Has South Sudan Passed the Tipping Point? No Signs of a Ceasefire as Violence Intensifies

BY Eric Reeves

January 3, 2014 (SSNA) — Reports of violence in South Sudan are increasing dramatically, creating an ever-larger humanitarian crisis, one that already verges on the “catastrophic” according to several relief organizations on the ground.  More than 200,000 civilians have already been driven from their homes, and the chief UN humanitarian official for the region, Toby Lanzer, has declared that this number could reach 300,000 to 400,000 ”in a matter of days” (Voice of America, January 2, 2014).  Many of those who have fled, even if they have reached UN camps, are without clean water or food.  Some 76,000 people, mainly women and children, have fled Bor and its environs for Awerial, thirty miles to the west in neighboring Lakes State.  Conditions are appalling, as reported by Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other aid groups (see below).

Nor is there any reason to think that if violence continues to escalate civilian displacement will not do so as well: in the later years of the long civil war between northern and southern Sudan (1983 – 2005) internal displacement was estimated by the UN High Commission for Refugees and other organizations at between 4 and 5 million civilians.  And the violence that displaced them was for the most part internecine warfare following the split between John Garang and Riek Machar in 1991.  The inter-ethnic violence that followed claimed, directly and indirectly, hundreds of thousands of lives. Riek Machar’s expedient decision in 1997 to make a factitious “peace” with Khartoum (the so-called “Khartoum Peace Agreement”) led subsequently to some of the most violent fighting of the war, concentrated in Riek’s Nuer  homeland of Unity State (then Western Upper Nile).

History is repeating itself in ghastly fashion as Bor becomes the epicenter of fighting; for Bor was the site of the infamous Bor massacre of 1991, in which Riek’s Nuer “White Army” killed thousands of ethnic Dinka.  Bor is once again the scene of violence that has a distinctly ethnic character, and many (though far from all) of the “White Army” marching toward Bor have succeeded, along with Riek’s other military forces, in seizing this important town, just 200 kilometers north of the capital Juba (UN observers believe that until recently the notorious Peter Gadet, who has defected to Riek, was just north of Bor). Few have forgotten the events of 1991.  Moreover, there are many reports of brutal retaliatory killings of ethnic Dinkas—this because of the numerous and increasingly well-documented atrocities directed against Nuer in Juba following the evening of December 15.  It would appear that many hundreds of Nuer were slaughtered, most by elements of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).  Failure to control the army adequately must stand as Salva Kiir’s greatest failing in the present crisis.  Even now, Nuer men in the UN camps on the outskirts of Juba dare not leave for fear of being killed.  Elsewhere in South Sudan, Nuer youth overwhelmed a UN protection force in Akobo, killing two UN personnel in order to gain access to Dinka being protected at the site.  All were slaughtered.

Riek Machar claims that “[President Salva] Kiir is the one who wants to provoke a tribal war” (Interview with Asharq Al-Aswat (January 2, 2014).  But it is the continued fighting, the refusal to initiate a military stand-down, that has turned what is essentially a political rivalry into conflict that daily sees more civilian destruction—destruction with an increasingly ethnic character.

The stakes for the country as a whole could not be greater.  If Riek is as good as his word and marches on Juba, then South Sudan will almost certainly disintegrate.  Ethnic violence, already reported in highly alarming terms in various locations besides Bor and Juba, will spread rapidly; insecurity for humanitarians will becoming intolerable in many locations where human need is greatest; and the deterrent effect of the SPLA in keeping Khartoum’s military forces (the Sudan Armed Forces and various militia allies and proxies) in check along the border will disappear.  For the ruthless opportunists in the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime, the time to re-draw the North/South boundary will have arrived, and the oil fields of Unity and Upper Nile states may be seized under color of “protecting” a mutual and shared natural resource.  Without a functioning central government and without oil revenues, it is difficult to imagine anything remaining of a true national state of South Sudan.

Virtually all observers have been taken by surprise at the rapidity with which events have spiraled out of apparent control.  Even if stalled negotiations in Addis Ababa begin rapidly and are fully successful—and there is no evidence of this, three weeks after the precipitating events of December 15—without an immediate cease-fire, fighting will continue to escalate rapidly.  But Riek and his lieutenants continue to speak of detailed monitoring terms and mechanisms before committing to a ceasefire, even as this pushes South Sudan closer to, or further beyond, the point of no return, even as Salva Kiir offered an unconditional cease-fire or cessation of hostilities agreement on December 27—a full week ago and a very long time in present circumstances.  How is it that the demands for negotiation of a cease-fire have been so inexcusably dilatory?  Does Riek really want a cease-fire?  Or does he wish to accrue greater strength on the ground, more military equities with which to leverage other demands in these upcoming negotiations?

In response to a question about whether the two sides were committed to negotiating a cease-fire, British special envoy to South Sudan, Andrew Mace said “more needed to be done to demonstrate that commitment. ‘(It) looks like they’re still moving for a military advantage rather than preparing a ceasefire,’ Mace said” (Reuters [Addis Ababa, January 2, 2014).  But this assessment comes many days after it became clear that it was Riek who was determined to seize Bor and Malakal if possible.  Malakal is temporarily back in the hands of the SPLA, but Bor has changed hands for the third time in this conflict and is now in the hands of Riek’s forces.  Salva Kiir and the SPLA several days ago, by way of making clear their commitment to a cease-fire, declared they would not mount an offensive against Bentiu, capital of Unity State and the epicenter of the oil regions.  Perhaps this was done with the expectation that the offer would be rejected by Riek and his forces, as it was.  But the offensive on Bentiu could very easily have been monitored by any number of means; Salva and the SPLA would have squandered whatever position of moral advantage they have by virtue of having offered an unconditional and immediate cease-fire.  For again, it was Salva who such an "unconditional cease-fire" on December 27.

In response to this, Riek’s emissary in Addis sketches a future for negotiations that could be made to drag out indefinitely, while evermore destructive fighting continues:

Johannes Musa, a member of the negotiating team for former Vice President Riek Machar, told Al Jazeera that there are significant problems to be overcome, and that the rebels will not lay down their arms unilaterally. "We did not refuse a ceasefire," Musa said. " But we put out some conditions. The government may not commit itself to mutual ceasefire, that will not be monitored." (Al Jazeera [Addis Ababa], January 2, 2014)

This confusing, perhaps disingenuous conflation of issues is the best context for assessing an ominous report that the SPLA says it has evidence of the forced recruitment of civilians into the rebel army in the Bor area:

Rebel militia currently hold Bor, the capital of the key oil-producing state of Jonglei. The military spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer said the government had sent in reinforcements but claimed the rebels were arming reluctant civilians as they focused on their next target—Juba, the seat of the central government. “Juba, that is their intention,” he told the Associated Press. “They are trying to march to Juba. The [military] will return them to where they came from.” (Associated Press [Addis Ababa], January 2, 2014).

If true—and forced recruitment has a long and ugly tradition in the South—this suggests that the drive for Juba is serious and that this most catastrophic of military events could occur soon.  Reports this morning from the BBC (January 3, 2014) indicate that the battle has already begun and involves tanks and heavy artillery.

A week ago I asked a question that has only gained in urgency: “Riek Machar: What is His End-Game?” (December 28, 2013).  Even now it is not at all clear what he hopes to gain from further military activity—only that he intends to keep fighting, thus increasing violence throughout the country, with an intensifying ethnic character.  But what does he want?  Further military gains?  Does he think that he can capture Juba?  Achieve a political weakening of Salva Kiir’s government, thereby improving his chances for political power in South Sudan? Or perhaps what he has in mind is a deal with Khartoum over the oil regions. Again, Riek expediently signed the 1997 “Khartoum Peace Agreement,” which paved the way for ethnic clearances to provide security for oil companies operating in Western Upper Nile.  Those clearances and killings (1997 – 2003) were primarily civilians of Riek’s own Nuer ethnicity.  Riek would later admit that the “agreement” with Khartoum was a bad idea, but by then the civilian clearances and destruction had largely been accomplished.  Is Riek prepared to make another agreement with Khartoum if he is militarily squeezed by the SPLA?

He declares not, even as he suggests an arrangement for oil revenues that would require Khartoum’s agreement and assistance. In an interview with Asharq Al-Aswat (London, 2 January 2014), Riek answered a question about revenues from Southern oil production:

We confirmed that oil production and export would continue and that we would pay Khartoum its dues according to the cooperation agreement between the two countries. We have also arranged for South Sudan’s revenues to be deposited in a special account until the war ends. However, the Khartoum regime does not want to cooperate.

Khartoum “does not want to cooperate,” Riek insists.  But how can he know if he hasn’t reached out to them with just such a proposal?  And on what basis does he arrogate to himself the right to set up “a special account” for the oil revenues that belong to all the people of South Sudan.  And the phrase “until the war ends” is terrifying in what it reveals.  This is not the language of someone interested in a cease-fire to what might still, in some sense, be called a “military flare-up”; it is the language of someone who imagines protracted conflict, with an outcome presumably favorable to him.  But what happens when the full effects of the loss of Unity State oil production, and thus revenues, sinks in for those in charge of managing Sudan’s rapidly imploding economy?  With a large budget gap, accelerating inflation already exceeding 50 percent, and a currency in free fall, the temptation to make a deal with Riek for Unity State revenues might seem irresistible.  Or perhaps Khartoum’s refusal to “cooperate” derives simply from an understanding that once Southerner is fighting Southerner, the regime is prevailing militarily at no cost.  Perhaps a badly divided and weakened SPLA will no longer deter Khartoum from re-drawing the North/South border—a border that remains contested in a number of areas nine years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 9, 2005).

Guided by no evident principles or concern for the life of Sudanese civilians, why should we believe Riek incapable of making another “agreement” with Khartoum? 

The political context—a South Sudanese view

I indicated at the conclusion of my December 28 analysis that I hoped to provide an assessment of the political circumstances that led to the current military situation.  It is a task that must be deferred yet again, but a series of comments and commentaries by Jok Madut Jok, former Under-Secretary for Culture in the Government of South Sudan, represent the sentiments of the vast majority of Sudanese with whom I have communicated over the past several weeks. On December 3, 2014 the Sudd Institute that Jok co-founded began its weekly assessment with a stark assessment of the current state of politics in South Sudan:

Though South Sudanese have been expressing disappointment in the way their young state has been run ever since independence was declared in 2011, they have been more recently appalled by news that has bombarded them about government failures, fiscal misdeeds, unclear policies, uncertainties of what the future holds for them in terms of security, development, livelihoods, basic freedoms, the constitution, reconciliation, census, elections and the balance of powers. More concerning is the fact that the legislative assembly is at the mercy of the president instead of carrying out its constitutional mandate that oversees the actions of the executive. Another subject of heated discussions is the fate of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) the liberation movement turned ruling party, whose structures the president recently dissolved, rendering the party nearly paralyzed. In short, the noose seems to tighten ever more around the neck of the entire nation. (Sudd Institute, Issue of December 3, 2013)

More recently Jok made a key claim to the Wall Street Journal about the misguided nature of so much of the politics of South Sudan (December 29, 2013):

Mr. Jok argued that the country’s backers had spent too much time and money on building political institutions and infrastructure, and not enough on helping factions that had fought each other for years to forge a new national identity.

And indeed this remains the critical task for any Government of South Sudan, if it is to become truly a unified country.

Not all would agree with all elements of this broad assessment, but it certainly represents a view that is widely held in many different quarters of the political world in Juba and elsewhere in South Sudan.  Certainly tensions between President Salva Kiir and leading members of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement have been a constant for many months now.  Assigning blame or responsibility will be the task of those writing the history of the troubled three years since the self-determination referendum; it will not be easy, for there are many who are guilty of corruption, malfeasance, and ruthless self-interest—and others who have indulged in rank mendacity.  But my task here remains to speak to the issue that governs whether or not there will be a South Sudan, in any meaningful sense, a year from now.  And that issue, that urgent necessity, is how to halt the violence and fighting.

Even before Salva’s offer of an “immediate cease-fire” (December 27, 2013), and its rejection by Riek (unless following time-consuming negotiations and preparations), Jok saw with terrible prescience the danger that has largely come to pass, particularly with the alliance between three men:

But Jok says that he is thought to have headed that way, and that an alliance between the two men and the former governor of Unity state, who is also missing, could be catastrophic. “If the SPLA engages [Peter] Gadet and possibly Riek and [former Unity State governor] Taban [Deng], then we have an all-out civil war in South Sudan, a mere two years after independence, and making good all the predictions by outsiders that South Sudanese will have limited capacity to build a peaceful nation.” (Al Jazeera, December 19, 2013) (emphases have been added in all quotes)

He is also quite frank about how appalled he was by the targeting of Nuer in Juba following the events of December 15:

[Jok] warned that the violence could “escalate into tragic acts of ethnic cleansing.” “Some really heart-wrenching acts have already occurred where Nuer soldiers have been attacked and killed, Nuer government officials, even those serving in the offices of Nuer ministers, and ordinary citizens suspected of having participated in the fight against the government,” he said.

And he is frank in his broader political assessment:

“Sounds of gunfight, traversed with heart-shaking mortar and tank blasts, which have continued sporadically well into today Wednesday [December 18] morning, have all spread fear in the population, leaving them hostage to the madness of a few power-hungry men,” Jok said.

Jok also speaks with unsparing honesty about how “‘the fate of political stability in the whole country’ [has entailed paying] off many militias for peace.”  Most of these are now incorporated into the SPLA at enormous cost: the military takes over half the annual budget of South Sudan, and salaries are 80 percent of that massive expenditure. . Ominously, Al Jazeera’s account ends with an interview of a security analyst “who spoke on condition of anonymity [saying] that the worst-case scenario was ethnic violence taking place in South Sudan’s periphery. ‘And we’re at that stage now,’ the analyst said.”  This was almost two weeks ago.

I focus on the views of Jok not because they are exhaustive or fully representative, and because I think they are those of an honest man, a superb scholar of Sudan’s recent history, but also someone who has returned to South Sudan from a comfortable academic position in the United States.  He has founded an impressive school in Warrap State (Marol Academy), and has served in the Government of South Sudan.  If South Sudan is to have a future, it lies in its ability to produce more such people as Jok Madut Jok.

Humanitarian conditions: consequences of a failure to secure a cease-fire

It is important to stress that as was the case during the long North/South civil war, the primary casualties of any new “war” (to use Riek’s revealing choice of words) will be civilians, and among civilians primarily women and children. Conditions are deteriorating at such a rapid rate that news wire services, normally fully current in their background information, are reporting figures and developments that are several days, even a week out of date.  As of January 3, 2014, these are the reports that must be considered most closely in assessing the consequences of continuing violence:

[1]  Reports from MSF are particularly revealing:

On Thursday [January 2, 2014], as the government accused rebel forces of forcibly recruiting civilians for their bid to march on the capital, humanitarian agencies warned that tens of thousands of refugees were without food, water or shelter. Some 75,000 people have fled to the town of Awerial, having escaped clashes between government and rebel troops 30 miles away in Bor, where the fighting has been fiercest. With more people  arriving daily—mostly women and children pouring off boats with only the belongings they could carry—living conditions are near catastrophic, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned. David Nash, head of mission for MSF in South Sudan, had been in Awerial, where he said the situation was chaotic: “Awerial normally has a population of 10,000 – 12,000 with limited facilities anyway. It has a small health centre, which has been totally overwhelmed. (The Guardian [Juba], January 2, 2014)

Speaking to the BBC (January 2, 2014) MSF’s Nash said:

“There is no clean drinking water. Five boreholes—it’s just not enough,” David Nash of the medical charity MSF told the BBC. “People are drinking water straight out of the river Nile. It’s muddy, it’s not good. And there are no latrines, so open defecation is happening. Conditions for an outbreak of watery diarrhoea are perfect.”

MSF itself reports (January 2, 2014):

MSF has indicated that there are more than 70,000 displaced people in Awerial, in Lakes State, describing their condition as a “medical crisis.” The organisation’s medical coordinator, Sewnet Mekonnen said most of the displaced are women and children who fled clashes in Bor. “There are more than 70,000 displaced people from Bor to Awerial. They are in a desperate situation. They are in desperate need of water, food and shelter,” he said. Mekonnen said the displaced people are currently living in unimaginable conditions without shelter, with no health infrastructure and are lacking clean water and food. [Other estimates are yet higher: US AID reports on the basis of an inter-agency assessment mission to Awerial that 76,000  displaced persons are present (South Sudan Fact Sheet #8, January 2, 2014).]

[2]  Displacement is already terrifying large and growing rapidly:

The number of South Sudanese who have been forced to flee their homes as violence continues to rake the young country could double from 200,000 to 400,000 in the space of a few days if the country’s leaders are unable to reach a peace deal, United Nations officials warned Thursday. “We could well have 300,000 or 400,000 people who are displaced in a matter of days” unless the fighting that began in the capital 18 days ago and quickly spread around the country ends, Toby Lanzer, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, told VOA News. (Voice of America, January 2, 2014)

US AID reports that 30 percent of all those displaced are in ten UN compounds in South Sudan, compounds that were not designed in any way for large-scale humanitarian services (South Sudan Fact Sheet #8, January 2, 2014).

[3]  The refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, well over 200,000, are also in desperate need, and have become extremely vulnerable in their camps near the border (Unity and Upper Nile states in the South).  They have been driven from Sudan by the genocidal ambitions of the Khartoum regime in the Nuba Mountains as well as in Blue Nile.  This ambition has taken the form of relentless aerial bombardment of civilians and civilian agriculture, the torching of villages and foodstocks, and the killing of cattle.  Severe malnutrition among the more than 1 million people displaced in these two states, as well as in the general population, has been reported for two years.  But with no humanitarian access granted by Khartoum, no assessments other than “hit-and-run” efforts are possible, and these only by intrepid groups and individuals.  Anecdotally, the reports on conditions are relentlessly grim, and still deteriorating (see www.NubaReports.org).  There is no significant international pressure on the regime to lift its humanitarian embargo, of the same sort used during the 1990s in an effort to annihilate the Nuba people.  Civilians, as a consequence, are forced to flee to South Sudan:

With the crisis continuing to grow, the UN has called for more funding to meet the needs of people displaced by the violence in South Sudan, and the needs of another 210,000 refugees who fled violence in neighboring Sudan and live in UN-run camps, mainly in the north of South Sudan. “These are people who fled from Sudan where there was violence and came to South Sudan to seek safe haven. As a refugee said to me, ‘I left violence, I came here, I found violence. Where do I go?’” (Voice of America, January 2, 2014)

Beyond these 210,000 refugees in South Sudan (likely an understatement of the real figure), tens of thousands have fled from Blue Nile to Ethiopia, as the bombing of civilians continues relentlessly.

[4]  Flight along the (White) Nile River not only creates difficulty in securing clean water, but what for many is an insuperable obstacle in the effort to reach safety:

“The price to cross the river was $30 per person, or 150 South Sudanese pounds. So in some cases, parents just sent their kids across, because they couldn’t afford for the whole family to go.” “People told stories of a lot of drownings at the river,” [Nick] Kulish says.  “When there was shooting, they would rush into the water, and small children and old people drowned. You had people falling off boats. And in at least one instance, I had people say their boat was shot and that several people on board had died.” (Public Radio International, January 2, 2014)

[5]  Health threats are growing at an extremely rapid rate.

The humanitarian situation in South Sudan has further deteriorated in the past two weeks, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the outbreak of violence in South Sudan on December 15, 2013, the humanitarian needs have quickly been growing with a total of 195,416 persons have been displaced from the four states of South Sudan, namely; Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile, and 75,171 of them taking shelter in the UN peace-keeping bases in Juba, Bor, Malakal, Bentiu, while an estimated 5,000 others are displaced in Awerial County Lakes state. As a result of this population displacement, there is a looming risk of disease outbreaks especially for water borne diseases, warns WHO.

“The poor water, sanitation and hygiene conditions in the camps, coupled with a shortage of healthcare providers, poses health risks to thousands of displaced persons in the UN camp bases,” says Dr. Abdi Aden Mohammedthe WHO Country Representative in South Sudan. “Even with the tremendous efforts made by health partners, sanitation conditions are still inadequate largely due to the large number of people sheltering in UN bases which have insufficient space to house these numbers. Coupled with poor water and sanitation conditions, overcrowding in the camps may create conditions ripe for disease outbreaks,” adds Mohammed. (Public Health News, January 2, 2014)

[6]  The lack of food reaching people in Bor will soon have deadly consequences, as The Telegraph reports from Juba (December 30, 2013):

At least 7,000 civilians, including vulnerable orphans, are going without food inside a United Nations camp in South Sudan as they shelter from the country’s civil war.  The refugees at the UN base in the town of Bor receive clean water and protection from peacekeeping troops. But the security situation is so volatile that little food has been distributed—and some inside the camp have eaten nothing for days.

[7]  And finally, the inherent difficulties of conducting humanitarian operations in South Sudan cannot be forgotten, for these difficulties translate into shortages of food and medicine, as well as equipment for water purification and bore-hole digging.  In the presence of ongoing fighting, the challenges are almost overwhelming (the UN has kept in South Sudan only “critical personnel”):

Toby Lanzer, the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, says the recent rainy season has left many roads impassable.  ”We have to conduct many of our operations by air. So running an aid operation in this environment, when you don’t have precise information, is really very, very difficult and very expensive,” he says.  His office has appealed for $166 million just to provide the basics — blankets, water, food and basic medical care — through March. And then there’s the politics.  ”As humanitarian coordinator, I’m dealing with the consequences of a political struggle which has turned particularly violent,” Lanzer says. (National Public Radio, December 27, 2014)

What must be done—now

Political leaders in South Sudan who do not commit to an immediate cessation of  hostilities, without conditions, help ensure that the current catastrophe will intensify with frightening speed.  Modalities and mechanisms for formal cease-fire monitoring can be negotiated at greater leisure; what cannot wait another day is a military stand-down by both sides.  The place to begin is Bor, now under control of Riek’s forces and—according to SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer—fighting has already begun to move southward toward Juba (Washington Post [Nairobi], January 3, 2014).  Other reports from the BBC (January 3) have the SPLA beginning an offensive against Bor involving tanks and artillery.

Why does Riek not declare a cease-fire in light of all this?  His strategy here may be that described by a military analyst speaking to The Economist (January 3, 2014):

Machar may be able to hold the fledgling country’s oil infrastructure to ransom. If he can chalk up some early victories—for instance, by taking and holding Bor—he may be better placed to sue for peace. As things stand, South Sudan may face a long civil war.

It is beyond dispiriting to think of the people of South Sudan once more “facing a long civil war.”  All causes, all personal interests, all quests for seizing or holding power must give way before the desperately urgent need to forestall such a war.

Eric Reeves’ new book-length study of greater Sudan (Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012) is available in eBook format, at no cost: www.CompromisingWithEvil.org

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