What does the future hold for South Sudan?
By Alex Glynn
The audience packed out the Frontline Club for the first event of the year on 8 January, a testament to the subject that has been dominating international headlines for the last few weeks – the crisis in South Sudan. A panel of experts from different fields, chaired by Channel 4 international editor Lindsey Hilsum, discussed the current fighting in the world’s youngest country, each offering valuable opinions on where it came from and where it’s going.
The BBC’s South Sudan and Sudan correspondent, James Copnall, gave some context to the recent fighting and imparted what he has seen on the ground first hand. When Hilsum asked if it was an attempted coup that started the fighting, as President Salva Kiir has claimed, or a mutiny amongst the presidential guard, as alleged by former vice-president Riek Machar, Copnall said it is still too early to tell, but “the key objective is to get both sides to stop fighting and at least start talking.”
Heather Pagano from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) added a humanitarian perspective: “The situation is quite concerning… the speed with which everything changes on the ground, which makes it incredibly difficult to plan a proper aid response, especially in such a big country with very little logistical capacity.”
“I’ll share with you MSF’s main humanitarian concerns at the moment,” Pagano added. “In Juba, we are working in a UN camp where there is 30,000 displaced. It is so cramped that people are taking turns sleeping at night. A physic on the team worked out that the population density there is 10x the population density in Mumbai.”
MSF’s other concerns for those in refugee camps are ethnic based attacks, a lack of water (“wells are running dry by 10am”), and a high risk of disease outbreak.
Hilsum asked Thomas Mawan Mourtat, a South Sudanese political analyst, how South Sudan has come to this so quickly after the jubilation of independence in 2011. He explained that there were many underlying factors that led to this: “The population feels it has be let down and agitated by the ruling party. It was not surprising to many people that it blew up – the extent of the violence was a surprise, but people were feeling something was going to happen.”
Professor of Global Affairs Mukesh Kapila, who prior to teaching at the University of Manchester was the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, pointed out that history suggests new countries go through a level of instability.
“The international community needs to be tolerant. The idea that you could impose a western style democracy, a winner takes all approach, and the rituals of a mature state and expect everything to work is complete nonsense.”
“Peace and society is built from the bottom up, not top down. You need a much more grassroots approach, local democracy and local governance.”
Mourtat agreed with Kapila that a resolution could be best reached through the grassroots, specifically through the strengthening of local councils: “During the war, one of the most successful campaigns was organising grassroots district councils.” He explained, “the SPLA has lost its way since it came into power. This local administration has been lost and that needs to be re-established.”
When an audience member asked if more UN peacekeepers were needed, the former Sudan UN coordinator, Kapila, went as far to call the current peacekeeping response “abominable”.
“If you look at the case of Darfur, the biggest UN peacekeeping operation” said Kapila, “the situation is as bad as ever. Why are [global taxpayers] paying a billion dollars a year, yet there is ongoing violence. How is a UN peacekeeper force going to bring about peace between a sovereign government and an armed insurgency?”
He reasoned: “Spend it on trying to build grassroots to build community reconciliation and community peace building capacities.”