By Owei Lakemfa
When I watched South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit make a short speech on the floor of the African Union (AU) Heads of State conference in January 2013, I was impressed. He said King Mohammed VI of Moroccan had called to congratulate him on the independence of South Sudan from Sudan. But he had retorted that Morocco should likewise, let Western Sahara be free. That struck a chord in me. I thought he was progressive and Pan Africanist; the type of leader we need on the continent. I did not expect less from a man who was with John Garang in the long struggle for independence from Sudan.
For about five decades, South Sudan had fought for independence and when the opportunity of a United Nations-supervised referendum presented itself in January 2011, the people voted 98.83 percent for independence. That 2013, I was the then Secretary General of African Workers and was determined to integrate South Sudan workers with their brothers and sisters on the continent.
So, strenuous efforts were made to ensure that their labour leaders attended the fortieth anniversary of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) which was held on April 13, 2013 in Addis Ababa. A major problem was flight connections. But we overcame all obstacles and the South Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation delegation led by Hon Sinon Dieng, for the first time, took its seat amongst other African trade unions. A few months later, I received a message that Dieng had fled South Sudan; a victim of the December 15, 2013 shootout amongst the Presidential Guards in Juba. Following the incident, President Kirr accused Vice President Riek Machar of an attempt to overthrow him. Earlier that July, President Kirr had exhibited signs of dictatorship by sacking the Vice President and the entire cabinet under the pretext that he wanted to reduce the size of government; what has the size of government got to do with the Vice President who was supposedly a product of elections?
As is usual in Africa, in their private struggle for power and to maintain it, the gladiators presented issues as an ethnic conflict. What followed were massacres across the country. A country which decades of war had devastated, lacks basic infrastructure especially housing with over half the population living under the poverty line, was so quickly afflicted with another civil war. On the first day of the conflict, soldiers of Kirr’s Dinka ethnic group went out into the capital, Juba, rounding up Nuers; Machar’s ethnic group. They netted some 300 of them, detained them overnight before executing all but 13 of them.
The attacks spread across the country. In the first two months, the town of Bor in the Jonglei State, changed hands four times in two months and Malakal in the Upper Nile State, changed hands six times in four months; every time they did, conquering soldiers and militias, as much as they could, wiped out the populace from the other ethnic group. Patients in hospitals, people taking shelter in churches and mosques were executed and the structures of such places, destroyed. Needless to say, education and basic needs have been disrupted in a young country that has bled for five decades now. Also not spared are United Nations compounds where people taking shelter are attacked and executed. The latest was in February, 2016 when the UN displacement Centre in Malakal was attacked with 25 killed and 120 injured. Looting and rape are acceptable means of compensation for the marauding soldiers and militia some of who are mere children.
Internally Displaced persons or those who have fled their homes are over 2.3 million out of a population of 12.6 million. Over 720,000 have fled to the neigbouring countries; Kenya, Ethiopia Uganda, and Sudan; the very country they broke away from just five years ago. Many of the elites on both sides, relocated or sent their families to Kenya and Uganda where they maintain homes even after independence.
Primarily, the civil war has resulted in over six million people or at least half the population, facing severe hunger. The UN in 2015 appealed for $1.5 billion to support 4.6 million of the most vulnerable persons, but got $1 billion while its appeal this year for $1.29 billion has only netted 39 percent of the needed funds. If the war continues, there is a high possibility that the interest of the international community will wane, there will be less response, and more people will die of starvation and preventable diseases.
The human suffering, massacres and disaster are man-made. There have been a couple of Peace Agreements signed, and violated including one in January. However, the most promising was the one signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this May. It provided for a ceasefire, formation of a Transition Government, drafting of a new constitution, capped with new elections. Machar came to Abuja and assured the Nigerian government that the new agreement will be respected and implemented. As part of the agreement, he actually went back to Juba to resume as Vice President. Within weeks, it had been violated; the latest violence began on July 8, 2016 with clashes in Juba which left 300 dead.
The crisis and its seeming intractable nature are due to a combination of personal ambition, the rich oil resource of South Sudan, national interests of neigbours like Uganda and lack of a pan-national agenda. The binary division of the old Sudan into Sudan and South Sudan has neither brought peace nor development; a further breakup of the latter, cannot be a solution. The African Union must be supported by the international community to force the actors at all levels, to accept a ceasefire, share power, build a national army, register political parties that must be pan-national, de-militarize the country and build a new national orientation. The UN and AU must be empowered to enforce peace. There will never be a solution unless the butchers in South Sudan are made aware that they face arrest and prosecution for crimes against humanity if they refuse or fail to allow peace reign in the country.