July 8, 2014 (JUBA) – The outgoing head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Hilde Johnson, said on Tuesday that the country has been set back decades by the conflict which she says could have been averted.
- The outgoing head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Hilde Johnson (Photo: Charles Atiki/AFP/Getty Images)
Johnson made the comments at a news conference on Tuesday marking her departure from the country after serving three years as head of the mission.
She said the conflict, which erupted in mid-December last year, could have been contained by the leadership of the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) had it accepted warnings and calls to peacefully resolve the internal rift.
She said the county’s rival leaders both bear responsibility for atrocities committed during the conflict, warning the country would struggle to recover from the latest crisis.
“PAINFUL TO WITNESS”
“The country has now been set back decades. The terrible destruction of towns and property is one thing, but the divisions and wounds are deeper than ever. The gulf between communities is abysmal, and the animosity is worse than we have ever seen at any point in South Sudanese history. The social fabric is being torn apart. The nation building project which was extremely hard from the very beginning, will now be more difficult than ever,” Johnson told journalists before her departure from Juba International Airport.
“For us who have shared the struggle of the South Sudanese for peace and justice for all, this is very painful to witness,” she added.
Conflict erupted in South Sudan amid a divisive political split in the SPLM, which sparked violence across the country, with president Salva Kiir initially accusing his rivals of staging a coup0 to topple his government.
The fighting has pitted government forces loyal to the president against rebels aligned with former vice-president Riek Machar, who was sacked last July.
However, Johnson maintains that no coup occurred, asserting that rival parties in the SPLM should have done more to resolve their political differences peacefully.
“After two-and-a-half years of independence, what started as a political crisis, took a violent turn, and resulted in a cycle of ethnic killings. Never before had you, or any of us, seen such killings and atrocities happen here, committed by South Sudanese against South Sudanese,” said Johnson.
SAVING SOUTH SUDAN
The UN official said the country was now facing complete collapse and must focus on restoring peace and stability.
“The most important thing now, is that South Sudan is saved. Not only saved from fighting, but also saved from failing,” she said.
Johnson further accused the country’s leadership of squandering the goodwill and opportunities it had enjoyed since gaining independence from Sudan in July 2011 after a brutal civil war, spanning more than two decades.
“The SPLM is at risk of failing; of failing the people; failing the country and failing the struggle,” she said.
“The leadership, across all factions of the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) – whether they are inside or out of government, released from detention or in the bush – are responsible for this. The achievement of decades of struggle can be lost,” she added.
During what was an at times emotion-charged final press briefing Johnson vowed to remain a strong advocate for the people of South Sudan, saying “you will always remain in my heart”.
“As I leave South Sudan, I want everyone to understand that irrespective of its leadership, the United Nations and UNMISS are here to stay and will continue to support the people of South Sudan,” she said.
“And as I depart from this terminal, I want to tell all South Sudanese that you will always remain in my heart. I will continue to mobilise support for the suffering people of South Sudan, and to be a strong advocate of your case.”
Johnson announced she was stepping down in May, without providing a reason for her decision.
In earlier comments, Johnson cited the mission’s decision to provide shelter and protection to hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives at the height of the conflict as “the most important achievement” of her three-year tenure.
“The fact that we opened our gates actually has saved very many thousands of people’s lives. There will be incredible challenges going forward with this decision, but it were the right one,” she told reporters last month.
Relations between UNMISS and the South Sudanese government have been strained since the conflict broke out, with Kiir accusing the mission earlier this year of attempting to run a parallel government in the country earlier, although he later backtracked on the comments.
UNMISS’s reputation in the young nation also took a hit when it was accused of arming rebels after security officials discovered a weapons shipment in an overland UNMISS convoy in March.
UNMISS said the weapons were destined for its Ghanaian peacekeeping contingent in Unity state and had been mistakenly transported by land, rather than air – as is policy – due to a labelling error.
The discovery sparked anti-UN demonstration in the capital, Juba, with some protesters carrying signs bearing Johnson’s image and accusing her of being complicit in the killing of South Sudanese people.