South Sudan in turmoil: Why it should make Ethiopia more nervous

South Sudan has once again managed to keep the world on the edge of its seat. But Ethiopia has more reasons to be nervous 

Tsedale Lemma

The world’s newest country is in turmoil. It started on Dec. 15th 2013, when President Salva Kirr claimed to have foiled a coup attempt orchestrated by his former deputy Riek Machar, who was sacked by the president in July. Four days later, on Dec. 19th, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said South Sudan was “arguably on the cusp of a civil war.” “Too much has been invested in South Sudan since its independence in July 2011 for it to fail so soon,” ICG said.

The world saluted the January 2011 referendum that determined South Sudan’s independence from The Sudan and welcomed the birth of the new nation in July of the same year. After all, it was meant to bring an end to decades of civil war that claimed the lives of nearly two million civilians. But in just under three years, that global jubilation has given way to a global worry – in July 2011 US President Barak Obama, was “inspired”, now he warned South Sudan was at the “precipice” of a civil war; in July 2011 Ethiopia hailed the secession as “peaceful and orderly”, now Dr. Tedros Adnahom, its Foreign Minister, worries “what South Sudan deserves now is not conflict, bloodshed and poverty.”

By any standard, it is a quick tumble down the road where no one wants to see a country the size of Portugal and Spain combined go, and is rich in oil. Alas, a classical symbol of a country that has never settled its scores of ethnic differences and the struggle for power, a few days of violence claimed the lives of 500 plus and counting. The dead include 20 civilians who were killed at the UN compound in the town of Akobo where they fled into seeking refugee. They were killed after some 2, 000 armed youth, who the UN mission in South Sudan said were ethnic Nuers, attacked its base looking for the Dinka ethnic group sheltered in its compound.

What slipped through the eyes of the world, which was focused on settling the unresolved issue of the oil rich Abyei region, was that inter-ethnic violence, armed rebellions, ethnic tension within the country’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), brutal gagging of the media, corruption, vote rigging, political marginalization and cattle rustling have made the birth of the new nation become dead upon arrival.

Ethiopia and South Sudan

In February 2011, when Addis Standard launched its first print edition, it carried a news analysis in which it argued: “Welcoming the results of the referendum that ushered in South Sudan’s birth as a new country was easy.  Turning its ex-guerrilla fighters into statesmen is not”.

Many of South Sudan’s current leaders were a part of the decades-old bloody civil war for independence. Outraged by the colonial British government’s decision to unite the south and north Sudan under the rule of the north, the south rebelled in August 1955, which marked the beginning of the first civil war. What started as a small rebellion against the decision gradually gave birth to the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM) with its own military wing, the Anyanaya (later divided into Anyanaya I and Anyanaya II), guerrilla army.

This civil war was resolved by the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement of 1972, which was meditated by Emperor Haille Selassie I and All African Council of Churches among many others. But by then it already claimed the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Sudanese civilians.

Dr. Bayleyegn Tasew of the Addis Ababa University in his book: Metaphors of Peace and Violence in the Folklore Discourses of South Western Ethiopia, wrote Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was arming SSLM and using it as a proxy to destabilize the government in north Sudan, which was in return arming and training the rebels fighting against the emperor for the independence of Eritrea in northern Ethiopia.

According to a document by SPLM, which was declassified in 2010, the 1972 peace treaty “granted Southern Sudan regional autonomy, with its own legislature, executive and judiciary, and an interim security arrangements by which 6,000 Anyanaya guerrillas were absorbed in the Sudanese national army and another 4,000 in the Police and Prisons services.” But, the deal collapsed and led to the gradual formation in 1983 of the new Southern Sudanese Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A).

This time SPLM/A enjoyed similar support from the socialist Derg regime in Ethiopia apparently for the same reason the Emperor supported SSLM.

“Soon after organizing the rebel group, the Derg allowed it to move freely inside Ethiopian territory and established training camps mainly at Bonga and also at the foot of Mt. Naita in Suri as well as a command post at Itang, 50 Km. west of Gambella town.” wrote Dr. Bayeleyegn, who spent years researching the area to pursue his doctoral dissertation.

Fearing the ongoing civil war for independence, thousands of South Sudanese refugees have migrated to the Gamabella region, which gave the SPLM/A a good reason to cross the border in the pretext of safeguarding its nationals.

“In reality Gambella was put under a kind of joint administration by the Ethiopian government and the SPLM/A, in which the latter was particularly in charge of security in and around the refugee camps and the border areas,” Dr Bayeleyegn quoted anthropologist E. Kurimoto as saying.

This escalated the tension between the refugees and the ethnically interwoven local people. It also gave the SPLM/A guerilla fighters an opportunity to exercise unlimited power over the locals, particularly the Suri and Anyuaa ethnic groups, who for many years afterwards suffered tortures, rape, theft and killings in the hands of the SPLM/A fighters.

 Spillover effect

South Sudan is bordered by six countries including Ethiopia, where its western tip Gambella shares 883 km border with northern South Sudan. What started as a power struggle in Juba, the capital, on Dec. 15th escalated into a full blown ethnic clash between the majority Dinka and their second in number Neur, where President Kirr and his former deputy Machar draw their supports from respectively. By Dec. 20th the fighting has spread to Bor and Pibor towns in Jonglei state, one of the ten states in south Sudan. Jonglei is the state where Ethiopia shares borders with South Sudan.

Dreadful spillover effects of ethnic clashes have always been part of the game.  In 2009, “a large group of Sudanese Lou Nuer crossed into Ethiopia following clashes with another Sudanese group, the Murle. Although cousins of the Ethiopian Jikany Nuer, the better-armed Sudanese Lou Nuer drove thousands of Ethiopian Jikany Nuer off their land in Gambella. The regional government says some 38,000 Ethiopians are still displaced,” IRIN reported in Sep. 2010.

Media reports coming from Bor, the capital of Jonglei, say Bor has been taken over by rival troops loyal to Machar. Although troops from the Nuer are in control of the area for the moment, government forces from their rival Dinka tribe are likely to pursue against them forcing them, once again, to cross borders into Gambella.

For now, a delegation of foreign ministers from the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is trying to bring sense into this largely senseless turn of events. By the time Addis Standard went to the press on Sunday Dec. 22nd, Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs twitted “IGAD Foreign Ministers are confident that an opportunity exists now for the tide of conflict in South Sudan to be turned.” But “external actors should also undertake urgent measures in pursuance of the United Nations Security Council’s call,” said the ICG in a statement.

If IGAD Foreign Ministers fail to come up with a quick fix, would be refugees are likely to cross borders to Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. However, the case for Ethiopia may not just be a matter of hosting civil war refugees seeking shelter.

Photo: Hakim George/Reuters


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