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South Sudanese react to past and present calls for disarmament

Authors: Okot Emmanuel | Daniel Danis | Published: Friday, July 10, 2020

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South Sudanese have asked the President to live up to his promises of ending communal violence and the illegal possession of arms in the country.

They say President Salva Kiir has made countless commitment to end insecurities and restore peace.

Researchers say prior to the separation of Sudan and South Sudan it was estimated that there were between 1.9 and 3.2 million small arms in circulation, with about two-thirds of these in the hands of civilians.

They say a primary source of weapons to civilians throughout the civil wars (particularly the second civil war) was the government and/or military, for various reasons.

Small Arms Survey notes that, for instance, in Lakes State, the SPLA provided weapons to cattle keepers to enable them to protect themselves and their communities from cattle raiders. The arming of these youth groups, known as the ‘Gelweng, allowed the SPLA to shift their focus and efforts from community security to the ongoing war with the north.

However, despite the end of the war with the signing of the CPA, the ‘Gelweng’ in Lakes State retained their weapons.

In addition to the direct distribution of weapons to civilians, another source of small arms in South Sudan has been the sale and/or leakage of weapons from soldiers to civilians on an ad hoc basis.

It said the combination of poor training and poor pay contribute to a steady supply of weapons from the organised forces of South Sudan (including military, police, prison services, wildlife, and the fire brigade) to the civilian population.

Experts stated that the flow of weapons from the organised forces has proved to be a problem following disarmament campaigns, as it has been alleged that the collected weapons are often leaked back to the population.

Last year, President Salva Kiir directed the police to take over from the army the responsibilities of protecting the civilians and their properties.

The constitution mandates the police to prevent, combat and investigate crime, maintain law and public order, protect the people and their properties.

But of recent, several states have been rocked by ethnic and inter-communal violence, notably Jonglei, Lakes and Warrap.

The renewed conflicts have been blamed on cattle raids, revenge attacks, and land disputes.

The Human Rights Commission reports that the nature of the intercommunal conflicts has been evolving in recent years, taking on an increasingly militarized character with military-style tactics and military-grade weapons.

Some locals accuse government officials of reportedly fueling the inter-communal violence and not uniting people across the boundaries.

In his independence eve speech, President Kiir once again pledged to end communal violence once and for all.

He announced plans to kick-start a full-scale disarmament exercise across the country in addition to the communal dialogue.

Kiir urged those bearing arms to cooperate with the security forces.

“I appealed to our communities, specifically the traditional chiefs to cooperate and implement the directives of the disarmament campaign. I hope our citizens who are not authorized to bear arms will heed the calls for disarmament and voluntarily surrender their weapons to security forces tasked with this exercise,” he said.

But the President has initiated several disarmament exercises in the past that have not achieved the intended purposes.

Jonglei disarmament

In 2006, Kiir’s administration started its first disarmament in Jonglei State with the Lou Nuer areas.

The escalation of fighting in Jonglei state between the Lou Nuer in the form of the ‘White Army’ and the Murle has resulted in the death of thousands of people between December 2011 and mid-February 2012.

The SPLA and the police attempted to respond to the conflict but did not have the capacity to prevent the widespread loss of life that ensued.

The approach was viewed by many as both ethnically focused and politically motivated since it was not conducted simultaneously with other States and other communities in Jonglei State.

The UN and local leaders condemned it saying the government left communities vulnerable to attacks by those still armed.

Countrywide disarmament

On May 22, 2008, President Kiir issued an executive decree calling for a comprehensive civilians’ disarmament in all the 10 states.

He tasked the state governors with the support of the then-SPLA to collect weapons from civilian within six months.

However, only a few governors responded, while others blamed the failure to a lack of proper coordination and commitment on the side of Juba.

Northern corridor disarmament

Then in 2011, President Kiir again issued a decree for disarmament in three states of Unity, Lakes and Warrap, which was partially implemented also by those states through coercion.

Until now, there are still conflicts along the boundaries of Warrap and Unity, while civilians in Lakes clash every week.

In 2016, tensions rose in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area after the army tried to disarm the civilians.

The exercise did not proceed as planned.

Greater Bahr el Ghazal state of emergency

In July 2017, President Kiir declared a state of emergency in Gogrial, Wau, Aweil East, and some parts of Tonj.

He directed the army to disarm the civilians there to stabilize the areas.

Kiir also directed security organs to conduct a disarmament campaign across two communities that have persistently fought each other in Gogrial State

Experts believe the government’s failure to pay the organized forces, coupled with the sophisticated weapons possessed by the civilians, is contributing to more insecurities.

According to previous Saferworld research, two of the reasons that are often cited are the protection of property (specifically cattle) and self- protection. Government security forces are generally unable to fulfil the security needs of the population.

It notes that due to this ‘security gap’ communities develop their own mechanisms to protect themselves and their property.

However, President Kiir said the government will this time use force on those refusing to hand over the guns peacefully.

“For those who will not heed this call, the government will be left with no option than to forcibly remove these weapons from their hands,” he warned.

Public response

In reaction, some members of the public called on the President to ensure the disarmament exercise is a success.

“President has mentioned this several times in the various speech, but nothing has changed. This is really affecting us. If the President really wants to restore peace, he should remove the guns from the civilians,” said one caller.

Another caller said such important directives require the direct oversight from the office of the President.

“We demand that he implements the planned disarmament. That is the way to go. Even that single bullet hidden should be found for him to reassure us of peace.”

One caller blamed those tasked with the implementation of Presidential directives of letting Kiir down.

He said the institutions in-charge of security do not take the President’s pledges as policy matters.

“What the President always says is heard by everybody but tomorrow they will step on what the President said. If people really implement what the President always says, no civilian will be holding guns right now in South Sudan,” he stated.

Activists have called for simultaneous disarmament across the country.

They say this will ensure communities cooperate -knowing that their neighbour does not possess arms.

A common sentiment throughout South Sudan is, ‘We will disarm, but only if all the other communities disarm as well’.

Local solutions

Local leaders have often called on the national government to enforce past resolutions reached by communities in greater Jonglei.

Some of the crucial resolutions made by the Dinka, Nuer, and Murle communities included the formation of joint integrated police that would monitor the free movement of pastoralists and their cattle across the states.

They also agreed to form community policing and joint mobile courts comprising of cattle keepers to handle criminal cases, return abducted children and report to relevant authorities.

Experts view on disarmament

A report by SaferWorld observes that the current deficits in state security provision, and the lack of basic infrastructure in South Sudan to enable more effective protection of civilians, responses have to include short-term measures to address immediate security threats as well as long-term measures to improve the structural issues facilitating civilian arms possession.

It said civilian disarmament campaigns can be a part of such an overall strategy but needs to be undertaken alongside other interventions that reduce the demand for weapons and ensure community safety.

“An effective disarmament campaign must be a well-designed and well-thought-out process that has the buy-in of all of the stakeholders, none of which is possible when a reactive, time-sensitive disarmament campaign is mandated,” SaferWorld said in a 2012 report.

Some of the concerns it raised over “reactive” disarmament in South Sudan are;

1. Disarmament campaigns have been mostly carried out in the dry season. However, this presents another challenge as cattle raiding and subsequent clashes are intensified during the dry season, thus making it less likely that civilians will willingly surrender their arms.

2. Ethnic divisions of South Sudan make planning disarmament campaigns difficult.

It notes that the 2008 disarmament in Lakes State was carried out by soldiers from ethnic groups outside of the state. In theory, this can be a good strategy as it removes concerns over tribal connections or ethnic groups (i.e. one ethnic group in a given area disarming another ethnic group).

“However, in practice, linguistic difficulties and distrust of others can equally prove challenging when carrying out a disarmament process,” it said.

The report added that the SPLA that were sent to participate in the Lakes State disarmament had recently participated in clashes against military from the north, an assignment which required drastically different skills and considerations than civilian disarmament.

Previous Saferworld research indicates quite strong support in some communities for Small Arms and Light Weapons to be reduced in society,38 but addressing the security gap experienced by many communities in South Sudan remains crucial for future civilian disarmament campaigns to have sustainable results.

In the meantime, armed robberies and rapes in urban centres, the hijacking of vehicles, aid vehicles being detained, hundreds killed in cattle raiding, hundreds more killed in revenge attacks – such incidents will continue to frustrate South Sudan’s effort to achieve a peaceful and prosperous society.

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