Q&A: In conversation with Geoffrey Duke
In 2011, the Republic of South Sudan became the newest country in the world when the southern Sudanese voted in a referendum to split from the largely Arab north. For many years before that, Project Ploughshares was involved in efforts to end a long civil war in Sudan and to foster peacebuilding, including direct field work in and around Juba, now the capital of South Sudan, and liaising with the Sudanese diaspora in Canada.
But peace was short-lived in South Sudan and recent press coverage indicates that civil war now threatens imminent catastrophe. Details can be found in the Armed Conflicts Report on the Project Ploughshares website.
Ploughshares executive director Cesar Jaramillo recently connected with Geoffrey Duke, Head of Secretariat at South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms (SSANSA) to learn more about the most pressing challenges for South Sudan.
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 2 Summer 2017 by Cesar Jaramillo
Cesar Jaramillo: Do you think the conflict has reached a critical stage?
Geoffrey Duke: The situation in South Sudan has been in a state of steady decline since the outbreak of the war in 2013. This decline is manifest in all main sectors; security, the economy, and access to basic services. With the trend of events of the recent past, and no decisive action to reverse the trends, the situation will certainly continue to deteriorate.
There are three main reasons why. First is the breakdown of the Peace Deal signed in August 2015 and the absence of a political process to shift the political crisis from military to the sphere of genuine dialogue and non-violent politics.
Second is the emergence of new armed groups, from a single armed opposition group in 2013 to over five different rebel movements now, with the latest announced barely two months ago. This proliferation of armed group points to a surge in the scale of hostilities, which in turn fuels the alarming displacement of citizens.
The third reason is the continued flow of arms from around the world into South Sudan. The arms are the fuel to the fire that has already devastated South Sudan and risks pulling the country further down toward total anarchy.
CJ: Famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan, affecting millions, with as many as 100,000 people at immediate risk of starvation. Tens of thousands have been killed. More than 1.5-million are internally displaced, and nearly 2-million are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. How would you assess the response of the international community?
GD: Since the outbreak of the war, we have seen millions of dollars in humanitarian aid flow into South Sudan from a number of countries to help the people of South Sudan. Hence, the efforts of the international community should definitely be appreciated. However, the humanitarian aid dwarfs the current level of humanitarian needs. Clearly, more resources are needed.
Sadly, as some countries send in humanitarian aid, others are busy supplying the weapons that fuel the violence, creating the humanitarian crisis. I would say that the same international community is supplying arms with one hand and providing assistance with the other hand. These conflicting efforts are not only self-defeating, but also contribute to sustaining the civil war. This requires harmonization of policies aiming at humanitarian assistance and those on political processes to end the civil war.
CJ: Which areas should be the top priorities for international assistance?
GD: I would classify international assistance to two areas, namely humanitarian and political. On humanitarian assistance, in my view, priority definitely needs to begin with areas hit by the recently announced famine. However, equally important emphasis needs to be given to areas that are not easily accessible, either because access is restricted by the warring parties or due to lack of roads.
On political assistance, I would say the support needed so much is mainly non-financial. It is the engagement to cultivate the necessary political will from the leaders of the various armed and non-armed opposition groups to set aside military actions and embark on genuine inclusive political dialogue to resolve the conflict. Of course, financial support will be required to facilitate the political process once it is under way.
CJ: UNMISS [United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan] has been deployed in South Sudan since 2011. How effective has it been? Do you have any thoughts on potential changes to the mission? What sort of peacekeeping mission do the circumstances call for?
GD: I think how well UNMISS has performed can be assessed from its track record of protecting civilians both inside and outside the camps. Civilians have been killed and women raped just outside UN camps without meaningful measures taken by the peacekeeping forces. It is even difficult to assert that civilians in the UN camps are safe. We have seen armed groups launch attacks and kill civilians who are in these UN camps. So there is an element of a false sense of security on the side of civilians.
It is important to note, though, that peacekeeping forces have successfully confronted, with necessary force, numerous threats posed by armed groups to civilians in the UN camps. A useful question to ask is: what would have happened to the thousands if they had not taken refuge in the UN camps? I would say that much as there are flaws in efforts to protect civilians, peacekeepers are still relevant in the current situation in South Sudan. Nevertheless, we can all agree that South Sudan needs a form of peacekeeping that will make civilians feel safe both in and outside the UN camps.
CJ: The 2015 Peace Agreement to end the civil war was short-lived. Are you hopeful about the prospects for a cessation or significant reduction of armed violence?
GD: The main issue here is not a matter of sharing the power among those who are fighting. Many South Sudanese can pick up arms as well, if getting the national cake is all about picking up arms and starting a fight. Accommodation has been a largely failed policy of Juba since the pre-independence of South Sudan. Several armed groups emerged following the 2010 general elections with various motivations. An open-ended amnesty and accommodation of these armed groups by Juba since then begun to establish a dangerous precedent. A precedent that if a group of persons has grievances or wants government positions, and they pick up arms, Juba will negotiate with them and offer them some wealth and employment. That is the same mindset sustaining the military approach to interacting with the government.
The point is, there are thousands of other South Sudanese out there who have grievances and deserve to participate in shaping the future of South Sudan. And the people of South Sudan have yet to discuss the principles and values upon which South Sudan shall be founded.
Inclusive nationwide dialogues are needed to agree on the important issues of power sharing among citizens of different regions and communities—and not only those with guns. There are other issues, such as system of governance and resource sharing. These are all too important to leave to those that are armed to decide alone. But certainly, political accommodation is not the ultimate solution. Neither is buying-off political opponents, but rather a clear and binding legal formula for inclusive and legitimate politics.
CJ: The country is awash in small arms and light weapons. How significant an obstacle are they to peacebuilding?
GD: From communities that rise up against each other in enduring cycles of violence and cattle rustling to the resolution of interpersonal disputes, thuggery, and crimes, the manifestations of the small arms problem in South Sudan are clear.
The high proliferation of arms has a direct impact on the security and safety of the people. The inability of the government to protect the vast majority of citizens undermines efforts to remove arms from the hands of citizens. Coupled with a weak justice sector, the legitimacy of the state is undermined, as it cannot establish a meaningful level of monopoly over the use of legitimate force.
With no justice system that makes it costly to misuse arms, and the state unable to provide security to its citizens, arms will remain a big obstacle to peacebuilding.
Some would say the solution lies in establishing the rule of law to render arms possession by civilians unnecessary. Others would argue that civilians need to be disarmed and the government should meaningfully establish control of the possession and use of small arms in the country to achieve rule of law and security. However, I would argue the solution lies in meticulously pursuing the two tracks simultaneously.
CJ: Can the Arms Trade Treaty make a positive contribution to stemming the flow of arms?
GD: The ATT has the potential to curb arms flows to conflict situations such as South Sudan. However, so far, we haven’t seen states use the treaty to make that happen. The focus has been on universalization and ensuring compliance of states parties and signatory states.
Unfortunately, most arms flowing to South Sudan are from countries that have neither ratified nor signed the treaty. The question here is, will the ATT member states sit and watch other countries supply arms to conflict zones or will they actively engage non-members to apply the principles of the treaty in their transfers of arms for use in current crises such as South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria?
I would say there is a need to establish some diplomatic engagement mechanism to urge non-member states to stop supplying arms to high-risk areas. That way the ATT will not only be an arms control regime of the future, but a relevant current tool for saving lives.
CJ: Food security is an immediate challenge. Can this be achieved in the absence of a ceasefire or peace agreement? What immediate steps could the international community take?
GD: No doubt, without a ceasefire that is respected by all armed groups in South Sudan, it is impossible to address the famine that has been recently declared. On that note, achieving an immediate nationwide cessation of hostilities is the first step, not only for addressing the problem of food insecurity, but to restore a peace process to resolve the political crisis.
The international community needs to get tougher on securing a ceasefire and outlining the range of consequences violations of ceasefire would attract. Without stern measures for violations, the parties will continue to sign and break agreements at will, while bloodshed continues and suffering of people rises.
CJ: The plight of refugees and internally displaced persons in South Sudan is intensifying, yet global attention seems primarily focused on Syria. What do you make of that?
GD: South Sudan currently is the world’s leading producer of refugees. About 1.2-million refugees fled the country, with Uganda hosting over 800,000 and continuing to welcome thousands every week. Constituting a global test and Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, this trend deserves to top global conversations about solutions to the refugee question.
However, it is not surprising that that is not the case. Looking at it using the lens of securitization, it is partly because refugees from South Sudan are not fleeing in large numbers to Europe or America. In addition, it could be because Uganda does not see them essentially as a security threat.
CJ: Was South Sudan ready for statehood in 2011? What could have been done differently?
GD: Those who argue that South Sudan’s birth was premature are missing the point. South Sudan was more than ripe for the birth of statehood. The overwhelming majority vote for independence is the most precise and authoritative indication that the people have chosen their destiny of independence.
The main issue around the birth of this country that connects to the current crisis was the lack of a basic consensus on what should follow the birth—and not only within the ruling party. Citizens nationwide were not given an opportunity to establish a social contract and decide on a national vision for the country.
So, after the dust of euphoria and exuberance of independence settled in 2011, the confusion over “what next” grew. That situation evolved into a dispute in the ruling party, the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement], over which direction to lead the country. We saw individual party members—especially from the political bureau—claiming to possess a vision for the country. It was the failure of the ruling party to peacefully resolve this dispute that consequently led to the outbreak of the civil war in 2013.
CJ: What are your general impressions of the media coverage of the situation in South Sudan?
GD: In my view, the media coverage is generally focused on reporting about atrocities and less on the complex political issues surrounding the conflict. One of the implications of such reporting is that, for South Sudan to be on the news, there has to be a horrendous event that can compare to other crises such as Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. It also gives a sense that between these infamous events, the situation is improving. This depicts the conflict as a bunch of events rather than a process that deserves consistent coverage and untangling.
CJ: How did you become involved in advocacy for peace in South Sudan? Do you know of any grassroots peace efforts there?
GD: I was born in civil war, grew up in civil war and now, still experiencing a civil war. I have no greater motivation than the obligation this lays on me to make my country livable for my fellow citizens and myself.
CJ: You were recently threatened with violence. What happened?
GD: Indeed, I came under a car-jacking attack last year in February. I had a loaded gun pointed at my head by robbers. Seated there impotent waiting for the two robbers to decide whether to take my life and the car or just the car. Fortunately, they took the car and spared my life. Sadly, such incidents are not uncommon in South Sudan. With the dire economic situation and the focus of state efforts and resources shifted from citizens’ security to fighting a war, an environment of insecurity and lawlessness is created. Such an environment is not only suitable for breeding domestic criminality, but could also easily create safe havens for transnational organized crime.
CJ: Is there hope for South Sudan as a viable nation?
GD: There is hope, but these hopes are held hostage by the persistent violence. The real hope lies in recognizing that a significant minority of South Sudanese is perpetuating the violence. The majority of the population is against the prevalent bloodshed and the constant decline. The world should stand together with the unarmed majority to put the country on the path of peace and security and stability.