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No Christmas truce for South Sudan

Juba, South Sudan.  Terrible acts have been perpetrated in this country over the last two weeks and it is extremely difficult to establish the scale of the atrocities, both in Juba and elsewhere. It is probable that the number of victims will be much greater than is currently being reported. However, sensationalist headlines, references to Rwanda, and to South Sudan being “on the brink” are deeply unhelpful, not least because they absolve people from the need to think. It is the most recent example of the journalistic shorthand that western editors (not the correspondents for the most part) employ in their reporting of African stories. Ethnic rivalries have always existed in this country and they go back millennia, and these tensions are ripe for manipulation for political ends.

One should hesitate to criticise the architects of an accord which brought an end to decades of civil war, however in their eagerness to ensure that the warring parties signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (which they did in 2005), not enough was done by the international community to foster a process of reconciliation in which the deep animosities generated by all the atrocities committed during the war, could have been attenuated. This, and the failure to address the issue of disputed borders, suggests that the agreement was not as comprehensive as it sounds.

The current crisis is above all a political one, stemming from the deep divisions within the SPLM, the main party in government. These divisions cross ethnic boundaries and although much has been made of the fact that Salva Kiir is a Dinka and Riek Machar is a Nuer, it is a profoundly inaccurate to suggest that the differences of opinion are  drawn up along ethnic lines.

The issue now is how quickly the protagonists can be brought to the negotiating table to prevent further bloodshed. Up until recently, Riek Machar has insisted that he will not engage in peace talks until a group of high profile figures, arrested on the orders of Salva Kiir, accused of plotting to overthrow the government, have been released. He is also calling on Salva Kiir to step down before talks can begin. Kiir, for his part, has said that there will be no question of releasing these individuals, who he accuses of treason, and is calling on Riek Machar to cease military activity as a precondition to talks.

In the meantime, fighting continues. At the time of writing (Dec 25), the government claims to have recaptured Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, while forces loyal to Machar say that they have taken control of Upper Nile. The oil-producing Unity State is said to be under the control of troops who have mutinied and this has potentially grave consequences for the government, which derives 98% of its revenue from oil production. The continued occupation of Unity State will weigh heavily in any future negotiations, especially as Machar has announced his intention to redirect revenue from the oil into a new account, thereby starving the government of funds.

Despite the efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who are urging the protagonists to cease hostilities and engage in political dialogue, there are few signs that either side is genuinely interested in talks until they have reinforced their bargaining positions. For Salva Kiir, this means winning back territory lost to renegade generals, and for supporters of Riek Machar, consolidating their hold on the oil producing states.

During this time, tens of thousands of people have fled their homes. An estimated 45,000 people have taken refuge in UN camps, and thousands of others have run to the bush for fear of reprisals. These people lack shelter, food, water and have virtually no access to medical attention. As their leaders are being urged to engage in talks, their suffering continues. Although many NGOs who might be expected to help in situations like this have left the country, Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross continue to provide much needed support to these extremely fragile communities. If you would like to help alleviate the suffering of innocent men, women and children throughout the country, please contact the ICRC www.icrc.org  or MSF  http://www.msf.org.uk/

Charles Haskins, Fondation Hirondelle Country Representative, South Sudan 

Photo: Marc Ellison