiers subjected national and international journalists and aid workers living in the Terrain hotel compound to murder, rape and torture.+See ‘Executive Summary of the Independent Special Investigation into the Violence which Occurred in Juba in 2016 and UNMISS Response’, 1 November 2016. The violence also exposed the weakness of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Soldiers raped women and girls near UNMISS bases, at times in full view of peace-keepers, but they failed to intervene. The Terrain incident sent shockwaves through the entire humanitarian community.

Increased hostility towards humanitarian workers is also evident in new operational constraints. Humanitarian space narrowed after December 2013 – marked by denial of access, obstruction of movement of goods and personnel, bureaucratic impediments, violence against humanitarian staff, extortion and rent-seeking behaviour, looting and seizure of assets, programme interference and general insecurity. Although the 2015 peace agreement contained clear commitments on improving the operational environment for humanitarians, humanitarian space narrowed even more dramatically in the weeks following the events of July 2016. In November 2016, the UN humanitarian coordinator reported 64 incidents of violence against aid workers, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported 100 access violations, including denial of access to areas outside of Yei town in Central Equatoria and Wau town in Western Bahr El Ghazal, where tens of thousands of people are in need of assistance and protection.+OCHA, ‘Humanitarian Coordinator Deeply Concerned by Bureaucratic Impediments and Access Constraints’, 30 November 2016. In December 2016, the head of one of the largest operational organisations, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), was expelled along with another senior staff member, prompting a statement from the Humanitarian Country Team highlighting the deteriorating operating environment.+OCHA, ‘South Sudan: Humanitarian Country Team Statement on the Deteriorating Operating Environment’, 14 December 2016.

Prospects for 2017 are bleak. Planning for humanitarian response is based on the assumption that humanitarian needs will increase across the country. The severe economic decline will exacerbate problems, wide-scale and repeated displacement is likely to continue, food insecurity will remain and chronic and acute needs will all overlap and intersect. In November 2016, the UN’s envoy on genocide prevention warned that ‘what began as a political conflict has transformed into what could become an outright ethnic war’.+‘Risk of “Outright Ethnic War” and Genocide in South Sudan, UN Envoy Warns’, UN News Centre, 11 November 2016. The impact of trauma in South Sudan is inescapable – and is compounded by generational experiences of conflict, by the enormity and horror of the more recent human rights abuses, by the daily experience of fear and violence and by a sense of diminishing hope. The longer the conflict continues, the more entrenched and intractable the cycles of revenge and the experience of trauma will become. All of this raises the risk that humanitarians will withdraw further into protective humanitarian hubs, implement remote management or even consider pulling out.

Spaces for hope

What possible future strategies can humanitarians adopt? There is a compelling need to equip ourselves with strong analysis in order to be able to adapt to the changing context and understand the long-term implications of our response. Many confuse the most visible symptoms of the crisis – tribalism, and violence along ethnic lines – with its causes. But the causes are more complex, and in order to understand them we must look to the history that often falls beyond the lens of most practitioners.

The colonial legacy of violence, repression and uneven development continued into the long wars that began around the time of Sudan’s independence in 1956. These wars spread weapons through the country and shaped South Sudan’s economy and society very deeply. In both pastoralist and agrarian areas, people have to buy food because they cannot grow enough to feed themselves. But although purchased food is very important, most people in rural South Sudan do not get paid in wages. The consequent crisis in rural livelihoods pushed many young men into armed groups. This process began in pastoralist areas, where armed groups were often structured around the kinship-based herding systems that formed the basis of the pastoralist economy. In the late 1980s, the SPLA was able to unify different ethnic communities from pastoralist areas, but when the SPLA split in 1991 armed groups routinely mobilised around ethnicity. The memories of the ethnic massacres of the early 1990s still shape the crises of today.

Tensions between pastoralist and agrarian communities also have historical roots. There was limited development in the colonial period, and what development there was was concentrated in the relatively accessible and taxable agrarian areas of Equatoria. Most colonial schools were in Equatoria – and most soldiers were recruited there. The first civil war in South Sudan, which lasted from the late 1950s or early 1960s until 1972, was led by Equatorians. In the 1970s, political leaders often used tensions between pastoralist and agrarian peoples to build support, and these tensions developed further in the second civil war, when many pastoralists fled the flood plains and grazed their livestock in agrarian areas. Tensions between farmers and herders were managed locally, but in recent years politicians have begun to exploit them in the service of national political goals.

Another key approach is to identify more positive spaces where civic values still have relevance. The churches may offer one such space. The church in South Sudan has a long and historic role in facilitating dialogue and mediation, using its moral authority and credibility among a wide range of actors. One of the most commonly cited examples of church-supported mediation is the 1999 Wunlit people-to-people dialogue, which adapted traditional methods of truth-telling and consensus-building for change. Working ecumenically, the South Sudan Council of Churches has developed a national agenda for peace and reconciliation (its Action Plan for Peace), and has been working to lay the groundwork for a more visible approach in 2017. Church-supported peace initiatives provide some hope for the future, not only in laying the foundations or providing an appropriate framework for dialogue, but also in informing a broader understanding of the complex context.

Schools, universities and health centres can also function as inclusive, civic spaces. During South Sudan’s civil wars, young people left the country or even joined the SPLA to seek education. Enrolment surveys before and after the first and second civil wars suggest that local education systems paradoxically expanded, and a 2015 survey of enrolment carried out by the Girls Education in South Sudan programme suggests that this trend may have continued. The current conflict has witnessed deliberate attacks on schools, but it has also shown that many teachers and students have worked together to support civic and human values and youth aspirations. Humanitarian actors have sometimes neglected investment in education in the face of more urgent humanitarian needs.+OCHA, ‘Evaluation of the Common Humanitarian Fund. Country Report: South Sudan’, May 2015. But in the coming year, they could plan to support schools and other civic spaces (such as hospitals and health centres) as part of a strategy for protecting civilians and preventing further violence.

Humanitarian actors must accept the limitations of what they can do, but we must not become desensitised to violence and suffering. South Sudan needs continued engagement based on strong principles, and not just in the humanitarian sense. There is a need to retain institutional memory, to learn from the past, to build strong relationships with local communities, to overcome the tension between short cycles of humanitarian response and the need for long-term engagement, and an overall need for effective conflict analysis and conflict sensitivity. In particular, there has been an increasing recognition that humanitarian response must be more strategic and smarter – ‘better not bigger’ – but how this will happen will require commitment and dedicated time and space.

Eddie Thomas worked in Sudan and South Sudan for several years as a teacher, human rights worker, researcher and political adviser. Natalia Chan is Christian Aid’s Senior Advocacy and Policy Officer for East Africa and former Coordinator of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan.

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