Peace process lagging as struggling South Sudanese face a looming ‘perfect storm’

David Shearer, Head of UNMISS, has briefed the Security Council and flagged the risk of local power vacuums and food insecurity increasing intercommunal fighting

David Shearer, Head of UNMISS, has briefed the Security Council and flagged the risk of local power vacuums and food insecurity increasing intercommunal fighting.

16 Dec 2020

Peace process lagging as struggling South Sudanese face a looming ‘perfect storm’

Francesca Mold

A continuing vacuum of power at the local government level is making it difficult to “nip in the bud” intercommunal violence ahead of the traditionally volatile dry season in South Sudan, according to the UN’s top envoy in the country.

On Tuesday, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer, briefed the UN Security Council on progress with the peace process, concerns about local-level violence, and the transition of Protection of Civilians sites to conventional displacement camps.

He said that, despite the impact of COVID-19, progress had been made with parties successfully forming a transitional government and allocating all state and county positions. Nine out of 10 governors are in place, he said, and most national institutions are functioning, at least at a basic level.

“These achievements are to be commended,” said Shearer. “But progress is lagging.”

He pointed to the stalled unification of security forces and the dispute over the proposed governorship of Johnson Olony in Upper Nile, which is being used to halt the appointment of county commissioners across the country.

“This hold-up leaves a local vacuum of power and makes it difficult to nip in the bud brewing intercommunal violence,” said Shearer.

While violent incidents have dropped by 64 percent in the third quarter of 2020, more than 2,000 civilians have lost their lives this year during local-level conflict, which is being “weaponized and turbocharged by external actors acting in their own economic or political interests.”

As the dry season approaches, said the UN envoy, preparations are underway for a possible resurgence of volatility, with several underlying factors creating a “perfect storm” for those already facing hardship.

Those factors, he went on to say, include acute food insecurity, which is affecting more than half the population and is driven by displacement from conflict, severe flooding, the loss of livestock and crops, and a worsening economic situation on top of existing pervasive poverty.

Historically, the dry season exacerbates these problems. Farmers and pastoralists who have lost crops and cattle often seek to recover their losses through violent raids. Competition for scarce resources, like grazing land and water, also become points of tension between farmers and cattle herders during migration.

“Anticipating this, we have established five new temporary bases in conflict hotspots in line with our ‘proactive, robust and nimble’ approach to peacekeeping and peacebuilding,” said Shearer. 

“Our integrated military and civilian teams are in place right now, to deter violence and support reconciliation so communities can reach an agreement to peacefully co-exist,” he said. “We know that our presence has markedly de-escalated conflict, particularly where we can make contact with parties early.”

The UN envoy went on describe how a multi-donor trust fund is being used to bring reconciliation, stabilisation, and resilience, and detailed how UNMISS is holding dialogue forums on constitution-drafting and peacebuilding. The Mission’s engineering contingents are also undertaking a major project to repair 3,200 kilometres of roads.

“Improving roads boosts connections and communications between regions; it increases trade; it boosts the economy; and, most significantly, what we have found is where we have had good communication, it builds peace, just by people being able to meet together and allay some of those suspicions that occur,” said Shearer.

While intercommunal violence remains a threat, he said, political violence has reduced significantly since the peace deal was signed in 2018, enabling the transition of three Protection of Civilians sites to conventional displacement camps.

“The PoC sites were established seven years ago to protect people fleeing from intense conflict,” said Shearer. “That threat no longer exists today, with most residents now moving daily between the camps and towns while still being able to access humanitarian services.”

In the past three months, the Bor, Wau and Juba sites have been successfully re-designated under the sovereign ownership and management of the South Sudan government.

“The transition occurred without incident and UNMISS remains engaged in support of the displaced communities,” said Shearer. “Our UN police officers provide support to their national counterparts, have co-located with them in police posts near the ex-PoC sites, and are providing training in community policing.”

What South Sudanese citizens want is very simple, he said. Peace.

“We urge the parties to take concrete steps to breathe fresh life into the process – above all, to compromise – to achieve the peace dividends that citizens deserve,” said Shearer.

“As always, we will be right by their side, doing everything we can to make the hopes of the South Sudanese people for a peaceful and prosperous future a reality.”