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Meeting on the Crisis in South Sudan

On November 11, Adama Dieng, United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide released a statement on the worsening situation in South Sudan after his recent visit to the country. With strong words, he said:

I am dismayed to report that what I have seen and heard here has confirmed my concerns that there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide. I do not say that lightly. In place of the development of a South Sudanese national identity, I have seen that there is extreme polarization between some tribal groups, which has increased in certain places since the outbreak of violence in July this year.

Inflammatory rhetoric, stereotyping and name calling have been accompanied by targeted killings and rape of members of particular ethnic groups, and by violent attacks against individuals or communities on the basis of their perceived political affiliation. The media, including social media, are being used to spread hatred and encourage ethnic polarization, and letters threatening specific groups have surfaced in the last month. I am particularly concerned by the involvement of the youth of this country in this dangerous spread of hatred and hostility, as they are particularly susceptible to divisions within society. (For the full statement and his findings, see here.)

With the utmost conviction, he warned the international community of growing, unwarranted violence, widespread fear, and the potential for even more atrocities. He called for preventative action by the state and the international community, in particular regional organizations, stating, “I must emphasize that genocide is a process. It does not happen overnight. And because it is a process and one that takes time to prepare, it can be prevented.”

Just earlier this year South Sudan was celebrating and making plans for peace and recovery from the civil war that broke out in December 2013. As part of a peace agreement, which many experts consider to be very well elaborated on paper, leader of the opposition Riek Machar returned to Juba to once again take up the post of vice president under his former opponent President Salva Kiir. This peace was short-lived, though, as only a few months later intense violence broke out again.

On November 2, 2016, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative and the International Growth Centre co-hosted a private roundtable to discuss the current state of play and outlook for the country. Participants were in grave agreement: The situation in the country has rapidly deteriorated. There are 1.2 million refugees and a quarter of the population is internally displaced. The economy has “virtually collapsed,” humanitarian groups are unable to reach those most in need due to safety concerns, 60 percent of the country is severely food insecure, famine is on the horizon, and there are real fears of genocide and ethnic cleansing especially as the dry season approaches, giving armed actors more mobility throughout the country.

The most pressing issue, noted those recently in the country, is the fact that violence has not only heightened but also spread to previously peaceful states, and the undertones of ethnic tensions are no longer concealed beneath the surface. Youth and even government officials have been spreading dangerous, violent rhetoric. As explained by Peter Ajak in a recent blog, the Dinka ethnic group is increasingly—and improperly—being identified as one with the government, a trend that has incited attacks against them. The Dinka Council of Elders is not dissuading these ideas and Kiir’s government is not dampening tensions. A large problem, one participant emphasized, is that there is a fear pervading the country of “speaking out against one own,” which is allowing the violent rhetoric to continue. A couple participants noted their frustration with Juba, stating that it is preventing food aid from getting to places of dire need and opposes other actions the U.S. government has tried to take. At the same time, security forces are not getting paid, which, according to one participant, encourages bad behavior from them such as looting and assaulting vulnerable civilians.

The international community’s role was also at the forefront of the discussion. Some participants explained there is a strong disappointment and despair around the U.N.’s presence in the country. At the same time, others expressed strong criticism for the African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which had led the peace discussions. Some agreed that the heads of state of South Sudan’s neighbors can and should be doing much more, but after the crisis in Burundi, they are unlikely to “step out on a ledge.” Though an arms embargo—which is not in place in South Sudan—was discussed, some experts commented on the extremely high barriers to its implementation, including coordination of its six neighbors—such as Sudan and the war-torn Central African Republic.  In addition, other discussants noted a “governance vacuum” in the rest of the world due to the U.S.’s preoccupation over its national elections, Europe’s attention towards Brexit, and transitions within the United Nations.

Unsurprisingly, added some participants, given the country’s growing instability, its economy has fallen apart. Inflation is on the verge of hyperinflation at 1000 percent, prices are changing daily, and the economy is being dollarized, according to those recently on the ground. One expert reiterated the South Sudan’s rapid economic deterioration, stating that it is a completely different economy than even a month ago. Low oil prices mean that Juba has only a fraction of its previous income, and is financing deficits of 20 percent of GDP through arrears and money creation.  The government can barely cover its wage bill.  The South Sudanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value. And, when the crisis finally passes and South Sudan finally gets the chance to recover, its journey will be that much harder, given that it has sold future oil on contracts now, has accumulated arrears on debt, and has no reserves.

Poverty, which stood at around 50 percent in 2009 at South Sudan’s independence, has likely now surpassed 70 percent, a number, which one person emphasized, that doesn’t include internally displaced persons or citizens of locations considered too unsafe in which to venture—indicating that the true national poverty rate is much higher.

Participants considered several options looking forward:  Many participants expressed the view that both Kiir and Machar cannot be a part of the next government, and there needed to be space for more inclusive national political dialogue. The two should give way voluntarily and through diplomatic and collective regional and international pressure with an exit package. At the same time, some participants were still wary of international—especially non-African—political intervention in the crisis, emphasizing that the face of the transition must be South Sudanese. Then again, many argued that while any transition must have a national face, there are core sectors that require external outsourcing such as security sector, economy (the central bank), and judiciary because of lack of capacity and the trust deficit.

A couple of participants contended that although the peace agreement is not in a healthy shape, it can be saved because there are some positive provisions that should be kept such as hybrid court and economic reforms. However, many participants believed that the agreement was essentially dead although it is a document that can be implemented by the right people in the right environment. On the local level, discussants spoke of the potential for hybrid courts—with both local and international judges—to ensure that victims of the conflict achieve justice. The group resonated to the idea of proposing that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon call a heads-of-state meeting to address the crisis. A purpose would be to put increased pressure on neighboring regional actors to assume some responsibility for the deterioration in South Sudan and to help be part of the solution.  Meantime, every effort should be made on the ground to bring together prospective leaders on all sides to promote peace and understanding among the future leaders of the nation.

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