BOR, Southern Sudan – This is my first time working and living in a “post-conflict setting,” but sadly, southern Sudan also has the feeling of being in a period of potential “pre-conflict,” threatening to return to widespread violence.
As an Enough researcher in Washington for the past year, I regularly read reports about civilian disarmament, small arms flows in southern Sudan, or about proxy militias moving into and out of the southern Sudanese army as alliances shift. These reports are intellectually engaging and the analysis is useful, but now that I’m here in southern Sudan, I am personally tempted not to join the chorus of analysis on complex issues such as disarmament, but to try to make the simple point that is still glossed over: “Southern Sudan is awash in arms.” You may have heard this sound bite before, but what it means practically is that most people I encountered while traveling by road in Jonglei state for roughly 400 kilometers, from the capital Bor to the town of Duk Padiet, are carrying weapons. Some of these people were wearing SPLA military uniforms, others were wearing deconstructed camouflage shirts, a mainstay of the clothes found in the markets I have visited thus far in the South, but many of these people were ordinary civilians—teenage boys riding bicycles, men walking with their wives, young Dinka cattle keepers taking their herd of cattle to water on the Nile river. To be honest, at first I wasn’t sure how to interact with the many well-armed people I encountered on a walk around Panyagor, a town along the road up to Duk Padiet. But then I realized that people just wanted to say hello, regardless of what kind of weapon they had slung over their shoulder.
It is hard to comprehend what “civilian disarmament” means in a place like Jonglei state, where weapons are simply a part of everyday life. The challenge of this process was evident in two disastrous attempts at disarmament conducted by the Government of Southern Sudan and the SPLA in 2006 and 2008—see these two reports, here and here, by the Small Arms Survey for more information. With another state-by-state civilian disarmament campaign on the horizon, an urgent assessment is needed of how and whether these efforts will yield improve peace and security for the people of southern Sudan.