South Sudan’s plan to start collecting some 20,000 weapons from civilians in Jonglei state in March, by force if necessary, is likely to worsen the volatile security situation there and complicate efforts to deliver essential humanitarian aid, the UN and several analysts have warned.
“Disarmament efforts could contribute to increasing tensions in an already tense environment,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a 23 February bulletin.
“Jonglei’s rival communities are wary of relinquishing their weapons, regardless of government promises to carry out disarmament simultaneously in each area,” it added.
The UN estimates that 140,000 people in Jonglei have been affected, thousands of homes burnt and basic infrastructure destroyed during recent violence between different communities.
Fears of a deterioration have been stoked by plans by one side - the Lou Nuer-led “White Army” - to mount a major offensive backed by Ethiopian kinsmen in early March. Their aim is to permanently “quarantine” the Murle community and protect their own because, they said, the state had failed to do so.
While these communities have a long history of violent, retaliatory cattle rustling, conflict in Jonglei has in recent years also been fuelled by the absence of development and state authority, and perceptions – especially by the Murle - of marginalization from the political sphere.
The Enough Project called on South Sudan to delay the disarmament operation until a moribund peace process was reinvigorated.
“A disarmament campaign initiated in the short term will only serve to frustrate the ability of international humanitarian organizations to get aid to where it is needed and further destabilize the state, which will, in turn, inhibit any progress towards reconciliation," said Jennifer Christian, Enough Project Sudan policy analyst.
A joint statement by three organisations - the Danish Demining Group (DDG), Saferworld and PACT – urged the government to draw lessons from previous disarmament operations and avoid the human rights abuses they entailed.
“Disarmament in Jonglei has been characterized by violence against civilians, including summary execution, torture, rape, and armed theft and has been accompanied by the displacement of civilians,” the groups said of campaigns conducted since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord between North Sudan and the then-rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
The SPLA is now the official army in the six-month-old state of South Sudan. Some 10,000 men drawn from it and the police have been deployed to Jonglei for the new operation.
The government says the process will at first be voluntary, conducted among rival communities simultaneously and backed by a major sensitization campaign, renewed peace efforts and the creation of a buffer zone.
But the fighting words of President Salva Kiir at a recent public rally in Bor, Jonglei’s capital, have raised fears that previous abuses may be repeated.
“Even if you are the son of God, we shall fight you,” Kiir warned those who might refuse to hand over their weapons.
Photo: Hannah McNeish/IRIN
|A UN peacekeeper on patrol in Akobo, South Sudan|
“If you don’t listen, you will see with your eyes, but it will be too late to escape [the full force of the SPLA] again,” he said.
Jonglei’s Minister for Law Enforcement and Security, Gabriel Duop Both, told IRIN in early February: “I think it is better for the government to kill some few people, if it is 100, than [for] the locals to kill 3,000 at a time” – a reference to the highest estimate of civilian deaths sustained during the White Army’s 8,000 man assault on Murle areas in January.
“We cannot allow a state of anarchy and that every single local person protects itself from another... this is the army’s responsibility,” he said.
“I cannot agree with some people who are asking for the calling-off of disarmament,” he said, adding that the hundreds of Nuer killed during a 2006 disarmament operation died after the SPLA came under fire.
Military spokesman Philip Aguer said peace talks had “been given enough time since the first clashes in 2011. Now people have to pursue this [disarmament] process.”
Aguer estimated the number of targeted weapons at 20,000.
With the operation scheduled to start in early February, before rains start in April or May, the government has yet to detail what steps it will take to deliver a promised programme of justice and reconciliation, or how the SPLA will protect civilians. The buffer zone is not yet fully up and running.
There is particular concern over the perceived haste of the disarmament operation, and the apparent sidelining of other key actions needed to deliver security to Jonglei.
“The sensible approach is to reduce the number of weapons but as part of a monitored and sustained peace process with real backing, especially from the government. Without that it’s a potential humanitarian disaster,” said Claire McEvoy, Sudan project manager for the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research institute.
In such operations, “the groups that are disarmed are left vulnerable to attacks, and that actually leads to an increase in violence and in weapons, of which there is no short supply in South Sudan”, McEvoy said.
With countless armed groups active and distributing weapons not only in Jonglei but in many areas of South Sudan, where internal conflict in recent decades was just as devastating as the north-south civil war, disarmament “has to be a regional policy, and planned”, said South Sudan’s deputy information minister, Atem Yaak Atem, a native of Jonglei.
Just and balanced
Atem said that in previous campaigns, men “dressed as SPLA used it as an opportunity to take guns”, while those who appeared to cooperate often handed over old weapons and kept their newer, more serviceable arms.
According to Lauren Hutton, DDG’s violence reduction coordinator, “In 2006, the Lou Nuer re-armed with the guns that were taken off them, because someone gave them access.”
With this new operation, “you’re going to have a large number of security forces, you’re going to have large displacement, and a humanitarian response will be needed”, she added, stressing the need for a balanced response.
The Council of Sudanese Churches, which has played a central role in negotiation attempts, said any disarmament operation had to be just and involve compensation.
"During the civil war, the fighters from the SPLA sold their weapons in exchange for cows and other animals; those who hand in their weapons must be given something to live on," said Bishop Paride Taban.
The minority Murle group, already mistrustful of a Dinka-dominated government they say does not represent their interests and favours the second-largest Nuer group, think they will be unfairly targeted in the operation.
This perception was reinforced by reports that, during the Lou Nuer attack on Pibor in December, 15 Lou Nuer soldiers defected from the SPLA to join the attackers.
Meluth Kur Jok, an elder who has sought sanctuary in Jonglei’s Akobo town since five close relatives were killed and 80 children abducted in an attack on his home village of Woulang a few weeks ago, told IRIN of his fears of more violence.
“We are still expecting them, they are still around us and now we don’t sleep in the houses, we are sleeping in the bush as Murle are still in the area. That means the war is still there, no change.”