Africa Report N°154 - Jonglei's Tribal Conflicts: Countering Insecurity in South Sudan

Originally published



Conflicts among tribes have claimed several thousand lives in South Sudan in 2009, with the worst violence in and around the vast, often impassable state of Jonglei. Violence often afflicts pastoral communities, but in this area it has taken on a new and dangerously politicised character. With the death toll over the past year exceeding that in Darfur and displacement affecting more than 350,000 people, the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) should recognise the primarily local nature of the conflicts, extend state authority and prove itself a credible provider of security lest the problems become major obstacles on the road to self-determination and beyond. International partners must simultaneously step up their support or risk seeing the South become increasing unstable ahead of national elections and the self-deter­mina­tion referendum.

Jonglei is the largest of South Sudan's ten states, comprising some 120,000 square kilometres. Home to 1.3 million inhabitants, it is also among the most underdeveloped regions in the world. Multiple ethnic communities migrate seasonally to sustain cattle and preserve their pastoralist way of life. Access to water and grazing areas, as well as cattle rustling, are thus primary triggers of conflict. Tensions between communities are aggravated by pervasive tribalism and perceptions of state bias, the virtual absence of roads and infrastructure, widespread food insecurity, land disputes and limited access to justice. The escalating conflict cycles witnessed in and around Jonglei in 2009 have sown deep mistrust, and movement during the dry season could reignite large-scale conflict early in 2010.

Perceptions that Khartoum is instigating violence have politicised conflict in the South and created new conflict dynamics. While such perceptions are plausible given the National Congress Party's (NCP) historical policies of destabilisation, there is little evidence to substantiate claims of involvement in the year's increasingly deadly tribal confrontations. The size of the territory involved, porous borders and limited GoSS capacity make it impossible to rule out external interference, but the government must avoid using Khartoum as a scapegoat and instead focus on improving its capacity to provide security and promote reconciliation.

Despite a shared goal of independence, local and tribal identities remain stronger than any sense of national consciousness in South Sudan. Tribal identities are central to politics, and Jonglei is no exception. The escalation of violence has deepened divisions among its communities and its leaders, some of whom may be manipulating conflict to their own ends. Politics and the personalities driving them in Jonglei may also be related to a broader competition for control in Juba and across the South. Political jockeying is likely to intensify as elections scheduled for April 2010 and the referendum that must be held by early January 2011 approach, but leaders should work to unite, not just until 2011 but beyond. They need to weigh the consequences of tribal posturing against the benefits of a united South, since greater cooperation is necessary if they are to forge a new and viable state.

Like much of the South, Jonglei is awash with weapons, and the memory of crimes committed during the war is still fresh. Under pressure to halt ethnic violence, civilian disarmament is a top GoSS priority. Although previous operations to disarm the population yielded limited results or stimulated further conflict, another campaign is imminent. While the need to remove arms from the hands of civilians is paramount, a campaign in which force is likely to be used is cause for serious concern. Unless ethnic groups are disarmed simultaneously and adequate security is provided in the wake of the campaign, communities will be reluctant to comply. Lack of trust in government and neighbour alike means communities feel the need to guarantee their own security. Thus, security forces are likely to encounter pockets of serious resistance. Many authorities acknowledge that lives will be lost but say this is a price that must be paid for the long-term benefits of disarmament.

A young and fragile GoSS is doing its best to address a large number of priorities with limited capacity. Security sector reform is one that belongs high on the agenda, but attention has focused disproportionately on the army. The South Sudan Police Service (SSPS) - constitutionally and properly the principal institution for addressing domestic security concerns - is of abysmal quality, so the army has by default been obliged to respond to tribal clashes. But its intervention has not been without drawbacks. An inconsistent policy on engagement and a sometimes too blunt military approach to law enforcement have sometimes created confusion and resentment, limiting what might otherwise be a productive presence. Long-term investments are essential to improve both the army and the police, but near-term security gaps require immediate action from the GoSS, donors and the UN alike if the South is to avoid further bloodshed and resulting instability.

Juba has its hands full negotiating a variety of issues with the NCP, not least the details of the elections and referendum. Keeping its partner in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) from undermining the self-determination vote or otherwise manipulating these processes is a Herculean order in itself. But it must also focus internally. A more visible state security presence and some gains on South-South reconciliation could prevent further division along tribal lines, bolster both internal and external confidence in the GoSS and help refute Khartoum's claim that "the South cannot govern itself".


To the Government of South Sudan:

1. Standardise and clarify policy on Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) engagement in tribal conflict, including the respective roles and responsibilities of the army and the SSPS; ensure better compliance with that policy, so as to avoid partiality and clearly define and exercise civilian oversight mechanisms for SPLA engagement.

2. Ensure greater state security presence at the local level by increasing SPLA deployment to areas of concern to exercise law enforcement functions and make best possible efforts to ensure that the ethnic composition of units does not complicate or jeopardise their engagement.

3. Prioritise police reform, including by increasing budget allocations to the SSPS in line with a long-term transformation plan.

4. Undertake SSPS payroll cleansing in order to remove significant numbers of "ghost" police from it.

5. Carry out any civilian disarmament that is attempted in Jonglei and elsewhere by:

a) making every effort to ensure public awareness about the plans and to secure buy-in of local communities and traditional leaders so that the process is as peaceful as possible;

b) devising a plan in partnership with local communities to leave some of the SPLA and SSPS reinforcements that will be necessary for the campaign in place to ensure the security of disarmed communities; and

c) ensuring that the internal affairs ministry, the SPLA, the state security committees and other key stakeholders agree on a strategy and maintain a regular forum for consultation throughout the disarmament processes.

6. Assign civil administrators away from their home areas as a regular policy, so as to erode pervasive tribalism and build a stronger national identity.

To the South Sudan Police Service (SSPS):

7. Build on existing strategy documents and the 2009 Police Act to develop a long-term reform plan in concert with major donors, who should map their support accordingly.

8. Deploy police more strategically based on risk assessments, as the capability of the force increases.

9. Ensure timely delivery of salaries to remote counties of Jonglei, possibly by procuring a small airplane for the state to support police, the community security bureau, and other proposed policing mechanisms.

To the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS):

10. Increase UN visibility and facilitate civilian protection in Jonglei by:

a) re-establishing temporary operating bases (TOBs) or other creative field presence;

b) rethinking how the bases are structured and maintained in order to ensure efficiency and sustainability; and

c) implementing in the interim its declared policy to conduct regular long-range patrols, using military, police, civil affairs, disarmament and human rights personnel.

11. Undertake a more proactive civilian protection role, per the mandate in Security Council Resolution 1590, by better defining the circumstances under which it will provide protection - particularly with regard to inter-tribal violence in high risk areas - and making corresponding adjustments to deployment, resources, and operational orders.

12. Make clear to the SPLA and GoSS officials at both the state and Juba level what UNMIS will and will not do to support disarmament campaigns, in particular under what circumstances it will assist with transport, other logistics and advice.

To the Southern Sudan Peace Commission (SSPC):

13. Recruit, train and establish in each county sub-division (payam) of Jonglei and other conflict-prone areas, pending improvement of the security services, a network of mediators who are recognised as opinion leaders with moral authority over all categories of the Southern Sudan population, so as to prevent the violent escalation of disputes related to seasonal migration and other sources of conflict.

To Donors:

14. Coordinate support to the police and the wider security sector better in order to harmonise long-term professionalisation and other reform efforts with immediate security concerns for the election and referendum periods.

15. Identify a lead nation or partnership of two to play a stronger role - including commitment of substantial resources, human capital and effective oversight - in security sector reform that gives appropriate consideration to both the SSPS and the SPLA.

16. Consider supporting additional policing mechanisms such as the proposed Livestock Protection Unit and an air-mobile, quick reaction unit that can address both cattle raiding and ethnic clashes involving large numbers of combatants.

Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 December 2009