Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 2 January 2012

The Problems of ethnic conflict in South Sudan

By Steve Paterno

January 1, 2012 — In South Sudan, ethnic or inter-ethnic conflict is as an old phenomenon as the rival communities themselves. However, in recent years, the proliferation of modern weaponry in the hands of the civilians increase the level of violence both in scale and intensity. Normally, some of these conflicts are precipitated by an incident involving the murder of a rival group, which often triggers a retaliatory action. In some cases, it does not matter under which circumstances the murder has taken place. Even if it is an accident, a retaliatory response always escalate the violence. Cattle rustling, nonetheless, remains the biggest culprit behind these conflicts. The current case pitting the Lou Nuer on one side and the Murle on the other in Jonglei state underscores this point. Just within the last few months, more than one thousand people from both sides of the conflict are killed. Scores of villages are razed on the ground.

A recent scene of hundreds of thousands of armed Lou Nuer marching across the Jonglei state, attacking the Murle villages has finally caught wider attention. Both the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan and the South Sudanese military responded by deploying troops in Pibor town; the major Murle town, which is currently under siege by the Lou Nuer. Nonetheless, the efforts of the peacekeeping force and that of South Sudanese military is too little, too late to avert the catastrophy.

For starters, the number of the UN peacekeeping force in the area is inadequate. UN deployed only a size of a battalion in the major town, leaving the rest of the civilians on the outskirt of town vulnerable. The UN effort is also hampered by serious logistical challenges. UN lacks air transport. It only relies on few civilian helicopters for ferrying its troops. The road to the region is treacherous and impassable. According to Lise Grande, the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, the convoy sent for reinforcement “simply didn’t make it. They got stuck in the mud and they couldn’t enter the town.” Grande concludes that these major constraints are “affecting the operational effectiveness” of the UN on the ground.

The response of South Sudan government is equally pathetic, marred by major challenges and lack of political willingness in addressing the situation. In an interview with BBC, Jonglei governor Kuol Manyang Juuk acknowledged the difficulties facing South Sudan government that the government “can’t work miracles” under the current scenario. South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar who rushed to the scene with the message of peace is simply scuffed off and ignored by the Lou Nuer armed gangs who continued on with their onslaught. They were eventually able to overwhelm the depleted UN and South Sudanese forces in the process.

Also full of flaws is the instituted South Sudanese disarmament effort. The disarmament effort misses the core of the issue, which has its roots in the tradition of the rivaling groups. Worse yet, the disarmament are always partial, targeting one community at a time. Then the collected weapons are not accounted for, because the military commanders who collected those guns resale them to the next highest bidders for personal profits, whereby those weapons are reused again in the next cycle of killings.

In order to resolve this age-old traditional rivalries, the government must provide uniform security to ensure the safety of the entire citizens of South Sudan so as one community should not feel threatened by the other. This should not only guarantees a comprehensive disarmament, but may cause the opposing communities to be reluctant to attack one another. A strict law enforcement, plus institutionalization of judiciary system should then be applied, with a particular focus to those who carry on with cattle raiding activities and committing murders with guns. The government must depend on the traditional authorities by empowering them in dealing with issues related to ethnic violence. The fact that the Lou Nuer warriors could not listen to the Vice President Riek Machar demonstrates a serious disconnect between the authorities and civilians—a fact that should have already worry those power in Juba. Programs targeting youth, such as sports and others must be promoted by the government, NGOs, and other relevant agencies to engage the youth so as they stop indulging in cattle raiding or killing the next neighbor. More importantly, significant emphasize must be placed in education and employment, not only to create a more understandable society, but a prosperous one as well.

Otherwise, the government inability to arrest the situation will lead into prolong wide conflicts and even massacres reminiscent of Bor’s incident of 1991. The time is now for the government to take charge and ensure the safety of all the South Sudanese citizens.

Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Romain Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at stevepaterno@yahoo.com