By Rose Sakala
March 7, 2014 - The calls by the South Sudanese for the Head of the UN Mission ( UNMISS) to step down ought to be taken seriously for it is their prerogative to determine who is welcome to their country and who is not based on the credentials and value of the individual or entity to their country. Here there is no confusion, for it is clearly the Head of the Mission that is unwanted and not the UN. The current Head of the Mission, Ms Johnson and the UN are not synonymous as she is merely an appointee of the UN and can easily be replaced by another appointee who the UN might deem it fit to do a better job than she has done.
Ms Johnson’s departure from South Sudan is long over due, hence she should not have waited for pressure to mount to this level that is not only embarrassing to her, but also through association has potential to drug the UN along in the mud. This should not be allowed to happen to the UN at a time when many have come to appreciate the pivotal role that the world body continues to play in the stabilisation of numerous areas that have been besieged by conflict. Many have come to expect and even to call upon the UN to intervene in various serious conflicts hence it would not auger well for the world body to allow itself to be tainted through continued association with one of its appointees who has since failed to perform to its expectations. The very fact that she has been shown a red card by the very people she had been expected to assist, but has unfortunately let down says it all.
Ms Johnson’s tenure of office appears to have been marred by disharmony and failure on her part to collaborate effectively with the host government almost from the very beginning as evidenced by the unfortunate and unprecedented incident of the shooting of the UN Russian manned helicopter on 22 December 2012 in the Eastern part of Jonglei, South Sudan allegedly by the SPLA. This incident capped it all as after months of speculation, it clearly signalled that all was not well between the new UN Mission and the host government, a great disappointment indeed given the close relations that had existed between the predecessor UN Mission (UNMIS) and the South Sudanese government. While many were not privy to what really happened on that day, the incident prompted many to question and to wonder why such an incident would have taken place if at all there existed harmonious and collaborative relations born out of mutual trust and respect between the new Mission and the host government. Many pointed to the Head of Mission and were critical of her way of doing business which among other things was her contemptuous demeanour which seems to have been responsible for her failure to recognise that there were no two parallel administrative structures in South Sudan, but one- the Government of South Sudan, while the Mission’s role remained that of providing support in collaboration with the government.
Questions were also raised as to whether the necessary procedure which could have served to prevent the occurrence of the fatal incident was followed by UNMISS more so given that the helicopter had ventured into a known rebel infested area where the SPLA was at the time actively conducting operations to repulse the enemy. Suspicion was abound and given the serious nature of the incident, many were of the view that there was need for the UN to conduct an internal investigation within UNMISS to inquire into the circumstances that might have led to such an incident with a view to prevent a recurrence of the same. At this point doubts were already beginning to emerge among many observers and regional experts as to the ability of the UNMISS Head of Mission to effectively lead and provide direction for the Mission in a serious and neutral manner, factors that had been key to the success of the predecessor Mission, UNMIS in the implementation of the CPA. Speculation was abound of her major folly; her failure to adhere to her mandated role, that of purely providing support in collaboration with the host Government and not to interfere in the running of the affairs of the state under the illusion that she knew better. This was a grave mistake. Needless to mention that had a serious and transparent internal investigation within UNMISS been conducted at the time, much would have come out that could have assisted the UN to take the necessary corrective measures and saved the day.
There is no doubt that the mistrust that currently exists between the Government of South Sudan and the Head of UNMISS has reached its climax and hence inimical to the work of the Mission as it impedes the proper implementation of the UN mandate. This scenario thus makes it inevitable that the stumbling block, that is the Head of the Mission, steps down immediately. That the host government, which happens to be the key local stakeholder and key interlocutor can no longer trust the Head of Mission and is unwilling to engage fully with her speaks volumes about her unwanted presence and the damage she must have caused, which many say includes swinging the opinion of some in the international community against the government in favour of the rebels. The allegations that the UNMISS Head of Mission is close to the rebel leader, Riek Machar do nothing to dismiss allegations of her lack of neutrality in favour of the rebels, let alone to reassure the government of her support. Given the unnecessary huge loss of life, destruction, pain and suffering that has taken place since the rebel attacks began in December 2013, coupled with the historical civil war animosities between the now regrouped former Khartoum backed militia splinter groups led by Riek Machar and the SPLA proper under the current government leadership, it is difficult to imagine how the South Sudan government could ever be expected to seriously engage with the UNMISS Head of Mission who they believe is in the destructive enemy’s camp. This surely would be a highly unrealistic expectation.
It has become crystal clear that it is no longer to the advantage of the UN Mandate to keep Ms Johnson in South Sudan for how, may we ask, can she fully function when the key local stakeholders and interlocutors have completely lost confidence in her abilities and are clearly unwilling to fully engage with her? Questions may also be asked as of what value is Ms Johnson to the Mission when she is not held in confidence by those she is expected to support and consequently remains uninformed and uninsightful of the key issues emanating from the Government and the peace process that might require the Mission’s attention and that of the international community? And if the Head of Mission is not well informed, of what relevance is she in resolving the issues of South Sudan. Now that many South Sudanese seem to be even convinced that the Head of Mission is partly responsible for painting a negative picture of their government in the eyes of the international community, her continued stay in South Sudan is no doubt no longer tenable as her presence is now seen as an imposition that does nothing except to create apprehension among the government leadership and its people, and to taint the good image of the UN which has done so much to promote peace world wide.
It is hard to imagine of what use Ms Johnson can be in a country where the host government is no longer entertaining her and the citizenry demanding for her exit. This current state of affairs clearly warrants her humble exit from office if the Mission is to effectively execute the proper implementation of its mandate. Let it be known that it is absolutely unfair for the UNMISS Head of Mission to play politics by leaving the task of relieving her from office to the UN Secretary General when she can easily step down on her own. Now that she has become a liability to the UN, it is imperative that the current Head of UNMISS steps down sooner than later so she can give peace a chance by giving way to a more welcome UN representative who will be able to function fully for the cause of peace. The current volatile situation in South Sudan is very worrisome hence requires a more serious and neutral approach by a leadership that is committed to promoting peace in South Sudan and the region. This can only happen if Ms Johnson steps down now.
Rose Sakala, is a Conflict Resolution and Peace Building Expert in Lusaka, ZAMBIA and she can be contacted by firstname.lastname@example.org