By Henry Srebrnik
Civil war erupted in South Sudan in December 2013 after President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, an ethnic Neur, of fomenting a coup.
The violence immediately took on an ethnic character. Soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group, one of the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, aligned with President Kiir and those from the Nuer ethnic group, the other largest ethnic group, supported Machar.
At the time, the country was only two years old, having finally liberated itself from rule by the Sudanese regime in Khartoum after decades of warfare.
Since then, well over 50,000 people have died in the conflict, more than two million have fled to neighbouring countries and almost two million more are internally displaced, despite the presence of 17,000 UN peacekeepers in the country.
Armed groups have targeted civilians along ethnic lines, committed rape and sexual violence, destroyed property and looted villages and recruited children into their ranks.
Under the threat of international sanctions and following several rounds of negotiations Kiir had signed a peace agreement with Machar in August 2015 and the latter returned to the capital, Juba, in April 2016 after spending more than two years outside of the country.
But soon after his return, violence broke out again between government forces and opposition factions and Machar again fled the country.
The Sudanese parties to the war signed another ceasefire deal in December 2017, but have not honoured their commitment to end violence. In the latest example, the country’s military forces captured the rebel-held town of Lasu.
Adama Dieng, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ special adviser for the prevention of genocide, has intensified the call for an end to violence in South Sudan, following sustained diplomatic pressure from the African Union on South Sudanese leaders.
Both the government and rebels have done very little to discipline individuals committing atrocities in the four-year conflict in South Sudan, he indicated, adding that the country is suffering from what he called the “total impunity of armed men who have embraced sexual violence as a systematic weapon of war.”
Diplomats believe real pressure for a deal to be implemented must come from neighbouring states. Instead, Dieng remarked, Uganda and Kenya are contributing to the conflict.
He said large quantities of weapons and ammunition are flowing into South Sudan through those countries. “International partners have to start targeting the accomplices, intermediaries of the South Sudanese parties.”
Yet Uganda, which sent troops to fight on the side of the government of South Sudan in the early stages of the war, is still feeding the conflict with weapons, according to Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who visited the region in January.
That’s because there are multiple and longstanding ties between Uganda and South Sudan. Since colonial times and the establishment of central governments, the two territories have shared a long border, traversing the home areas of several ethnic groups.
Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, and his National Resistance Movement had close ties with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the guerilla group that won independence for South Sudan and is now the country’s army. Kiir had become its commander in 2005.
The SPLM/A was allowed to operate inside Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese lived in refugee camps. The links are clearly deep.
So the barbarities continue. Investigators from the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan reported to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that more than 40 senior military officers and officials, including three state governors, should be prosecuted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.