New spate of violence threatens peace process in South Sudan
By Lisa Zengarini
Despite the progress made at government level and the hopes raised by the then-cancelled Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage of Pope Francis to South Sudan early in July, communal violence in the war-torn East African country continues to threaten the long-drawn peace process which should lead it to democratic elections next year.
Over 200 people killed in June in clashes across the country
While formal rival leaders President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar now work in the same government in relative peace following the truce signed in 2018, the past weeks have seen a new spate of communal violence in various areas of the 11-year-old nation.
The most hit region has been in Tonj North County, in President Kiir’s home State of Warrap, where on June 25 gunmen killed 30 soldiers, a military intelligence chief and a former government commissioner in clashes erupted after security forces were sent to recover cattle stolen by raiders from another county.
In other cases, deadly skirmishes have been triggered by efforts to disarm youths. Killings have also been reported in the Western Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria and Central Equatoria states.
Hundreds of people have been killed since the beginning of the year in violence ranging from cattle raids to ethnically motivated revenge killings. According to the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), a civic NGO based in South Sudanese capital Juba, the violence has further worsened in June, when over 200 people were killed and 33 others wounded across the country.
Fears for the peace process
The recent upsurge of communal clashes and killings is raising fears that the country's fragile Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan(R-ARCSS) signed in 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will unravel before elections the international community hopes can be held in 2023.
Both Kiir and Machar are under pressure to release a timetable for the presidential elections, to consolidate peace and stability in the country which plunged into civil war in 2013, two years after its independence from Sudan, largely because of ethnic rivalries. The armed conflict, involving rebel militias led by Machar, an ethnic Nuer, and regular troops loyal to President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, as well as other factions, officially ended with the 2018 peace agreement which provided for the reintegration of Machar into a national unity government as first vice-president. However, the terms of that deal have yet to be fully implemented.
Violence major obstacle to implementation of 2018 agreement
According to Edmund Yakani, head of the CEPO, the ongoing violence is a major obstacle to its implementation, and is also hindering humanitarian efforts for communities in urgent need of food, medicine and other supplies.
Similar alarms have been expressed in recent weeks at U.N. level. In May a panel of U.N. experts said the deal is “hostage to the political calculations of the country’s military and security elites, who use a combination of violence, misappropriated public resources and patronage to pursue their own narrow interests”.
In June, Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. representative to South Sudan told the Security Council that the scale of sub-national conflict “is alarming,”. More than 80% of civilian casualties this year are “attributed to intercommunal violence and community-based militias,” he said. “This violence divides communities and hampers reconciliation.”
Pope Francis' postponed visit to South Sudan
The visit Pope Francis was scheduled to make to South Sudan on 5-7 July with the Archbishop Justin Welby, head of the Anglican Communion, and the Rt. Rev. Dr. Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, was meant to encourage faith and peace in the African nation. The pilgrimage and the preceding programmed visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo had to be postponed due to his knee problem, but the Pope decided to send the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, “to show his closeness to the beloved peoples of the Congo and South Sudan.”
Pope Francis' concerns for South Sudan have been expressed on several occasions. On April 11, 2019, the Pope and Archbishop Welby invited the highest South Sudanese civil and ecclesial authorities to the Vatican for an “ecumenical retreat.” At the end of the retreat at the Casa Santa Marta he made a spontaneous and highly significant gesture: he bent down and kissed the feet of the leaders on each side of the conflict in a plea for peace.