The events that recently brought South Sudan to a near collapse were “extremely shocking, but they were not surprising by any means,” said Jok Madut Jok, Executive Director of The Sudd Institute, at the International Peace Institute on February 18. “It was only a matter of time before the country returned to this kind of situation,” he added.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country in 2011 after breaking off from Sudan following a half century of civil conflict. Mr. Jok joined a panel of experts to discuss the violent crisis that erupted in South Sudan in mid-December 2013, which left over 700,000 people displaced within the country and more than 100,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring states.
The country’s history of warfare “so militarized the society that the temptation to resort to easy violence in dealing with conflicts was still there,” said Francis Deng, Permanent Representative of the Republic of South Sudan to the United Nations.
Additionally, the fighting was provoked by the frustrations of marginalized people shut out of the gains of national autonomy, according to Mr. Jok. “The level of deprivation of the majority of people and exclusion from the gains of independence matched against the hopes and aspirations brought by independence was something that was bound to cause some form of unrest,” he said. The conflict brought the economy to its knees and wrecked the social fabric and ethnic relations, he added.
The panelists agreed that internal conflicts within the leadership of the armed forces, the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), helped precipitate the crisis. They noted that to strike a peace deal and establish independence years before, the government institutionalized disparate militias spanning many ethnic and regional groups across the country to comprise the SPLA.
Mr. Jok said this “monstrous” entity is “the biggest institution in the country, the most expensive to run, the most difficult to rule.”
No Quick Fix
Without an inclusive and meaningful peace process addressing the root causes of the conflict, there is a real risk that the situation could deteriorate further and spread beyond South Sudan’s borders to affect the entire region, the panelists argued.
To that end, the UN mission is South Sudan, UNMISS, is scrambling to address the immediate crisis, shifting its focus to protection, upholding human rights and humanitarian access, noted Margaret Carey, Director, Africa I Division at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
The international community too often “goes for quick fixes and then goes to the next conflict,” said Ms. Carey. “I think what we have to learn from our experiences is that we cannot allow a quick fix on this conflict,” she added.
In closing, Mr. Deng called on the international community to be patient with this struggling young nation. “There’s an urgent need to address the challenges of a country made vulnerable by a 50-year war and now made even more vulnerable by these conflicts,” he said. “So what we call for is really sympathy, understanding, and support from the international community.”
The event was moderated by IPI Senior Adviser John Hirsch.