Friday, August 29, 2014

It’s Just Africa: Oil, Guns, and Sectarian Violence in South Sudan

The United Nations confirmed that this past Tuesday, a U.N. peacekeeping helicopter on a routine cargo flight had been shot down as it flew over the oil-producing Unity State in South Sudan. UTair, the Russian airline that owns the aircraft, speculated that the helicopter was shot down with a surface to air missile. Of the four crew members who had been on board, one (the co-pilot) is alive and being treated for minor injuries by Médecins sans Frontières, but the other three (commander, flight engineer, and flight attendant) had been killed. UTair, which has been working with the UN since 1991, stated that it would temporarily halt flights over this area.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) confirmed that the Mi-8 helicopter, which was contracted to the UN Mission and had been flying from Wau in the southwest region of Sudan to Bentiu in the north, had crashed about 6 miles south of Bentiu. A spokesperson for the governor of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State claimed that the South Sudanese rebel commander had warned the UN last week not to fly over his territory. At peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the rebel delegation issued a statement denying the South Sudanese government accusations. The rebel statement stated that “the area in which the (aircraft) was reportedly shot down is government-held territory, if indeed the aircraft was shot down.”

Civil unrest and war has characterized the region for years, and the current civil conflict comes on the heels of a 22-year civil war, which resulted in the creation of the state of South Sudan in July 2011. The current civil conflict, which threatens the country’s oil assets and the majority of government revenues, began in December 2013 in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. Political and sectarian tensions erupted in clashes between the predominantly Dinka SPLA forces loyal to current President Salva Kiir and the mostly Nuer rebel troops aligned with the Kiir’s former vice-president, Riek Machar.

Two ceasefire pacts and peace talks in Ethiopia mediated by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have done little to stem the fighting. Tuesday’s helicopter incident took place one day after both sides allegedly signed an agreement in at peace talks in Ethiopia to work toward a permanent ceasefire and form a national unity government within 45 days. A statement issued by the rebel faction on Thursday stated that they had neither been part of the negotiations, nor had their leader, Machar, signed the agreement. Rebel factions complained that IGAD wanted both parties to sign onto the agreement independently before hammering out the terms, in essence signing a blank check.

Both the United States and the European Union have enacted sanctions on commanders on both sides of the fighting, and the regional African states sponsoring negotiations have threatened punitive measures against those impeding talks. When the UN Security Council renewed the mandate in May, UNMISS peacekeepers received authorization and backing for the use of force in protecting civilians in South Sudan. China successfully lobbied for the renewed UNMISS mandate to include the protection of civilians at oil installations, and pledged to send 850 peacekeepers to be stationed as close to the oil fields as possible. UNMISS has an approved strength of up to 12,500 military personnel and more than 1,300 civilian police personnel.

The current conflict has killed at least 10,000 people and displaced 1.7 million civilians to date, leading the state to the brink of what the UN characterizes as a “man-made famine.” Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both found evidence of human rights violations and war crimes committed by both factions.

There doesn’t seem to be any indication that this current bout of fighting will end anytime soon, because despite US suspension of military assistance to South Sudan and the extension of the EU arms embargo to South Sudan in 2011, the flow of weapons into the country continues unchecked.  In early June, dock workers in Mombasa, Kenya unloaded off the Hong-Kong based cargo ship, Feng Huang Song, $38 million worth of assault rifles, grenade launchers, anti-tank RPG rounds and many millions of bullets from China’s state-owned weapons manufacturer NORINCO, preparing this shipment for overland delivery to South Sudan. Since independence, the government of South Sudan has poured more than $1 billion on arms and weapons systems, procured through manufacturers in Sudan, China, Israel and Eastern European countries.

Sudan, as a major weapons producer in the region, has played a key role in the militarization of South Sudan, ensuring that weapons and ammunition are available in plenty for both factions in the current civil conflict. The country’s incentive is two-fold: economic and political. The economic consequence of South Sudan’s independence from Sudan was the loss of vital oil fields as a major source of government revenue. This prompted Sudan to beef up its domestic arms production to compensate, and it found a willing buyer of arms in the South Sudanese government. This move played directly into Sudan’s second incentive, destabilization of South Sudan. The Small Arms Survey research project speculates that Sudanese intelligence forces began airdropping Chinese CQ assault rifles (the cheaper Chinese version of the American M16) and ammunition to rebel groups in Unity State in South Sudan starting back in August 2012. These airdrops followed reports that some rebel militias had procured Type 56 assault rifles (cheaper versions of the AK-47).

Amnesty International has called for a full suspension of arms transfers to South Sudan in order to stem the tide of legally bought and imported weapons falling into the hands of the opposition or the civilian population. There are calls for a legal framework in the form of a UN Security Council arms embargo that would restrict all countries from selling and exporting arms to South Sudan, but such legal action is likely to be blocked by China, which has a permanent seat and veto power on the UNSC. China’s arms sales to South Sudan only make up a small portion of its revenue given the former’s oil investments (most recently a $150 million loan secured against oil sales from China’s state-owned Export-Import Bank), but China has become a key arms supplier to African countries and would most likely veto any legislation that would decrease future weapons sales.

A reduction in weapons flow into South Sudan will be a key step in the direction of stemming the infighting that has plagued the country for the past eight months and give the country’s economy a fighting chance. The majority of the conflict has taken place in the Unity and Upper Nile states, the location of South Sudan’s richest oil fields. Oil production at these sites has come to a standstill and exports have slowed, leaving the government unable to pay its debts or solicit further investment in good faith. With a sharp drop in revenue (oil revenues account for approximately 95% of government income), the government is finding itself unable to pay its military, the Ugandan troops brought in to quell the mutiny, and its civil servants at government-run schools and hospitals. Without targeted and effective action from the international community, South Sudan’s instability will increase, making both further foreign investment unlikely, and the total collapse of the country’s economy more likely, threatening the country’s ultimate viability.  

No comments:

Post a Comment