Rising community violence exposes South Sudan’s fragile peace deal

Security arrangements under the 2018 peace agreement are already strained as efforts to unify the armed forces falter.

A surge in community violence in South Sudan adds to insecurity in the country as a whole and hinders the delivery of humanitarian aid to vulnerable citizens. Localised conflicts also make it harder to implement the peace agreement signed by warring parties in 2018. The deal aims to end hostilities, protect civilians and access to aid, and enable power sharing, state building and security sector reform.

More than 1 197 incidents of community-level violence were recorded in 2020, a significant increase from 487 in 2019. Conflicts were especially rife in the states of Warrap, Lakes, Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile and the Greater Equatoria region. Between 1 June and 31 August this year, over 70 800 people were displaced from Western Equatoria, Warrap and Upper Nile.

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for South Sudan and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Nicholas Haysom, voiced his concern on 15 September about the increase in localised violence.

Some of the conflicts are due to the fracture within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) in April. A recent analysis by the Institute for Security Studies shows that the split, which led to violence, is disrupting the unification of the army – a vital part of the peace agreement.

Community violence is fuelled by armed combatants whose amalgamation into a unified army has been delayed

The breakup occurred when forces led by generals Simon Gatwech Dual and Thomas Dhul –former high-ranking members of SPLM/A-IO’s military wing – defected from First Vice President Riek Machar. General Johnson Olony, another SPLM/A-IO partner, followed.

This led to clashes between troops loyal to the two groups over territorial control and ground in the Upper Nile and other areas controlled by the SPLM/A-IO. Gatwech and Olony challenged Machar’s legitimacy as commander-in-chief of his armed forces. The security arrangements in the peace deal are now under threat, as the chance of unifying South Sudan’s army falters.

The community violence is also fuelled by the presence of armed men whose amalgamation into a unified army, as required by the peace deal, has been delayed by the slow pace of security sector reform. None of the 83 000 ex-combatants who were supposed to join the country’s unified force have been deployed.

For more than a year, former fighters from all armed groups have been assembled in military camps awaiting training. The delay in moving them to training sites due to a lack of finances and political will has led many to seek other means of survival. These include weapons smuggling and cattle raiding, which have inflamed community violence.

None of the 83 000 ex-combatants who were meant to join the country’s unified force have been deployed

Structural problems also feed the resurgence in localised violence and complicate the implementation of other parts of the peace agreement such as power sharing, state building and security reform. The continuing lack of trust between the signatories has led to clashes between their supporters and military wings, with suspicions running rife that some are trying to dominate the process.

As a result, some armed forces are still not quartered in military camps – as the recent skirmishes show. This creates power imbalances in communities that can quickly turn violent. Locals affected by the clashes lose confidence in the political parties and the transition process, undermining the gains made so far.

The increased availability of weapons in South Sudan is another factor in the rise of community violence. Despite UN Security Council arms embargoes, UNMISS has acknowledged that the proliferation of arms has stoked the violence involving community-based militias since 2018.

Weak governance in the country also enables localised conflicts. From local to state level, South Sudan has a bloated government system that focuses on representivity for the various warring parties rather than merit-based appointments. This hobbles attempts to build a functional state that can deliver public services, curb the supply of arms and contain crime and violence.

Despite UN Security Council arms embargoes, the increase in weapons contributes to community violence

In the absence of a functional state, localised conflicts also make it difficult to get humanitarian support to South Sudan’s vulnerable populations. Aid workers are increasingly attacked, and marauding groups destroy much-needed items and assets. This leads to forced migration, adding to the already high numbers of internally displaced people and refugees. It also reduces the chances that migrants will return to the country.

Community clashes and the factors that drive them are directly and indirectly undermining the peace agreement. Breaking South Sudan’s cycle of violence requires a focus on political and security arrangements as well as citizens’ socio-economic needs.

Long-term development interventions in the current climate will be complex and high-risk, given the country’s deep governance deficit. But these options should be investigated to lessen community dependence on parallel economies that induce violence, such as weapons smuggling, cattle raiding and other criminal activities.

Selam Tadesse Demissie, Research Officer, Horn of Africa Security Analysis, ISS Addis Ababa

Exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles have been given to Daily Maverick in South Africa and Premium Times in Nigeria. For media based outside South Africa and Nigeria that want to re-publish articles, or for queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Photo: Sam Mednick/TNH

Related content