I dragged my battered suitcase through the deserted arrivals hall of Schiphol airport in the early morning of July 9, 2017. It was caked with orange-red earth and a dollar sign sketched on in white chalk was faintly visible, indicating it had passed inspection at the Juba airport two weeks prior. My colleague Anton and I parted ways and then it hit me: today is South Sudan’s 6th birthday! However, official celebrations for the anniversary of independence in this war-weary nation had been cancelled. In the years following the 2011 referendum – after war, mass displacement, economic crisis, famine and a broken peace agreement – the collective sense of hopefulness had been reduced to a palpable frustration. Nevertheless, it became clear during our visit that frustration itself can be a motivating force for change.
We had travelled from Juba to Mingkaman by helicopter, then embarked on a further 7.5-hour journey along a harrowing muddy road to reach the town of Yirol, our truck breaking down twice. In a stuffy conference room at our hotel, we beamed a projector onto a wrinkled white sheet and introduced ourselves to an assembly of local chiefs, police and prison officers, county commissioners, cattle camp leaders, and representatives of women and youth groups. Speaking over the persistent hammering of the generator, Anton then summarized the efforts of previous months in carrying out the Human Security Survey (HSS) with the help of the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms (SSANSA) based in Juba.
Human Security Survey
He explained that the purpose of conducting this survey and bringing together local stakeholders was to share and discuss civilian experiences and perspectives of insecurity and violence within the newly-defined state of Eastern Lakes. In a country where the last census was conducted in 2009 (and the results were hotly disputed), it can be difficult to grasp what’s happening on the ground. Even more so when it comes to the expectations of everyday citizens, and whether or not the security forces meant to protect them are really doing their job. Through these dialogues, local stakeholders improve their own knowledge and work together to identify the most pressing security issues and practical ways to address them. These activities are also carried out in three other states of South Sudan (as well as Iraq), providing a basis for advocacy at local, national, and international levels.
A closer look at the conflict in South Sudan reveals far more than a national power struggle. Divisions between communities are sharpening and there are ongoing disputes over poorly defined state and county boundaries. Within our survey of 538 respondents, we found that the most common-experienced incidents over the previous year were murder/attempted murder, cattle raiding, and robbery. In addition to this, security forces such as the SPLA and police were reported to be both reliable providers of security and perpetrators of violence.
What really matters are the stories behind the numbers. Days before the security dialogue, a major incident of cattle raiding had occurred in the eastern part of the state, between a local community along the Nile river and herders from the western region who had brought their cattle in search of water. Conflict broke out over territory and at least 11 people were killed and hundreds of cattle stolen. Over the next few days, tensions were high as it was unclear if this incident would spark further revenge attacks between the two clans.
A Chief’s sadness
An old Paramount Chief of the county expressed his sadness over these events. He stood up proudly, cane in hand, with a bright red-and-white striped sash draped across his chest. He reminisced about his childhood, insisting all was peaceful between the clans and herders could come and go without incident. Territorial disputes could be handled by traditional chiefs and the rule of law was more or less intact – until the failure of the government to effectively disarm militant groups after the war with (north) Sudan. Arms filtered into the civilian population and what once may have been minor disputes now have the capacity to undermine traditional authorities and destabilize entire regions.
There were moments during the dialogue that the security challenges felt insurmountable. Another incident of cattle raiding occurred during the dialogue and some authorities had to leave to go deal with it. In fact, it was the same cattle that had been recovered and brought back from the previous raid that were stolen yet again, this time by local armed youth, and again with many casualties.
Nobody is willing to disarm themselves if it makes them vulnerable to their (armed) neighbours. Drought and poor roads prevent economic development, which entrenches poverty, and breeds instability and crime. Lack of security puts poverty reduction efforts at risk – and on and on it goes. But rather than be beat down by these realities, the attendees came together to set clear goals for the future. A committee was elected to follow up on action points aimed at making progress on issues of disarmament, cattle raiding, robbery, poverty, and even the road network. They planned to meet with the state governor, and a day after the workshop, another county chief was already following up on local radio.
It might have been an unhappy birthday for South Sudan, but as the national peace process flounders, it’s encouraging to know that local efforts to improve communities are still moving forward.