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Understanding the Recent Violence in S. Sudan

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Understanding the Recent Violence in S. Sudan

Posted by Maggie Fick on June 9, 2009

“The problem is that everyone has guns, and they are willing to use them.”—Kenyan man working as a driver in Juba, southern Sudan, June 2009.

JUBA, Southern Sudan—If you’ve been following the news out of southern Sudan recently, then you have good reason to be concerned about the increasingly frequent violent clashes and attacks that have occurred in the past several months. Recently (as noted on our blog), Ashraf Qazi, the U.N. Special Representative for Sudan announced that in recent months, the death rate in southern Sudan from violent conflict has been higher than in Darfur.

But who and what is behind this spate of violent clashes, and how can it be understood in the context of the challenges facing Sudan today, during the run-up to the national elections in 2010 and a self-determination referendum in 2011?

As noted by the Economist earlier this week, most of the recent violence has been inter-ethnic fighting over land rights and access to grazing areas for cattle and other livestock in the run up to southern Sudan’s long rainy season (which is beginning now and will last until September or October). If you speak with people from southern Sudan, they will tell you that fighting over land and the practice of “cattle-raiding” among ethnic groups (or among sub-clans within ethnic groups such as the Dinka) often occurs before the rainy season. In the past, conflict over land was managed and resolved by local chiefs. But these clashes became much more prevalent in the 1980s, when widespread drought (and in some cases famine) ravaged vast swaths of Darfur and southern Sudan and nomadic groups lost most of their cattle. Some of these nomadic groups were then given weapons by government in Khartoum (the same government that armed a number of Arab groups in Darfur in 2003) to fight in Sudan’s slow-burning North-South civil war that ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Today, in the context of ongoing fighting and mounting tension in the South, these clashes are likely to continue. Not only have local-level conflict resolution mechanisms broken down (due in part to the distrust of nomadic populations as being armed agents of the Khartoum government), but lagging CPA implementation and declining oil revenues in the past year have hampered progress toward the so-called “peace dividend” – meaningful improvements in the daily lives of Southerners. As a result, heavily-armed and increasingly frustrated civilian populations who fought in the North-South war are apt to pick up their guns again to protect themselves. Thus far, the  Government of Southern Sudan’s security forces and the United Nations Mission in Sudan have had little impact in improving the security situation.

This very dangerous combination of destabilizing factors will make the likelihood of further inter-ethnic clashes throughout the South high, making it much less likely that Sudan will be able to hold credible, peaceful elections in February 2010. In the coming weeks, Enough will release a paper outlining some of the challenges facing Sudan and the international community in the run-up to 2011, when the CPA’s interim period ends and southern Sudan votes in a self-determination referendum. Check this space for more updates on the developing situation in southern Sudan.


This is part of a series of posts on southern Sudan by Enough policy assistant Maggie Fick, who is currently conducting research for Enough in the region.