In South Sudan, not a day goes by without reports of violence, where lives are taken not by accidents or diseases, but predominantly through human-on-human acts. The pervasive levels of violence wreaking havoc on civilian lives, especially among the youth, are primarily fuelled by inter and intra-communal conflicts.
Instances of civilians killing each other are alarmingly common in various regions of South Sudan, notably in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area, Jonglei State and Eastern Equatoria State, Jonglei State and Upper Nile State, Unity State and Lakes State, Unity State, Warrap State and Lakes State, and Warrap State and Abyei Special Administrative Area. Since 2013, these conflicts have claimed the lives of thousands, if not millions, of civilians.
Despite the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement in 2018, aimed at reducing political conflicts, inter and intra-communal violence persist across many parts of South Sudan. Particularly in the epicentres of these conflicts, such as Jonglei State versus Greater Pibor Administrative Area, Unity State versus Lakes State, Unity State versus Warrap State versus Lakes State, and Warrap State versus Abyei Special Administrative Area, the violence remains unabated as I write this article.
These conflicts have not only taken a toll on the immediate areas but have also spilled over into neighbouring states or counties. Unfortunately, many individuals blame civilians for these issues, leading the government to appear complacent and detached. It is crucial to acknowledge that the government bears the responsibility of protecting its citizens, and any failure to fulfill this duty implicates it in the crimes committed during community violence.
As some analysts and writers have rightly pointed out, the assertion that the government of South Sudan bears no responsibility for the ongoing violence within our communities is flawed. This viewpoint overlooks the reality that conflicts in South Sudan stem from ethno-political struggles and the competition among elites for power and financial resources.
Furthermore, the blurred distinction between the military and armed civilians complicates efforts to control the proliferation of small arms among civilians. The accessibility of weapons to civilians enables elites to easily mobilize armed groups against opposition forces or other communities, either to weaken political opponents or to establish zones for illicit mining of precious minerals.
Recent events, such as the mobilization of the SSPDF against SPLM-IO forces in Unity State, with direct links to the Governor of Unity State as reported by the Sudans Post media on February 2, 2024, illustrate this point. Additionally, the UN Security Council’s 2021 report on the conflict between the youth of Greater Pibor Administrative Area and Jonglei State youth affirms that communal violence is orchestrated by elites seeking to maintain power or exploit mineral resources freely.
These examples, along with others not explicitly mentioned in this article, demonstrate the government’s use of local armed militias or the military in proxy wars to weaken opposition forces and hinder the implementation of agreements, ultimately preventing citizens from freely choosing their representatives. This approach serves as a political tactic employed to secure and perpetuate power.
In the ongoing communal violence and ethno-political conflicts across South Sudan, it is the youth who suffer the most. They continue to be casualties in large numbers as communal violence adopts a modernized form, characterized by the use of automatic machine guns. This shift from traditional to modern warfare methods adds a dangerous dimension to communal violence, even though it may still appear traditional in its outward manifestation with original actors involved. The current deceptive nature of communal violence often leads the government and international community to underestimate its impact, despite it being the most devastating manmade tragedy in the history of South Sudan.
The perilous inter and intra-communal violence in South Sudan has inflicted severe economic, social, and political repercussions on our communities and the entire country. Economically, the violence has disrupted production, leading to displacement that fosters dependence and fuels corruption within the government. This corruption, in turn, hampers development and impedes youth empowerment. Trade and businesses have been adversely affected, with severed links in many parts of South Sudan, causing food shortages and contributing to soaring inflation.
On a social level, inter and intra-communal violence has exacerbated poverty by diminishing production and increasing dependency. The upheaval has disrupted cultural values, displacing communities from their ancestral homelands to towns or neighbouring countries. This displacement often leads to young girls and women engaging in sex work. Respect for social hierarchies, women, and the elderly has dwindled, with youth losing traditional values that emphasize respect for women, children, and elders. Consequently, children become targets, women are subjected to rape, and elders are killed without remorse.
The breakdown of traditional values is evident in the disregard for cultural norms, such as the prohibition against killing sleeping or weak individuals who are not directly involved in the conflict. South Sudanese cultural adherence to humanitarian laws has eroded. The widening gender gap disproportionately affects women due to unequal power balances. Young men and women resort to sugar daddy and sugar mommy relationships to survive and maintain a semblance of dignity. Practices like witchcraft and human sacrifices have surged as many young people grapple with asserting their right to individual self-determination.
Families, recognized as the basic units of society by law, are increasingly disintegrating, contributing to a rise in the number of street children. Abortions and the abandonment of children on the streets have become commonplace. Sycophancy and falsehood, considered vices in strong communities, have surged as individuals employ any means to gain access to resources.
Politically, inter and intra-communal violence have emerged as sources of political conflict, cutting across party lines. These incidents have become tools for elites to either gain or retain power, with communities now heavily politicized and transformed into influential political constituencies that shape the appointment and removal of government officials.
The appointment and dismissal of ministers are increasingly dictated by community demands, turning political battles into community-oriented conflicts. Youth have formed community associations, taking the form of youth organizations, and are actively engaging with the government, demanding direct representation from the president.
Merit-based political appointments have been replaced by community-driven appointments, disregarding the competence of the appointees. Corruption is exacerbated as government resources are distributed along community lines, encouraging individuals to maximize their resource acquisition and ensure the employment of their relatives within the government.
Failures of individual government officials are unfairly attributed to their entire communities, transforming the government into a resource hunting ground for community groups. Government positions have evolved into symbols of community and tribal power, perceived as a threat when wielded by others.
University qualifications are often viewed through the lens of familial connections, and the decentralized system of government has taken on a federal character, leading communities to demand the inclusion of members from other tribes in states that don’t naturally belong to them. The government functions more as community or tribal organizations, guided by tribal sentiments.
In summary, the character and destructive nature of inter and intra-communal violence make it more devastating than often acknowledged in the history of South Sudan. The ongoing communal violence reflects the government’s failure to fulfill its constitutional duty to protect human life, as outlined in international humanitarian law. To address this, the government should enact an independent community violence law, criminalizing these incidents and incorporating elements of international humanitarian laws to account for the use of modern weapons by the youth.
Citizens affected by inter and intra-community violence may potentially seek damages against the government in the future, considering its failure to protect them. The key to ending community violence in South Sudan lies in the government’s demonstration of political will to prioritize the protection of its citizens.
Juol Nhomngek is a member of the Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA), representing Cueibet County on the ticket of the SPLM-IO. He is a lawyer specializing in Constitutional law and human rights. He can be contacted via email@example.com