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South Sudan: One Week Later

When the cessation of hostilities was signed a week ago, it was greeted with pretty universal pessimism, and that’s pretty much been the line from everyone since then—I haven’t read anyone who seems even cautiously optimistic about its prospects. This skepticism has been reflected in South Sudan, whether it seems that many of those displaced have been reluctant to return home (although a bit of caution would be natural anyway, given what’s happened since December).

Whether fighting starts up again or not though is contingent on a set of negotiations—it was and is meant to be temporary, so that the parties can sit down and discuss the issues further. It has been instructive for me to read Lesley in Africa’s discussion of the practicalities of this sort of arrangement. Apparently, the key issue is enforcement: UN is not monitoring violations; rather, that’s left to the parties themselves and the mediator (IGAD). Monitors are already being sent to key cities, but as Lesley notes, there isn’t really a state within IGAD that can credibly provide a military deterrent at this time.

Since fighting started, there’s been a lot of pretty shallow coverage of South Sudan and the conflict. Al Jazeera has a good segment on the challenges that the media (both international and domestic) faces, but internally displaced is also right to point out that there’s a lot of people who aren’t experts talking about South Sudan and giving bad impressions of the country (and as another non-expert, I sincerely hope that I’m not contributing by writing this post).

It seems like there’s a void in the analysis for the most part. Following the day to day issues related to the conflict, I’m finding it hard to see a clear discussion of the key issues that will be discussed at the negotiations. One example of this can be seen in the most recent piece in the Economist. The focus since negotiations began has largely been on the issues of the 11 political prisoners, all but four of whom have now been released. As Aly Verjee has noted, this is a pretty limited way to view the conflict, and it would be wrong to assume that their release will solve the underlying issues.

But what does need to be addressed in order to stop the conflict? The Rift Valley Institute has hosted a panel that discusses this issue, and it’s clear that governance, transparency, and inclusivity are important and will need to be addressed for the sake of the country. At the same time, if fighting broke out due to a power struggle between two parts of the SPLM, and has continued due to divisions in the military and tensions within the broader society, then how will any negotiations really solve this? Are we to assume that any of the key actors are really interested in voluntarily reducing their power? Given that Salva Kiir has announced that Machar and six others will be tried for treason, it really doesn’t seem as if the South Sudanese government is seeking some sort of an agreement.

So I suppose I’m echoing the pessimism. We’re all left watching what happens, hoping that it will turn out differently than what too many people have predicted. It’s galling to see that regardless how society in South Sudan has been affected, regardless of how many people have been displaced and how many killed, it’s left to a small group of leaders to decide whether the disruption, the violence should end. Ultimately, the decisions made will have little to do with the problems that the society faces.

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More Displaced in Darfur

A few days ago, I came across this article that noted:

“The total number of internally displaced people has increased to almost two million, with an estimated 400,000 people having been forced to flee new outbreaks of conflict last year”

On one hand, this should not come as a massive surprise, and it speaks to the failures of the Doha Peace Agreement. Not only was the agreement only signed by two (relatively small) rebel groups, but implementation has been quite slow, with problems reported regularly. Of course, war was not the only conflict that affected Darfur in the past year—conflict related to newly created gold mines and intertribal violence have also played made life difficult for residents of Darfur.

Things have changed; two years ago, the narrative adhered to by government bodies and the UN was that Darfur was increasingly stable and that refugees and IDPs were returning home. That was controversial even then, but if anything, this should be a lesson. Before anyone should be sent home, the root problems of these conflicts needs to be addressed. How many of those who returned have had to leave again?

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Watching South Sudan

Man, it’s been a while. Somehow, during all the time I’ve been away, war broke out in South Sudan. Family and friends have emailed me pretty much from the beginning asking me what my opinion is on what’s happening there, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t really feel like I have a lot of insight on the conflict itself—there’s plenty of people who’ve written smarter things about it than I can. Still, it’s the elephant in the room, and it feels tone deaf to not start out with some thoughts on what’s happening, so here’s a sort of overview.

It started as a power struggle between Salva Kiir and Reik Machar, and that power struggle has remained significant, even as the fighting expanded. Whether this started due to an attempted coup or due to increased power grabs by Salva Kiir is less important than the fact that both parties are seeking power and have been preparing for such a confrontation in some fashion for quite a while.

At the same time, the history of ethnic violence (most notably the Dinka-Nuer war in the 90s) meant that many were concerned that the fighting would become ethnically-based, a concern that has materialized, though not as early as some made it out. A piece by Andreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone outlines some of the history and the ways that both sides denied tribalism while still using tribe to mobilize. It’s clear that both sides have killed people on the basis of ethnicity alone, and that this violence has gotten worse as the fighting has progressed.

The UN Human Rights Researcher Ivan Simonovic notes that Bentiu and Bor have been almost completely destroyed. OCHA now estimates that 468,000 people have been displaced within South Sudan, with approximately 80,000 or so refugees in neighboring countries, half of which have gone to Uganda (bordered by the Central African Republic, Sudan, and the DRC, they don’t really have a lot of choices).

The whole conflict has pretty scary regional implications, not only due to the mass movement of people. As Aly Verjee explains, it makes sense that the Sudanese government support the SPLM and Salva Kiir, since they have an economic stake in South Sudan remaining stable, at least enough so as to secure oil flow. Uganda too has supported the SPLM, sending troops to support the government, presumably to avoid further instability on the border. A cease-fire was just signed in Addis Ababa, though there’s no word yet as to how successful it will be.

What’s less discussed so far is what role this conflict will play with Sudan’s rebel groups. JEM and the SPLA-N have been particularly active under the banner of the SRF in South Kordofan, Darfur, and even North Kordofan sometimes. Given the historic connections between the SPM and the SPLM-N, it seems likely that the group will be impacted—they clearly have personal relationships even if the amount of support the SPLA gives to the SPLA-N is less since South Sudan stabilized its relationship with Sudan.

JEM has already been accused of involvement in South Sudan, fighting on the side of the SPLA in Unity state, although it denies any activity in South Sudan and claims neutrality. JEM has a history of working with the SPLA, at least before the South Sudanese government’s relations with Sudan improved, so it makes sense that those connections might carry over. At the same time, it seems like a bit of a risk for JEM to pick a side in the fighting, should it continue; their neutrality seems a lot safer. It also seems ironic that armed rebel groups and the Sudanese government would all back the South Sudanese government in this conflict.

So we’ve been left watching as negotiations have continued. The Rift Valley Institute had a conference recently that discussed some possibilities for change or improvement, where Jok Madut Jok emphasized the need to address the root causes of the conflict rather than just focusing on an end to the fighting. Hopefully this ceasefire holds and the country can move on and address some of the issues that started this violence in the first place.

In the meantime, I’m just left thinking over and over that all the leaders involved in this conflict are extraordinarily selfish. The fighting will continue until political agreements are signed, while society has been massively disrupted again. Thoughts go out to all those suffering, with a sincere hope that it ends soon.

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In the past week, international media has finally caught up on reporting the protests in Sudan. We see this all over, and the discussion seems geared towards giving a background to outsiders on what’s going on.  The problem with this discussion is that the situation has changed.

Most of the protests seem to have died down, at least for now. One hears of them from time to time, and there were a few on Friday, but they don’t have the presence they had before. People are supporting the families of those killed and offering legal services for those detained, but it no longer appears to be a mass movement or a broader phenomenon. Day to day life goes on, and people are struggling, contending with the challenges one faces in a country with an increasingly poor economy.

This same dynamic played out during last year’s protests. The first few days of protests were large; however, by the time the broader international news media began covering it in greater detail, they had ultimately stopped.

What hasn’t ended, however, is the crackdown. The government responded to protests extremely violently. Reports are now saying that the police shot protesters aiming for the chest and the head—this wasn’t crowd control. Amnesty International now publicly supports the Sudanese Doctors Union, which estimates that over 200 people were killed at demonstrations.

Throughout the protests, activists were also detained, with many mistreated by NISS (Girifna is an opposition activist group popular with Sudanese youth in diaspora, but also with some Sudanese activists inside Sudan). Even as protests have subsided, the detentions have not decreased. Groups have organized outside of NISS to draw attention to the detentions, but they are continuing, with the head of the Sudanese Doctors Union arrested.

The violence, both during the protests and now, has been quite disturbing to those who have lived in Sudan. Historically, central areas of Sudan, particularly Khartoum, have been incredibly peaceful. Outlying areas—South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur, have witnessed conflict far worse than what’s happened in Khartoum, but this rarely comes to the center. Alex De Waal (and plenty of others) argues that this paradox is intentional. The central areas, according to this argument, have maintained control of power in order to monopolize resources and in doing so, have prompted resistance from peripheral areas, which they meet with violence as a temporary method of curbing resistance and maintaining the status quo. Because of this, those in the center have been able to differ in terms of opinions, as long as the power structure was preserved.

Many (including but definitely not limited to Douglas Johnson), think that this dynamic has changed with the rise of the National Islamic Front (the National Congress Party’s predecessor) in 1989. When they came to power, they imported many of the government techniques used in the South to Khartoum and the central areas; abductions, torture, and the use of ghost houses, all activities that NISS undertook in other areas before, began happening in Khartoum as well.

At the same time, this dynamic was not apparent in public. Open violence on the street was still unusual, and if you weren’t looking for trouble, you could pretend that it wasn’t happening. This pretence could not be sustained during the protests—and the emotion is reflected in writing on the subject. In particular, I was struck by one Sudanese blogger‘s post:

Extermination. With the police being instructed to shoot to kill, there’s no other word to describe it. In 3 days, an estimated 140 people have been murdered by the authorities. A vast number of casualties died as a result of direct hits to the head and chest. I know of at least two stories of people who were shot in the back, shot in front of their homes., shot at even after they entered their homes. I know of stories of people who were shot at funeral processions for others who have fallen under the same hands. How is this not  extermination?

The urgency of this post, the need to change things, hasn’t yet been reflected in street mobilization to the extent that it needs to be. At the same time, the horror she describes is completely true, the sense that these things are actually happening and that it is both believable and terrifying. In some ways, the government has capitalized on this, even arguing at some points arguing that the end of Bashir will be the end of Sudan as a nation.

Nesrine Malik argues that such a jolt is what will eventually change Sudanese politics:

The impact on the public mood of seeing bodies lined up in the morgue and witnessing the burial of victims cannot be underestimated, and this could prove to be the turning point. Despite being the capital of a country beset by civil war and ethnic strife, Khartoum has been relatively isolated from scenes of bloodshed. Denial is giving way to anger and shock at the fatalities. This, coupled with economic despair, is beginning to dissipate the mass political apathy that for so long dominated.

It’s still quite tense in Khartoum. It sounds as if people there are waiting—as if the next event will prompt even more demonstrations. But what event can happen next? Sudan has faced war for some time, and Khartoum in the past few weeks has seen a horrible economy, street protests, and an intrusive, destructive government crackdown. What will transform this into a movement?

So the waiting continues.