Sunday, July 28, 2013

South Sudan Faces Protracted Internal Conflicts

Jonglei state in South Sudan, where recent violence has displaced over
120,000 people.
New nations often face steep hurdles in building the political, economic and infrastructural bedrock necessary for stable statehood. For South Sudan – the world’s youngest country – these processes have been suppressed by longstanding tribal animosity, armed SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) splinter groups that refuse assimilation, and the dire economic situation which South Sudan inherited upon independence. Aside from its jurisdiction over an estimated 75% of Sudanese oil fields, South Sudan for all intents and purposes ‘started from scratch.’

‘Starting from scratch’ isn’t always as bad as it sounds. High expectations and loud demands for democracy and good governance followed South Sudan’s secession in 2011. The United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) became UNMISS upon South Sudanese independence, providing a backbone of technical expertise to nearly all sectors of the nascent government centered in Juba. Oil wealth became a potentially central driver of economic growth, with pipelines through Sudan and Ethiopia able to bring the crude to market. But since June 2011, many problems have blunted South Sudan’s development process. Once-allied fighters for the SPLA have been drawn back into rivaling tribal disputes. The absence of an oil agreement with Sudan has robbed the south of funds for roads, clinics, schools and agriculture. There have also been reports of an active SPLA branch still in Sudan, adding to the political and economic deterioration between the once-enjoined states.

Recently adding to South Sudan’s instability are two new developments that are testing the leadership and divisions of its society.

The first new sign of instability in South Sudan was on Tuesday when President Kiir sacked his Vice President and dismissed his entire Cabinet (technically legal under the transitional constitution). Democratic momentum has stalled until further notice, highlighting Juba’s crisis of authority in the height of a humanitarian disaster. Tribal differences between different members of the coalition government add significantly to the political friction (and vice versa), especially when some of their respective followers attack the other for cattle or as a reprisal. Dismantling the Cabinet was just a political facet of the underlying problems.

On it's face, President Kiir's dismissal of his Cabinet and other recent actions represent serious setbacks for governance in South Sudan. But this crisis of leadership is augmented by the escalating humanitarian crisis in the Jonglei state. Clashes broke out there back in March, and since then the mutual reprisals have grown deadly and attracted intervention from state troops. The violence between the military and rivaling Merle and Nuer tribes has displaced an estimated 120,000 people, many of whom are taking shelter 'in the bush' and in malaria-infested swamps. The UN World Food Programme has already asked donors for $20 million to fund emergency assistance for approximately half of the displaced through December. The violence shows no sign of letting up.

Ultimately, the recent incidents underline the fact that South Sudan's social and political fabric is weak. Just as sectarianism in the Middle East bubbles up in times of crisis or hardship, the same thing can be said of tribal affiliations in South Sudan. Social cleavages clearly penetrate politics and violence. Is this on the scale of a civil war? No, but these internal conflicts shatter any pretense that the government is a centralizing and unifying force for the South Sudanese and sheds light on social impasses to harmony. Large-scale humanitarian assistance is needed now to mitigate some of the long-term consequences of mass internal displacement, and all tribes should work with UNMISS and other partners on reconciliation efforts. There also needs to be more accountability for militants and soldiers--both accused of human rights violations--so as to reinforce the rule of law.

Weak government and strong tribal affiliations surface as mutually reinforcing phenomena in South Sudan. Hopefully the leadership in Juba and its international partners can find and highlight unifying relationships across the current social divisions instead of letting protracted animosity and conflict accelerate the fraying social and political fabric of the world's newest nation. 

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