Inter-communal conflict a big killer in South Sudan

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The last quarter of 2023 saw a surge in inter-communal conflict in what the United Nations (UN) Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) terms “pockets” of the troubled country resulting in 862 people either killed, injured, abducted or “subjected to conflict related violence”.

The mission’s latest quarterly report covers the October/December period and documents 233 incidents of violence across the country with 862 victims affected. This comprises 406 killed, 293 injured, 100 abducted and 63 subjected to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Compared to the previous quarter, this is a four percent increase in incidents (215 to 223) and 35% increase in victims (641 to 862).

Inter-communal violence by community-based militias and/or civil defence groups accounted for 86% (740 people) of all civilians affected during the period. The main conflict hotspot, Warrap State, experienced an 87% increase of victims compared to the previous quarter from 244 to 457.

More than half of those affected by overall sub-national violence were caught in retaliatory attacks related to the ongoing border dispute between Dinka Twic Mayardit in Warrap and Dinka Ngok communities in Abyei with 263 killed and 186 injured.

“Inter-communal conflict continues to cause immense harm to communities across the country. UNMISS is doing all it can to prevent violence and build peace in affected areas, but urgent intervention by authorities at the national, state and local levels is needed to resolve underlying grievances and build peace,” Nicholas Haysom, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMISS, said on the findings in the report.

The brief reported a 54% increase in abduction victims, from 65 to 100 (21 men, 18 women, 48 boys and 13 girls), compared to the previous quarter. Small-scale attacks by alleged armed Murle elements from the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA) make up 43% of all abductions in South Sudan.

The brief notes 104 victims were subjected to sexual violence. Of these 63 (including 12 minors) experienced CRSV. A further 41 victims (33 girls, seven women and a boy) suffered sexual and gender-based violence. While this represents a decrease compared to the previous quarter, the report notes SGBV remains a critical threat to protection and well-being of women and children.

UNMISS civilian protection across the world’s youngest country sees upwards of 10,000 peacekeeping patrols conducted by land, air and boat in 2023. The Mission assists communities to reconcile and build peace through dialogue and actively supports political and peace processes, including security and justice sector reform, constitution-making and election preparations.

Last week, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) met to renew the mandate of the UN Mission in South Sudan for another year. It has been renewed over 13 times since the mission’s inception in 2011.

Meressa K Dessu, Senior Researcher and Training Coordinator, at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Addis Ababa, believes the UN mission should be renewed and reinforced to help avert electoral violence and a relapse into conflict.

“The country is at a crossroads. Elections are planned for December 2024 in a context of inter-communal violence, political infighting and mobilisation of armed groups. Most South Sudanese want elections in December to choose their leaders and avert the bloated government expenses arising from the large, unwieldy coalition government. But uncertainties are growing about the likelihood of the planned polls,” Dessu wrote for the ISS.

“The risk of electoral violence is high due to the slow implementation of the 2018 peace agreement. Various reports suggest that tasks needed for voting to take place remain unfinished or haven’t yet started. But South Sudan’s government officials say nothing can stop the polls.

“Some political parties have started campaigning in various states, contrary to the electoral law prohibiting campaigns before the National Elections Commission’s formal announcement to do so, say observers. Key opposition groups, such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), are threatening to boycott the elections because preconditions for credible, free and fair polls are not in place. UN Undersecretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix has warned of election violence,” Dessu stated.

“Given these difficulties, UNMISS’ mandate should be renewed and the mission reinforced. The UNSC should also revisit the mission’s current objectives, capacity and resources so that it can support the country’s transition, particularly elections.”

South Sudan’s transition has already been extended several times. The peace agreement initially planned for the transitional government to end with polls in December 2021. Delays in implementing the deal pushed the election to 2024, and now uncertainties prevail again.

After five years of transition, the implementation of most peace agreement provisions remains behind. The major factors driving uncertainty around the 2024 elections arise from delays in constitution-making, setting up electoral bodies and security preparations for the polls. Other problems relate to the census and refugee resettlement.

According to the peace agreement, a permanent constitution should have been completed two years into the transition, and must be in place to guide the elections. Yet the process has lagged, affecting the overall transition and the electoral environment in particular, the ISS noted

The rebuilding of institutions needed to draft the constitution and oversee the electoral process has also been slow. The National Constitutional Review Commission, National Elections Commission, and Political Parties Council were only reconstituted in November 2023. But the 2023-24 national budget didn’t provide enough funds for these to operate effectively.

“The most ominous delay is in preparing for election security. The transitional government was responsible for restructuring security institutions and training and deploying 83 000 Necessary Unified Forces. These comprise police, prisons, wildlife, intelligence and military officers from the forces loyal to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Government (SPLM-IG) and SPLM-IO in the pre-transition period. But this task remains unfinished. A critical precondition for polls is redeploying the Necessary Unified Forces to provide election-related security,” Dessu stated.

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative and UNMISS head, Nicholas Haysom, recently underscored the country’s inability to finalise these security arrangements. He said this posed a threat to peace before, during and after the planned elections.

Opposition political parties also worry about the limited civic and political space in South Sudan. UNMISS has received reports of censorship, intimidation and arbitrary arrests against opposition party members, journalists and activists.

The complex task of managing South Sudan’s transition, including averting electoral crises, hinges on a concerted effort by various stakeholders, including UNMISS. For over 13 years, UNMISS has protected civilians and helped implement peace agreements.

Since 2021, its mandate has been to ‘prevent a return to civil war, build durable peace at the local and national levels, and support inclusive and accountable governance and free, fair and peaceful elections.’ However, recent research by the Institute for Security Studies indicates that the mission lacks an explicit security sector reform mandate and the capacity to carry it out.