By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database
On 12 August 2016 the United Nations (UN) Security Council voted to approve a United States proposal to send 4,000 additional UN troops to South Sudan. The new regional force, which forms part of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), is designed to help promote 'safe and free movement' in and out of the capital, Juba, and to protect civilians in the conflict zone following heavy fighting in Juba last month.
Following the Security Council vote, the South Sudanese authorities rejected cooperation with the UN on the deployment of the extra troops. Government spokesman Michael Makuei criticised the proposal for giving the UN the 'ability to govern' and 'seriously undermine' state sovereignty. However, the UN emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien has highlighted the progressively worsening humanitarian situation in the country: approximately 300 people were believed to have been killed on 8 July alone, and there are growing concerns for the increasing numbers of people fleeing their homes, in addition to reports of sexual violence and food insecurity.
While an external presence and a focus on security provision is essential to prevent the escalation of the conflict into a full-blown civil war, the emphasis of these externally induced efforts on building strong institutions partly at the expense of promoting political and economic opportunities means that such efforts alone are insufficient to achieve any far-reaching resolution. In a highly diverse and fragile environment such as South Sudan, the sheer multiplicity of potential fault lines (Nuer–Dinka, Muslim–Christian, Islamist–secular, centre–periphery, among others) complicates attempts to prevent relapse into conflict, while providing a host of communal differences. Such differences are frequently emphasised and politicised, becoming triggers for hostile group mobilisation. In addition, even if progress is achieved in the design and oversight of security arrangements, the very recent legacy of violence makes any kind of peaceful consensus unlikely to continue for an extended period.
The fighting that broke out between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and opposition SPLA–IO members supporting then-first vice president Riek Machar has underlined the multiple challenges of rebuilding the state in South Sudan and implementing an inclusive and comprehensive peace settlement. Such challenges include: increased fragmentation of politics amid fluctuating alliances of factions and groups; extreme fragility of state institutions; unevenness of state presence and territorial control; poor infrastructure with high dependence on large-scale international involvement; historical mistrust between ethnic communities; and a national identity too weak to transcend ethnic and tribal differences.
While the precise causes of the recent upsurge are not entirely clear, the fighting should be seen as yet another outbreak of violence in a wider climate of instability that has been a constant feature of the South Sudanese landscape for the past few years. The fact that the deadly clashes between rival groups continued despite repeated appeals by both Kiir and Machar to stop active fighting raises the question of the level of control exerted by the leaders over their supporters. Moreover, the recent defections from the SPLA–IO of some senior military commanders are likely to have exacerbated instability for two main reasons. Firstly, comparative evidence from conflicts in Pakistan, Palestine and beyond suggests that, as leadership control over the rank and file of armed organisations recedes, indiscriminate attacks against civilians tend to multiply. This is primarily because rank and file members may have a greater incentive to engage in civilian targeting, for example for short-term material gain, or to demonstrate autonomy in decision-making. Secondly, internal tensions increase the risk of the formation of new factions that may use violence to gain political and military influence, especially in the absence of formal institutions for the transfer of power. With the peace process stalled, Machar having gone into hiding and the resulting formal leadership change, further splits and defections are likely, and therefore continuing instability.
The formulation of a clear and uniform political strategy on how to deal with the situation in South Sudan has been hindered by the lack of a single voice within the international community. In the absence of a longer-term plan that would address the distribution of political and economic power without creating further resentment among the wider population, the multiple layers of the conflict are unlikely to shift in the foreseeable future.
This post originally appeared in ACD Insight.