An Integrated Multipronged approach is needed in order to curb armed ethnic violence in South Sudan
“Intelligence community had failed to connect the dots….That is not acceptable, and I will nor tolerate it”, said the disappointed Obama in the wake of the failed attempt by a Nigerian man, Umar Farouq Abdalmutallab, to blow up an American liner over the US city of Detroit on Christmas day last December 2009. In South Sudan, we could almost have uttered similar words when hit by calamities of ethnic and criminal violence, save the fact that we don’t have dots in hand to connect in order to curb the rising death toll caused by inter-tribal violence and cattle rustling that has claimed thousands of innocent lives in the last 5 years and continues to do so to this day. In other words, unlike Obama, we seem to be almost clueless.
This is much so because the government of South Sudan never articulated publicly what it could have done differently in order to stop the massacres that are becoming an everyday occurrence. And at the face of it, it looks as though there is no clear strategy and systems in place to handle the problem of insecurity in consistent, effective, and sustainable manner. Or so, I believe. I stand to be corrected.
There is, however, a consensus that a host of issues are responsible for the rising armed violence and death toll in the region. These include arms proliferation amongst communities, border disputes between neigbhouring communities, frictions over grazing lands and water resources, local political competition gone mad, cattle rustling linked to criminal activities, and (hardly mentioned) acute economic underdevelopment (mass unemployment and lack of nothing useful to do, for example). As a result, a recent UN report shows that the death toll in South Sudan in 2009 resulting from tribal violence has reached 2,500, and displaced 350,000 others. This figure far exceeds that of Darfur over the same period.
Weeks hardly pass without hearing of horrific news of such conflicts claiming more lives. And more often than not, civilians have turned their guns on SPLA forces whose role is supposed to be that of peace-keeping and protection of the citizens from law breakers. It appears the trust of the citizens on SPLA is also wearing thin. Such accidents raise more questions than it could be answered regarding management, training, deployment policies, and command line structures.
For instance, the most recent incident took place in Lakes State on January 1 2010 when pastoralists ambushed a truck carrying SPLA soldiers, killing 13 and wounding 20 others. The ambush followed similar clashes when SPLA forces shut dead a local man who, according to local sources, was not armed. SPLA sources claim the man was uncooperative with the force. We can never know the truth. What all agree on is that SPLA has been carrying out disarmament of civilians in Lakes States over recent months. But on this occasion, it went out of control to the extent that SPLA forces retaliated by burning down houses in Akot, the capital of Rumbek East County.
A few days ago Luac community in Warap State was attacked by cattle raiders believed to belong to Nuer community in Western Upper Nile State. About 140 unidentified people were killed and 4000 heads of cattle taken by the raiders. The high number of casualties puzzles many analysts as to the nature of the attack, whether the motive of the attackers was to get cattle or intended to commit massacre remains a mystery:
“I think what's happened in Warrap is no ordinary cattle raiding in the traditional sense as we know it…cattle raiding often targeted cattle not human lives as the ultimate price of the raid, and with a relatively a small number of defenders who resisted the attack getting killed in the process.”, said Dr. Hakim Moi of Association for Media Development in South Sudan (ADMISS).
However, Gordon Buoy, a former SPLA combatant and now SPLM political activist in North America, made a chilling observation: “Cattle raiders' fire power can kill 1000 people in a cattle camp. If you were a soldier before, you would agree that AK-47, PKM, RPG and Grenades can kill more than that.
I want people to acknowledge that motivation for fighting is important. The cattle raiders are more motivated than SPLA soldiers to fight because that is their livelihood. If they don't get the cattle, then they would not be able to provide food to their families”, Buoy concluded.
Dr. Luka Biong Deng, the minister for presidential affairs in the government of South Sudan was quoted by Miraya FM that “his government is exerting all efforts to end tribal conflicts in the region.” However, minister Deng could not elaborate on the sort of measures being taken by his government to end tribal violence. Such generalized statements by South Sudanese authorities is frequent and will do nothing to allay the fears of the concerned citizens that the situation is spinning out of control, and that their government lacks a comprehensive strategy for combating the rising inter-communal violence. Something must be done to arrest the continuing erosion of public and international community confidence in the government’s ability to maintain stability during the sensitive transition in post-referendum period in 2011.
The way I see it, the government of Southern Sudan might think that it has done all that it could to stop the violence. However, there is a plenty of room to do more. In fact, what the nascent Southern government has been doing so far is to quench fires, without looking deeply into the causes of rampant conflicts and factors that help fuel them so that it comes up with policies, strategies, and preventative measures and systems capable of stopping these conflicts in a sustainable fashion.
In short term, quenching of fires is necessary such as recent measures taken by Gier Chuong , the popular GOSS minister of Internal Affairs following Rumbek clashes between SPLA soldiers and locals in the new year day. These meaures included, among others, closing down of secret detention cells ran by the army, and shifiting responsibility of handling cases of cattle rustling to police.
However, in medium and long term, the government of South Sudan can seek the help of South Sudanese academic community. The government can do so in many ways: funding research into causes of conflicts, forming multidisciplinary task force to advise the government in forming new strategies for preventing and resolving ethnic conflicts, and funding think-tanks to carry out research and conduct strategic policy analysis on behalf of the government. Which way the government chooses to go, at the very least, such approach will help the government to deeply understand the causes of conflict (have the dots in hand) and then be able to interpret how these causes are intertwined (connect up the dots), and then form strategies, and multi-agency systems (with well defined roles) that will be successful in uprooting the tribal, political, and criminal violence in South Sudan.
And since it is certain that we are dealing with a dynamic problem that is going to be mobile and changing shape and form every time we rise to challenge it, one would expect the systems, strategies, and roles of multi-agencies to be the subject of continuous evaluation and improvement – all driven by the philosophy that there is no one solution that is a panacea to all our ethnic conflicts; rather there is going to be a repertoire of tools and solutions applicable to a large array of potential ethnic challenges, some more suited to certain types of conflict than others. For example, the repertoire may include economic, political, social, educational, and security measures that are applied in unison and in a coordinated fashion for them to be effective.
Those tasked with such responsibility would need to be competent and be scientifically and professionally orientated. Thus, unqualified political buddies, cronies, and party diehards need not apply.
The challenges posed by ethnic violence and criminal activity in South Sudan are grave and serious. However, they are not insurmountable as long as there is a political will to take the necessary measures and willingness by the government to put our resources where our mouth is.