A letter from Warrap State: The dangers of disarmament in South Sudan
On South Sudan’s first day of independence, the dawn chorus was a splattering of gunfire resounding around the villages. The popping AK47s answered the tutterings of the machine guns. The assorted sounds added to the unique harmony of that Saturday morning. But their noise shattered any illusions that it is only AK47s hidden amongst the huts of Warrap State. This was a loud and elaborate assortment of weaponry – anonymously calling their sounds of freedom from these private homes.
By Naomi Pendle
With South Sudan now over one month old, confident, fresh declarations of disarmament have started. Many cities, even before the 9th July, participated in curfews and searches for illicit arms held by civilians. However, now the promise is to extend the disarmament campaign to the majority of the population who are found in the rural areas. This will occur simultaneously with a promised increase of troops deployed into the most insecure states. It has been suggested that a further total of 15,000 troops will be deployed in Lakes State, Warrap State and Unity State and that the disarmament process will start in Lakes State.
Currently, in many counties in Warrap State, it is the Titweng (the cattle guard) who offer security for the communities and their property. Consisting of teenage and young adult, civilian males, the Titweng of Warrap State first replaced spears and clubs with guns during the North-South war. The Titweng describe the origin of their weapons as Ethiopia – brought back to Warrap State from the SPLA training grounds in the 1980s. Not only were they the leftover guns of the soldiers, but also the Titweng understand that they were intentionally armed by the SPLA in the1990s. This was to facilitate the Titweng‘s assistance in defense of the SPLA held areas post the division of the SPLA and the conflict from the Nasir-SPLA in Unity State. Since the 1990s, guns have also been acquired by the Titweng through the market and from the booty of battle.
As an armed, experienced and motivated group, the Titweng have acquired a reputation of being the supreme force capable of defending their counties against attacks. They are also capable of carrying out offensives. The government has even informally opted to encourage these groups as a security agent, confident of their SPLA loyalty as well as their strength. For example, a commissioner explicitly stated that troop deployments were not needed certain areas, despite heavy, recent conflict, due to the presence of the Titweng.
The current policy of disarmament and increased deployment of troops, if implemented, would effectively replace the Tiweng with the army as the primary means of security in the counties of Warrap State. The Titweng, as civilians, would surrender their arms. Simultaneously, more troops would be placed in Warrap and would be able to offer an alternative source of security.
In a gun-riddled culture, people will not give up their arms with ease. In those cities that have experienced searches by the army, even religious leaders have privately shared that they were able to successfully hide their weapons from these searches. Whatever security the police or army can provide, the public still lacks confidence that these forces can guarantee their safety and the safety of their property, such as the cattle. Therefore, the citizens perceive the need and right to bare arms. Although there is no political space to express this dissent to the government and army in public, they assert their right through this shameless continued possession of their weapons. Maybe there is some sympathy for this public sentiment amongst the politicians, the soldiers and other community leaders.
Yet, despite the difficulties of disarmament, it is assumed that it is desired. The proliferation of small arms in South Sudan is often attributed as a root cause of the seemingly endless inter-community conflicts that are threatening to plague the new state of South Sudan. The majority of these conflicts are fought between civilians using illicitly owned guns. Over 2,500 people died in such violence in 2010 and events suggest that statistics will be just as high for 2011. The gun does not only increase injuries and fatalities, it has also made the violence dependent on the supply of weapons, subjecting it to the control of those with money or other means of supplying guns. It also removes ease of accountability, as it is hard to trace the owner of the gun that caused injury or death. Therefore, if the gun is a cause of deadly conflict, disarmament would seem to bring a solution.
However, there are dangers in the disarmament of civilians, especially if this includes the replacing of the Titweng with troops. While the Titweng are not formally part of any state institution able to regulate their behaviour, in reality they often prove more disciplined than the army. Usually tightly controlled by the cattle-camp leaders and community elders, the Titweng comply with instructions that relate to the use of force and their weapons. This is partly because they have a greater proximity to their leaders than those in the army, often being related and living in the same homes as these elders. The Titweng are also fully reliant on their leaders for access to wealth and marriage, with cattle communally held and controlled by the elders. This means that they are willing to listen to instructions of peace or conflict. Therefore, the violence implemented by the Titweng can both be more limited and, when applied, more focused. For this reason, there is less fear of the unpredictable use of arms.
In contrast, soldiers have gained the reputation for undisciplined behaviour. Accusations against soldiers have included acts such as the violent apprehension of private and NGO cars, and individual soldiers have also been accused of murders. While the army leadership seems far from condoning such action, the distance of these leaders, the lack of financial support for the soldiers and the demands made of them have correlated with this less predictable, violent behaviour.
Furthermore, the motivation of the soldiers may be distinct from those communities they are called to defend. While this may be preferable if the community is accused of causing conflict, this may also result in the soldiers being less willing to enter even defensive combat. Experiences in the grazing lands of Warrap State have seen soldiers flee in the face of attacks on cattle due to the lack of incentive to protect them and the high risk of death. In contrast, the Titweng, guarding their own family’s wealth, are highly motivated and more willing to take exceptional risks. Furthermore, soldiers from other communities can appear confused in their allegiances, being accused of fighting against the host community and adding to the complexities of the conflict.
While independence has bought fresh hope, there is no certainty that it has bought improved security. Although there has been little violence, the increased rainfall at this time of year often suspends conflicts irrespective of intention. The flooded land, rivers and swamps provide a natural, but temporary, barrier against conflict. However, when the waters dry, there is no faith that the improved security will continue. Communities hope that there will be a disciplined, motivated force to guard themselves and their property. The communities of Warrap State would ordinarily assume the Titweng, and not the troops, would take up this role. Disarmament could be dangerous if it replaces this controlled, traditional security mechanism with something altogether less familiar and predictable.