South Sudan: snapshots of a divided country – By James Copnall

JamesCopnallHow do you govern a country divided by war? South Sudan is now split into three major zones. The people in the biggest area, made up of seven out of the country’s ten states, are currently spared the worst of the conflict, but suffer from its economic and social impact, and live with the permanent fear that the fighting could spread. The next largest area is the part of Greater Upper Nile under government control, but which is frequently threatened by the rebels. Here, the focus is on the battles to come. The final area is the nearby territory controlled by SPLM/A In Opposition (IO), over which the rebels are starting to establish an ersatz administration, as they too prepare for renewed conflict. In all three zones, a war economy operates, and political choices often follow old, if tarnished, models.

Juba: new fears, old methods

The less the government controls, the more authoritarian it becomes. In the last year, Riek Machar’s rebels have over-run swathes of Greater Upper Nile, even if they have been unable to hold on to the region’s two major towns, Bentiu and Malakal. The armed opposition has halted oil production in Unity state, and threatened the oilfields in Upper Nile. Once the rainy season ends, sustained fighting seems very likely. This, then, is an existential threat to President Salva Kiir and his government.

The response has been to squeeze the space available for dissent – or even just for open debate – in the reduced territories the government controls. The minister of information has told journalists several times that speaking to the rebels amounts to ‘agitating’ against the state – a clear example of the increasing restrictions in Juba. Journalists are now understandably frightened to do their job. The threats to freedom of speech have been backed up with action. Bakhita FM, the radio run by the Catholic church, was off air for months, after security officers objected to the station speaking to the rebels as well as carrying the government line.

Another example of intolerance for all but the government-approved position was the refusal to allow public discussions of federalism, which is one of Machar’s key demands. This position proved untenable, because a federal system also has wide support among Equatorians. The government, in its weakened position, cannot afford to antagonise another large segment of the population.

It has no qualms about clamping down on the opposition. Lam Akol, the major opposition leader, was stopped from travelling to Addis Ababa to take part in the peace talks. Lam, who got to the airport before he was turned back, says he has written to the president asking for an explanation, but has yet to receive one. ‘Our programme is a reform programme, we are talking about reforming the whole system, the governance, the institutions’, he says.’ But I think what particularly incensed them is our suggestion of creating a new position of prime minister, an executive prime minister. And of course they wouldn’t want to share power.’

It has been agreed for some time that a rebel should be prime minister in the forthcoming transitional government, but who exactly could take the role – and how much power that person should wield – have been major stumbling blocks in the talks. When IGAD leaders came to Juba at the end of October, they trumpeted a ‘breakthrough’. President Kiir had agreed to allow Machar to take up the post. However, this apparent step forward was not nearly as significant as it first appeared.

Government officials, and then Salva himself, said they would not countenance an executive prime minister. In short, they were offering Machar a ceremonial role he would never accept. The rebels, for their part, would like a replica of the Ethiopian system, in which the president carries little weight, and the prime minister makes all the decisions. (This model was most visible during Meles Zenawi’s time in power). This is unacceptable for Kiir’s supporters, who do not intend to dilute the (elected) president’s role. Power, then, is at the heart of the problem.

The Juba rumour mill is particularly active about just who, other than the president himself, is calling the shots right now. Telar Ring, often presented as a sort of eminence grise while he was the president’s legal advisor, has been sent out into the cold as ambassador to Russia. There seems little doubt that Paul Malong has directed much of the military response to the rebels, since even before he was appointed chief of staff of the SPLA.

Malong’s growing influence highlights the increasing preponderance of Dinkas from Kiir’s Greater Bahr el Ghazal region among those close to the president. Malong is a combative, controversial character, who when I interviewed him in 2012 seemed  happiest talking about his many military triumphs. Reports of his recent collapse must have worried many in the government; while the front of stage role played by such an unabashed hardliner is a concern for Kiir’s critics.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the government’s authoritarian approach is the National Security Service bill, which was passed by parliamentarians in October 2013, despite many Equatorian MPs walking out, and claims a quorum wasn’t reached. This bill, which is still sitting on the president’s desk, would give the already feared security forces ‘sweeping powers’, according to South Sudanese and foreign campaign groups opposed to the legislation.

The bill is, in a sense, merely codifying existing practice: security agents already arrest perceived threats with little or no oversight from politicians. But it is impossible to escape the thought that it is a very close approximation of the December 2010 Sudanese security law the SPLM complained about so strongly when they were in Khartoum.

This habit of clamping down when under fire, often by following the Sudanese blueprint, is not new. Some antecedents may perhaps be found in the personalised system John Garang established during the second north-south civil war, in which challenges to his leadership were dealt with harshly. However, the pattern was most evident in the period leading up to and just after independence.

During the 2010 elections, the SPLA threatened and in some cases tortured real or supposed supporters of the opposition. There were serious doubts about the credibility of many of the election results, sparking a number of rebellions across the country. The disaffected generals who took to the bush were mainly SPLA veterans who had not been chosen as SPLM candidates in what was a deeply flawed nomination process, stood as independents, and then felt cheated out of an election win.

In the years since the CPA, the weak opposition has struggled to make its voice heard. Opposition politicians find it difficult to get airtime on state media – and sometimes face more drastic obstacles. Onyoti Adigo, the minority leader in the national assembly, was assaulted, apparently by security officers, two days before independence. One of his teeth was broken.

In the period after independence, an entitled elite of rebel commanders turned politicians rejected almost all public criticism. Journalists were arrested for an (admittedly poorly-judged) article about the president’s family. Ministers and the army frequently dismissed condemnation from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, rights groups that they had in the past praised for revealing abuses committed by Khartoum. South Sudanese human rights activists have been assaulted. The blogger Isaiah Abraham was killed, shortly after writing an article criticising the president. His killers have not been caught.

The constitution concentrated significant power in the hands of the Head of State, including the ability to sack elected state governors. Despite Garang’s often-quoted mantra of ‘taking the towns to the people’, there has been little or no rural development. The oil billions were spent on the bloated military, stolen by the political/military elite, and any left-overs went to develop Juba, rather than the peripheral regions. In all this, the echoes of the old Sudanese system are impossible to escape.

As the economic impact of the 2012-13 oil shutdown swept through the country, internal criticism of the political direction of the country grew. In March 2013, Riek Machar, Pa’gan Amum and Rebecca Nyandeng all made it clear they wanted to run against Salva Kiir for the post of chairman of the SPLM. As prominent figures they all must take their share of responsibility for the failures of the post-independence period. Furthermore, their ambition and targeted criticism increased the pressure on the president. With his back to the wall, Kiir’s response was to shut down internal debate.

Meetings of party bodies were postponed or cancelled. The entire government, including Machar, was sacked in July 2013, and Pa’gan suspended. The National Liberation Council meeting in Juba, which immediately preceded the first shots of the conflict, was an open confrontation between Kiir and his growing band of detractors. The civil war – whether or not one believes Kiir’s claim that it began with an attempted coup – has simply increased the threat against the president, and so deepened his government’s authoritarian tendencies.

Malakal: the state at war

There is not much of Malakal left to govern. Whole areas of the town have been destroyed by successive waves of fighting. Roofless round brick huts gape at the sky, metal shop doors have been hammered open by looters, vegetation is over-running the remnants of homes. The hospital, once well-equipped and with an impressive reputation, was ransacked. Some civilians cluster in the market, though most return to their homes, or the nearby UN camp, long before nightfall. Most of the people on the streets, though, are soldiers. Malakal is a garrison town, just as it was for Khartoum during the 1983-2005 civil war.

The governor, Simon Kun Pouch, is rarely around, leaving his deputy, Awer Dau, in charge. The government makes little attempt to provide services to the few remaining civilians. Instead, the war effort is the major concern here: the SPLA has sent soldiers and equipment into the state throughout the rainy season, in readiness for the battles to come.

A few miles out of town, past the airport, over 18,000 civilians shelter in the UN base. Their quarters have been extended, and there are further improvements planned, but it is still a miserable existence. The whole area transforms into sludge during the rains, and people live in tents, with the ever-present threat of an outbreak of disease. The government has no role here. Instead, security is provided by the UN, and shelter, food and medical attention by international aid groups.

The people living in the camp are a mix of Nuer (often accused of supporting the rebels), Shilluk and Dinka (both perceived as being on the side of the government). In such a claustrophobic atmosphere, it can be no surprise when broader tensions are reflected inside the camp, with deadly consequences. Further clashes are likely, and there seems little prospect of the displaced leaving this camp, or similar ones in Bentiu or Juba, any time soon.

I met a Nuer civil servant at his new makeshift home in the UN camp in Malakal. It was more luxurious than most. Overstuffed sofas and a pile of suitcases hinted at a prosperous life before the conflict. The man was scathing about Kun, the Upper Nile governor, a Nuer who stuck with Salva Kiir: ‘he’s not a Nuer any more’, he said.

The civil servant’s sympathies were clearly with the rebels. Yet he was still drawing his salary from the government, even though he no longer went into town to work – and he is not alone. In his case and others like it, the state has been stripped of any claim to be a tool for social progress. It is, instead, an opportunity for personal enrichment. In this, the state at war is much like it was in the days of relative peace.

Leer: the rebels settle in

In Leer, Riek Machar’s home town, they are preparing for further conflict too. Residents, aid workers and missionaries say that young men have been conscripted, and sent off to join Peter Gatdet’s forces. Gatdet, Machar’s ‘military governor’ of Unity state, is under international sanctions, but this hasn’t tamed him. Gatdet was accused of launching the attacks on Bentiu last week. Some of the young men Gatdet recruited in Leer may have volunteered to protect their area, which was sacked by SPLA and JEM fighting for Salva in the early days of the war. Most, though, were taken by force.

The local power dynamics are interesting. This part of Unity state is home to the Dok Nuer, Riek’s sub-group. When their area fell to the forces loyal to the government, the Dok were criticised by other Nuer for not defending Leer, and for not providing enough troops for the war effort. Much of the forced recruitment here was apparently led by Bul Nuer officers, personally connected and loyal to Gadet, a Bul Nuer himself. Some have made themselves unpopular by whipping young Dok Nuer in Leer’s market, and elsewhere in town.

Yet the bulk of the Bul Nuer fighters are not with Machar’s forces. Bapiny Monytuil and Matthew Pul Jang’s former SSLA rebels, who signed an amnesty in 2013, have stayed loyal to President Kiir, perhaps in part because Joseph Monytuil, Bapiny’s brother, was named governor of Unity state. Pul Jang has fought for the government, alongside Sudanese JEM rebels, for control of Bentiu and other key areas, most notably the Bul Nuer homeland around Mayom, which blocks the rebels’ path to Kiir’s home state, Warrap. There are many levels of conflict in South Sudan, and one is a fight for influence among senior Bul Nuer, some allied with the rebels, others with the government.

A twenty minute walk from Leer’s main market is a large compound that used to serve as the offices of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC), the state’s humanitarian body. When I lasted visited Leer, two years ago, the SSRRC served as a liason between international NGOs and the local county administration. Now James Yoach and others run the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (SSRRA), an almost identical body, but one loyal to Machar.

Yoach says the SSRRA aims to ‘alleviate the suffering of the people’, but in practice all aid work is done by international NGOs. Costly food drops have helped tens of thousands of desperately hungry people in the area. ‘That Commission, we left it for the government, because it has no values’, Yoach says, explaining the creation of the rival SSRRA. But he admits that ‘there are no resources available’.

Back in town, the county commissioner’s office is still standing. The aquamarine paint on the walls could still do with a new coat, and there is still no electricity. Some officials, loyal to the government, have left. Others remained in post, though like the SSRRA members they say they have no salaries now. But already rebel officials have started collecting taxes in the market, which is being slowly rebuilt after most of it was burnt down at the start of the year.

The authority of those collecting taxes comes solely from their weapons. This, in fact, is not so very different from the state as a whole, before the civil war began. Most of South Sudan’s leaders are former rebel fighters, who owe their position to their military prowess or regional clout. The flawed 2010 polls provided only the thinest cover of democratic legitimacy. The rebel tax collectors of Leer, and the civil servants drawing a salary in Malakal although they are no longer working, merely represent an exaggerated image of the South Sudanese state’s own worst tendencies in the post-independence period.

Yei: the war outside the killing fields

At the tail end of the rainy season, Yei is a five hour drive from Juba, along roads that resemble corrugated iron sheets in places, and cattle ponds in others. The balance depends on how recently the rains last fell. Yei itself is a sizable town, near the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Salva Kiir still has a large house here, a reminder of Yei’s importance to the SPLA in the war with Khartoum before independence.

Yei has its problems. One street in the main market is lined with black market currency traders, shouting out the dollar rate from under parasols with increasing desperation at each passer-by, a hint that South Sudan’s economic troubles are felt in the town. The tensions within the SPLA since the civil war broke out have had their echo here: a local commander defected with his troops in January. More recently, 6 people were killed in a shootout after the leader of the SPLA veterans was replaced. The short-lived fighting can be ‘traced back to finance’, according to the Yei River county commissioner, Bidali Cosmas, as two factions fought over the salaries the war veterans receive.

On the whole, though, Yei has been peaceful – along with most of South Sudan, as the government rightly points out. As Cosmas puts it, ‘even with the current crisis in our country, the effect is not the same from one location to the other. There are areas of crisis, and areas where there is peace and security. These areas have good conditions for development.’

This plea for greater interest in Yei and other peaceful areas cannot hide a more disturbing reality. First, the war is not necessarily destined to burn only in Greater Upper Nile. Second, the impact of the conflict is being felt even in places where no bullets are flying. Cosmas admits that his administration no longer receives as much money from Juba, and it is hard to pay salaries, let alone continue with vital road building projects and other development schemes. Throughout South Sudan, real development will be put on hold for as long as the war continues.

Before the fighting broke out in Juba in December 2013, South Sudan was already facing huge challenges, including corruption, under-development and inter-ethnic clashes. Millions struggled to get enough to eat. Those problems have been magnified by the war, but even in relatively peaceful areas the authorities are dealing with events that would be considered catastrophes in other countries. Deadly floods have displaced thousands in Warrap, Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Jonglei states. Cattle raiding in Lakes state seems to be spiraling out of control. The war has amplified some problems, and hidden others. The response of the governing class, wherever they are in South Sudan, and whoever they support, has often not lived up to the people’s expectations.

James Copnall is a journalist and author of “˜A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce’He is editor of “˜Making Sense of the Sudans’.

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2 thoughts on “South Sudan: snapshots of a divided country – By James Copnall

  1. Dear James,
    I enjoyed reading this article, you have vividly attempted to inform and critically illustrated a big picture of the damaged caused by the current political conflict in the world’s youngest nation, i strongly believe that you have presented your opinions and critical evaluation of the overall situation clearly, accurately, with order and coherence. This is to inform you that you have eloquently made an accurate and vivid picture of the current situation. I wish all the parties and individuals with a stake in South Sudan’s violence can read your piece of writing to know the level of devastation this war caused to the people and their livelihoods.
    Best,
    Yohanis

  2. Great and informative article! It seems likely that in a month or two, South Sudan will (sadly) be back in the headlines.

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