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How South Sudan fell apart so quickly -- and how it might be saved

A plan to end the South Sudan conflict being brokered by neighbouring governments is not likely to come to fruition. Despite talks around a ceasefire proposal since before the first of the year, there has been no sign of movement towards ending a spiral of violence that has torn apart the world’s newest state.

The key protagonists and the immediate causes of the conflict are well known. In mid-July, ethnic Dinka President Salva Kiir sacked his government following a power struggle within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). In the face of a claimed attempted coup d'etat, in mid-December ethnic Dinkas in the presidential guard began disarming their ethnic Nuer colleagues, linked to former vice-president Riek Machar, leading to tit-for-tat killings that quickly spiralled out of control.

The question is, though, why did a country that became independent just two-and-a-half years ago fall apart so quickly? There are three inter-linked answers, each of which will have to be addressed if the country is to have any hope of saving itself from collapse.

The first problem is one that besets most newly independent states that comprise more than one large ethnic group. With most political institutions still poorly formed and economies not sufficiently developed to create economic classes upon which to base political parties, politics tends to cohere around tribal and language groups, usually establishing geographic isolation.

Political leaders develop patron-client relationships with supporters, in which, in simple terms, loyalty is financially rewarded. Thus ethnic identification and reward come to be linked, with other ethnic groups constituting not just a political threat but a challenge to economic survival. This competition for economic resources is most acute when the state relies on a narrow income base; South Sudan is the most heavily oil-dependent country in the world, with oil receipts accounting for 98% of its income. There are, effectively, no other sources for economic distribution.

Even in cases where there is little or no prior internal conflict, such a setting is ripe for internal conflict. In the case of South Sudan, its factions also have a pre-independence history of open conflict.

Machar joined the SPLM/A in 1984, but in 1991 fell out with then SPLM/A leader and ethnic Dinka John Garang over whether South Sudan should remain part of a secular, democratic Sudan or become independent. Favouring full independence, Machar formed the splinter group SPLM/A-Nasir, based in the oil-rich north-east of South Sudan. As a result of this split, there were a number of massacres and a famine that left tens of thousands dead.

Despite his earlier pro-independence leaning, six years later, Machar reached a peace agreement with the Sudanese government and was made head of the South Sudan Defence Force, in 2000 forming a new militia, the Sudan People’s Defence Force/Democratic Front. Yet in 2002, he re-joined the SPLM/A as a senior commander.

Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005, with Kiir assuming leadership of the SPLM/A. It appeared, however, that Machar’s primary interest had been, from the outset, to establish his personal authority over the movement, leading to the events of 2012.

An end to the fighting will now only be possible if one of two outcomes are met. The first is that Kiir’s predominantly Dinka forces militarily defeat Machar’s largely Nuer forces. While possible, this does not look like presenting a permanent solution to a complex ethnic, regional and economic problem.

The second course -- which would be difficult but more sustainable -- would be if Machar abandons what appears to be continuing political ambition to control the state dominated by an opposing ethnic majority. This may be achieved by Machar being given autonomous control over the ethnic Nuer northern region of South Sudan.

There would then need to be a regional revenue sharing agreement, given that most oil production occurs in the north of South Sudan, currently under Machar’s control. As well, there would also need to be some agreement with smaller ethnic groups that are also involved in fighting.

South Sudan’s politics would continue to be dominated by tribalism, patronage and a narrow economic base, meaning it would remain fragile. But, assuming such an agreement, there could at least be an end to the killing, the resumption of oil exports and the rebuilding of this still very under-developed state.

Without a comprehensive political agreement, however, a ceasefire seems improbable, and South Sudan’s warfare is likely to continue.

Aceh, earthquakes and politics played rough

The massive but, happily, largely benign earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Wednesday left millions of people in Aceh reliving the nightmare the engulfed them on Boxing Day 2004, when a similarly large but different type of earthquake sent a wall of water across the lowlands, killing around 180,000 people.
That the earthquake and fear of another massive tsunami came just two days after a local elections and a major political upheaval only added poignancy to the otherwise frightening occasion. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Aceh separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) reached a peace agreement with the government in Jakarta, ushering in a period not just of rebuilding but of relative peace and electoral politics.
Contrary to such opinion that exists on Aceh, the peace agreement was not a consequence of the tsunami as such. Rather, and agreement to start peace talks had been reached just days before the tsunami struck.

Aceh’s troubled elections

Indonesia’s province of Aceh goes to the polls on Monday, in what has been a bitterly contested election for the position of governor. In Indonesia’s other provinces the position of governor is important but, in the autonomous province of Aceh, following a three decade long separatist war, it is critical.
As a result of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, Aceh was also the site of the world’s largest ever emergency relief program, at $9 billion. The tsunami devastated large areas of the heavily populated coastal regions of Aceh, leaving around 170,000 dead and missing.

Funding youth violence prevention is a neglected community investment

There is currently no state government funding mechanism to support and sustain community crime prevention in Victoria. Given the available evidence shows that preventing youth volence and crime is a good investment, I call on the Victorian state government to set up funding mechanisms to support community crime prevention.
 
Recent reports have raised concern at rising rates of youth violence in Australia. Research recently completed by my team as part of the large cross-national International Youth Development Study (N=4,000) clarifies rates and determining influences for youth violence. For males in Victoria aged 14-15 in 2003 18% reported at least one episode of violence in the previous year (defined as attacking or beating another). These rates were significantly higher relative to a matched sample from Washington State in the USA (13%). The study revealed many of the influencing factors to be preventable.
 

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