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Armed Dinka cattleguards in South Sudan in 2018. Photo via AFP.
Armed Dinka cattle guards in South Sudan in 2018.

Illegal firearms trafficking remains a critical problem for African states, and a new United Nations’ report on the problem may reveal just the tip of the iceberg. 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report on firearms trafficking in July, a follow-up on a 2015 study on firearms. “Pistols are the world’s most seized type of firearm… driven to a large extent by the Americas,” the “Global Study on Firearms Trafficking 2020” notes. “In Africa and Asia, shotguns were the most prominent type. Rifles were the main type of firearm seized in Oceania, and in Europe the distribution was equal between pistols, rifles, and shotguns.” 

Africa’s oversupply of shotguns suggests many of the weapons seized are used for poaching activities, particularly the poaching of birds. Yet, in focusing on trafficked weapons, the UN report left out the role of improvised weapons, an essential part of the illegal weapons trade in Africa. 

Relying on data from 2016 and 2017, the report noted that some 550,000 firearms were seized in eighty-one countries. By comparison, a January 2019 BBC news report on Ghana’s illegal arms trade suggested that illegal gunsmiths in Ghana have the capacity to make up to 200,000 guns a year. While much of the improvised weapons are used to commit crimes, a large portion of these guns are essentially single use. 

About 90 percent of armed robberies in Ghana are reported to involve the use of homemade guns, according to the Ghana Police Service. Such weapons can be purchased for as little as US$9, and most are used for home defense by residents who live in areas with a high crime rate. Many of these weapons are crudely fashioned single-use zip guns. 

Ghana’s blacksmith may be the most productive on the continent. By comparison, Mali authorities estimate that some 5,000 guns are produced in the country each year. 

Ghana’s blacksmiths have been making guns for centuries after European traders often refused to sell Africans firearms in large quantities to not lose their comparative military advantage during colonial era conflicts. Ghana’s gunsmiths are perhaps the most advanced on the continent capable of producing weapons that mimic in appearance (but, not functionality) Kalashnikovs AKMs, for example. What they lack in modern machinery they more than compensate with skill. 

Some twenty-two African countries have notable illegal firearms manufacturing, most of which are located in West Africa. Such ECOWAS countries include  Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, and Mali. 

Homemade weapons usually lack the durability to become a significant combat arm of insurgent groups. One exception is in the Cameroonian conflict known as the Anglophone Crisis, where the relative lack of availability of internationally produced weapons has led some armed Anglophone separatists to rely on improvised hunting rifles as their primary combat arm. 

 In 2019, the African Union Commission and the Small Arms Survey released a study, “Weapons Compass: Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa”, that identified the scale, availability, and supply patterns of illicit small arms on the continent. The study estimated there were some 40 million firearms in the hands of African civilians (including militias and rebel groups), whereas governments held fewer than 11 million firearms. 

 

Weapons originating outside the continent can have diffuse origins. Europe and the Middle East have long been a source for Africa’s illegal small arms trade (especially in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. However, China is a growing source for much of the continent’s weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s conventional arms sales surged from US$645 million in 2008 to US$1.04 billion in 2018. Though only a small percentage of those weapons have ended up in Africa, the number is growing. 

A 2020 study released by Conflict Armament Research found that most of ammunition used to fuel conflict between herders and farmers in Nigeria originated in China.  

Checkpoints for weapons searches and quicker response times to reports of shots fired by local security forces are two measures that can lead to more arms seizures. Indeed a combination of tighter enforcement measures within countries and renewed searches at borders suggest probable.

oil in south sudan
Women receive sorghum, beans, salt, and oil for their families at the Bentiu camp for internally displaced people in South Sudan in February 2018. The camps—known as Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites—were set up by the United Nations in 2013, when civilians fled their villages to escape ethnic violence. Given the danger of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the crowded camps, calls have increased for residents to return home.

The spread of COVID-19 in South Sudan continues to have an unprecedented impact on the health, economy, and social lives of citizens. It has placed added pressure on already limited services and exacerbated issues that the young country, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, has been struggling to address.

This was voiced in community meetings in Melut County organized by the Upper Nile Youth Development Association (UNYDA)—an association of young men and women from Upper Nile State who strive to play a more active role in development—in collaboration with Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA).

Melut County, which is located on the eastern bank of the White Nile, incorporates six payams (administrative divisions), including Melut and Palouch, where community meetings were held to promote awareness of COVID-19 prevention and to discuss greater local participation in the management of the state’s natural resources.

 

“The gap between the community and oil companies seems to be widening”

 

“There is minimal contribution from oil companies regarding provision of services aimed at preventing COVID-19,” a local chief said in one of these meeting. “The gap between the community and oil companies seems to be widening.”

He also said there was a lack of cooperation between state authorities and members of parliament, and that this was hindering the implementation of the petroleum laws, which allow for oil revenue to be used for developmental activities. He urged oil companies to support efforts to prevent the spread of the disease and enhance community resilience.

The two main laws governing the oil industry in South Sudan are the Petroleum Act of 2012 and the Petroleum Revenue Management Act (PRMA) of 2013. A revenue-sharing arrangement enshrined in the PRMA states that 2 percent and 3 percent of net petroleum revenue should be allocated to oil-producing states and communities, respectively. It is unclear, however, how these allocations are implemented.

Representatives of women’s groups say that during several rounds of talks they had tried to engage state authorities on the implementation of these allocations, but to no effect. Some in the local communities are optimistic, however, that the national government will act differently. The Ministry of Petroleum and Mining is currently carrying out an environmental audit.

At the meeting in Palouch, a representative of local chiefs noted that some chiefs were not familiar with the petroleum laws, but relied on local members of parliament and the youth to use the right channels of reporting complaints up to the national level in Juba.

A youth representative in Palouch said, “As youth, we are working very hard to voice community demands and concerns to the relevant authorities. We are contemplating having a meeting with state authorities.”

Local leaders urged government to work closely with them to ensure effective implementation of the petroleum legislation, including the activation of a Community Development Committee Coordination Forum. A youth leader in Melut said young people needed to be able to play an active oversight role in monitoring of oil revenue allocated for local development projects, and added that governors, commissioners, and state ministers seemed reluctant to do so.

 

There is also widespread dissatisfaction over the negative impacts of the oil industry

 

South Sudan, which has significant reserves of crude oil, is recovering from a five-year civil war that cut its oil output by about half. In 2011, at the height of its oil production, the country pumped more than 350,000 barrels per day. Plans are under way to rehabilitate damaged oil infrastructure and explore new blocks to boost production.

There is also widespread dissatisfaction over the negative impacts of the oil industry on the environment, society and governance in the oil-producing states, which a member of UNYDA said could be traced back to the pre-independence Khartoum regime. Khartoum’s policies on the sector were opaque and disregarded local involvement in the management of oil revenue, which made it difficult for communities to demand transparency and accountability.

In the meetings, members of UNYDA emphasized they were working hard to increase awareness around COVID-19 preventive measures and to reduce social vulnerability in collaboration with the NPA under the Oil for Development project. They said they hoped to reach the ear of the relevant authorities through local organizations and community leaders. Because UNYDA has limited resources, they called on oil companies to increase their corporate social responsibility efforts and to support UNYDA in mitigating the effects of the pandemic in Upper Nile.

 

Patrick Godi is a writer and magazine editor based in Juba, South Sudan.

 

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir (L), South Sudan's opposition leader Riek Machar (R) and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo "Hemeti", Sudan's deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, speak to media after their peace talk at the State House in Juba, South Sudan, on December 17, 2019.
Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy leader of the Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, is flanked by President Salva Kiir (left) and First Vice President Riek Machar of South Sudan after peace talks in Juba.

Juba, South Sudan— Developments in both Sudans suggest that peace prospects are starting to bear fruit in a region that has known decades of war. In February 2020, signatories to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan formed a new government, called the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity, thus breathing life into the implementation of the ailing agreement, signed in 2018.

The agreement had faced a number of uncertainties and weathered two extensions, the first by six months and the second by one hundred days. The fact that the situation has remained stable has raised hopes among South Sudanese that the dividends of peace can now be enjoyed.

Yet competition for economic resources and control at both local and national levels persists, an obstacle on the road to sustainable peace.

David Shearer, special representative of the United Nations secretary-general in South Sudan, briefed the UN Security Council on this and other issues on June 23. His presentation is part of concerted efforts by the international community and the wider region to ensure that this time the peace will last. The various entities involved are the UN, the African Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway (which were all instrumental in facilitating the formation of the transitional government); countries bordering on South Sudan, notably the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia; and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc of eight countries from the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, and the Nile Valley.

The breakthrough political compromise that regional mediators put in motion has provided the opening for President Salva Kiir, former rebel leader turned First Vice President Riek Machar, and other key political leaders to join the three-year transitional government.

Although these positive developments were painstakingly slow, the chance that the peace agreement could hold only became firm when a parallel fast-paced process was taking shape: the Sudanese peace talks initiated by President Kiir.

 

Developments in the Sudan

Following the Sudanese Revolution of December 2018 that led to the ousting of long-serving president Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, there has been positive steps in Khartoum. It has provided a window of opportunity to address the root causes of the Sudanese crisis; to finally bring sustainable peace to the long-suffering people on the margins in Darfur, South Kordofan, Nuba Mountains, and Eastern Sudan; and to build a state based on freedom, justice, and shared prosperity.

The success of the popular uprising against the regime created a leadership vacuum and power wrangling between protest groups and the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which immediately took over from Bashir, albeit leading to a transitional power-sharing deal between civilians and the military brokered by the AU and Ethiopia. However, this agreement left out other key players, such as the armed rebel movements in Darfur and the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile).

South Sudanese president Salva Kiir exploited this opening during the swearing in of the transitional government in Khartoum to declare his willingness—with the support of Sudan’s neighbors and Gulf states—to mediate between the new rulers and the rebel groups, capitalizing on his in-depth knowledge of the Sudanese crisis and its actors. It should be recalled both governments in the past have often accused each other of hosting and supporting hostile forces that seek to overthrow their respective governments. At the closing session of the general conference of the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum in 2017, Bashir openly called for the two states to be reunited.

For his part, President Kiir had long repeated that the armed conflict in the Sudan was directly affecting stability in his country, as the clashes were mainly located in the border region. Also, he said, the continuation of fighting in the Sudan provoked Khartoum to back South Sudanese armed groups after accusing Juba of supporting the Sudanese rebels.

With the rapprochement started by Khartoum leading to the signing of South Sudan’s own peace agreement in September 2018, the time was ripe for Juba to play a leading role. In the past, Bashir had always resisted Kiir’s advances to facilitate peace talks with the Sudanese armed groups. After Kiir’s involvement in the IGAD-mediated peace talks to end the three-year armed conflict in the South, however, Bashir accepted his involvement.

 

Sudanese Peace Talks

In early September 2019, Kiir hosted talks in Juba between rebel movements, military members of the Sovereign Council, and Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok. Rebel movements involved in the Juba meetings included four Darfuri armed groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army led by Minni Minawi (SLM-MM), the Sudan Liberation Movement–Transitional Council, and the Alliance of Sudan Liberation Forces; the Blue Nile/South Kordofan rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu (SPLM-N al-Hilu); and the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), an alliance of Sudanese rebel groups created in 2011 in opposition to Bashir’s government.

The negotiations were divided along five tracks, in which each track addresses the grievances of a region, namely, Central Sudan, Eastern Sudan, the Two Areas, the North, and Darfur.

A first round of negotiations took place in Juba in mid-September. In the second round in October 2019, agreements were signed on the Two Areas track between the government and the SPLM-N al-Hilu, and on the Darfur track between the government and the SRF. The third round started in mid-December on the Eastern Sudan track, the Two Areas track with the SPLM-N Agar (the faction led by Malik Agar), and the Darfur track.

“The president of South Sudan has an experience similar to the Sudanese situation, and he is one of the first fighters who resisted injustice,” a leader of the SRF said in an interview with this analyst. He declined to be named, as he was not the spokesperson for the delegation in Juba.

The delegate also stressed that Kiir is well placed to mediate the Sudanese process. The authorities in Khartoum are also keen to reach a peaceful settlement of conflicts as per their country’s constitutional declaration, which sought to achieve peace in all of the Sudan within six months of its signing.

The vice president of the Sovereign Council of the Sudan, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), has helped to facilitate the formation of the new government of South Sudan, accompanying South Sudanese opposition leader Machar and guaranteeing his security on multiple visits to Juba in preparation for the government formation.

In parallel, Hemedti has continued Juba-based peace talks with Sudanese armed groups, including the Sudanese Revolutionary Front and SPLM-N al-Hilu, as cited in a UN panel of experts report on South Sudan released on April 28, 2020.

According to multiple sources involved in both mediations, the connection between the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement in South Sudan and peace talks in relation to the Sudan has become inextricable. For instance, Hemedti has tried to capitalize on his patronage relationship with Machar to ask for Juba’s support in softening the position of Abdelaziz al-Hilu, leader of the armed group SPLM-N al-Hilu, who is hosted in South Sudan. Machar’s party told the panel that Machar’s last-minute entry into the government had been “forced upon him” by the Sudan, Uganda, and the international community, and that Machar was “now a prisoner in Juba.” This intertwined relationship has carried the risk that the implementation of the agreement hinges on the Sudan making progress in its peace talks.

Progress has been made, including the signing of the declaration of principles (a political agreement that includes a renewed ceasefire) and the delivery of humanitarian assistance by government agencies to areas under conflict. A framework agreement has also been drawn up for the smoldering Darfur conflict, covering issues such as power sharing, wealth sharing, transitional justice, and a commitment to continue the negotiations.

The SRF and Sovereign Council representatives agreed on the creation of a special court for Darfur to conduct investigations and trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out during the war by the Bashir presidency and by rebel warlords. They did not discuss the issue of whether or not to transfer Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court.

Furthermore, Hemedti signed political and security agreements, constituting a framework agreement, on behalf of the Sovereign Council and Ahmed El Omda Badi on behalf of SPLM-N Agar. The agreements give legislative autonomy to South Kordofan and Blue Nile, propose solutions for the sharing of land and other resources, and aim to unify all militias and government soldiers into a single unified Sudanese military.

A “final” peace agreement for the North track—including issues of studies for new dams, compensation for people displaced by existing dams, road construction, and burial of electronic and nuclear waste—was signed by Shamseldin Kabashi of the Sovereign Council and Dahab Ibrahim of the Kush Movement.

Also, on March 25, the death of Sudanese defense minister Gamal al-Din Omar of a heart attack in Juba further delayed the process to allow for mourning. In a press statement, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the Sovereign Council, said he mourned the death of Omar, “who died while struggling for the stability of the Sudan,” a reference to peace talks with rebels.

 

Delays, But Also Progress

Following this development, Tut Gatluak, chair of the mediation, stated that the Sudan, South Sudan, and other African countries are committed “to end all forms of war” in Africa by the end of 2020, referencing the African Union’s theme of Silencing the Guns.

Notwithstanding, delays have also plunged the ten-month process into uncertainty, with extension of negotiations month after month with no time limit. Some observers say the process has lost momentum.

The spread of COVID-19 to the two countries has also slowed the peace process, as social distancing measures have meant that delegates could not easily meet. Thanks to the European Union missions in both Juba and Khartoum, talks resumed via video teleconferencing.

The Sudan Liberation Movement of Minni Minnawi, however, has refused to take part in video conference meetings, saying the security arrangements require the involvement of military experts and physical negotiations.

Talks between the government and SPLM-N al-Hilu were suspended for several months, as the armed group wanted to put the right to self-determination and the relationship between state and religion on the agenda, a request the government wouldn’t consider. Sudanese government spokesman Mohamed Hassan Eltaishi announced an invitation by the mediators to resume dialogue via video conferencing with the SPLM-N delegation on June 22.

For now, negotiations to achieve a comprehensive peace continues in Juba with a pattern of extensions of deadlines for the signing of a final agreement. It is undeniable, however, that the fate of the two countries is intertwined.

Lasting peace in South Sudan is most likely to reflect positively in the Sudan, especially in the Two Areas, traditional strongholds of the SPLM-N, a movement with very close connections to SPLM, the ruling party in South Sudan. Once comrades in the armed struggle against the oppressive Islamist government in Khartoum, they were separated on July 9, 2011, when the south seceded to become an independent state.

Failure to achieve peace in the Sudan, on the other hand, is likely to be detrimental to South Sudan’s long-term stability, as the Sudan is a known haven for South Sudanese dissidents. But the Sudan has also been pushing for compromises thus far made by South Sudanese parties, which has spurred progress in the peace process. Any disinterest by Khartoum could lead to loss of momentum in Juba’s own implementation of agreements, possibly sparking a new wave of violence.

 

Patrick Anyama Godi is the editor of True African Magazine, a South Sudanese lifestyle, fashion, and business magazine

 

MINUSCA

 

Troops, police, and civilians deployed under the auspices of United Nations peace operations routinely work under difficult circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional level of challenges for the 95,000 peacekeepers deployed across the world as part of thirteen UN operations, many of them in Africa. They have to continue their vital work to protect civilians, support peace and political processes, and promote human rights, all while applying critical prevention and mitigation measures to contain and otherwise help countries respond to the disease.

Within this context, UN peacekeeping missions quickly moved to adapt their community outreach efforts—a critical tool to inform, foster dialogue, and seek support for its mandates—to continue connecting with and supporting communities and local organizations while limiting the risks associated with social contact. Missions have boosted their use of broadcast and online tools to continue communicating, including through radio, WhatsApp groups, social media, and other messaging platforms to reach audiences.

 

The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers

 

Broadcast is a staple in most of the environments where UN peacekeepers operate, and it has proven to be a crucial tool to support host governments and humanitarian partners to raise awareness on COVID-19 preparedness, prevention, and response, while also addressing issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.

Whether peace operations manage their own radio stations (in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and South Sudan), or produce multilingual content for partner networks, up to 80 percent of production has been shifted toward COVID-19 awareness. This is particularly critical in environments with low literacy rates, limited Internet reach, and multiple languages.

The spread of misinformation is presenting an additional security challenge for peacekeepers and communities alike, creating what the UN secretary-general has called a global infodemic. Which is why public communication is central to helping dispel rumors, counter misinformation, and provide people with timely and accurate information.

Mikado FM, a radio station operated by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), broadcasts a myth-busting program where listeners can ask questions and receive accurate information about the virus. The station reaches a wider audience by providing sixty-three community radio stations with prerecorded prevention messages in five local languages, and special radio shows in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Malian health authorities.

Some missions are also now providing education over the airwaves while schools are closed. Radio Okapi, the flagship station with the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), produces fourteen weekly hours of homeschooling in partnership with the DRC Ministry of Education and UNICEF. Peacekeeping missions’ radio stations in the Central African Republic and South Sudan are also similarly employing their resources to educate children.

 

Radio Okapi
Radio Okapi, a radio network established by MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has become a trusted source of information and news for the urban population. It provides programming in French, Lingala, Kituba, Swahili, and Tshiluba. (AFP)

The Right Tools for the Right Audiences

Ensuring information reaches at-risk groups, including women, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and rural communities is critical as their already limited access to news and communication tools may further expose them to the virus.

Now, even more than ever, inclusive communications plans must consider varying digital literacy levels of women and men and within different social groups.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) distributes thousands of educational flashcards explaining the symptoms of COVID-19 and prevention measures. In Darfur (Sudan), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, missions use moto-taxis and promo-trucks to disseminate information through speakers in IDP camps, protection sites, and remote villages.

As the UN embraced virtual meetings and remote-access technology following stay-at-home orders, colleagues in the field found creative solutions to grant Wi-Fi and online platforms access to local counterparts, including women’s groups, or expand the use of WhatsApp for interaction.

The mission in Mali, for instance, recently launched MINUSMA Kounafoni Blon (MINUSMA Info Hut) whereby communities from different regions take turns each month to interact on specific themes through a dedicated WhatsApp group hosted in the region’s language. Similarly, in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA is distributing 50,000 rechargeable radio sets to facilitate women’s access to information.

Where technically viable, virtual platforms can keep community dialogue alive. In Kosovo, UNMIK hosts weekly virtual townhall debates on community and national issues; the debates are broadcast on national television. The mission also launched a digital trust-building platform focusing on multi-ethnic cooperation stories and champions, with multilingual messaging on COVID-19. In several countries, women have told us they felt more confident exchanging views and ideas on these more targeted online platforms as opposed to larger groups meeting in person.

Missions are aware of how COVID-19 impacts women and men differently, and how best to direct interventions. Many women continue to work out of necessity to support their families, and therefore face increased contamination risks. MINUSCA, for example, is targeting markets to reach women as a “captive audience” while setting-up handwashing spots and conducting disinfection runs in these locations. MONUSCO also sensitizes women vendors on COVID-19 at markets together with the Congolese Ministry of Gender and the National Police.

 

Empowering Through Partnerships

Strengthening partnerships with humanitarian actors and local organizations is another way to maintain community outreach and work together to respond to COVID-19.

Religious, traditional and local structures are trusted messengers to convey accurate information and dispel rumors. Arts, sports, socio-economic, and trade groups wield influence and operate within communities. Mikado FM in Mali has partnered with the musical duo Amadou and Mariam to disseminate COVID-19 awareness messages in local languages. In Cyprus, the UN Peacekeeping Force UNFICYP has partnered with Cypriot women’s organizations to boost information for women experiencing domestic violence during quarantine. And MINUSCA trains members of the National Youth Council with speaking and hearing impediments to conduct door-to-door awareness on the virus.

Engaging with the media is yet another way missions are mobilizing partnerships to fight the pandemic. UNMISS works with humanitarian agencies, local authorities, and Facebook to provide validated and timely information, counter hate speech, and remove incendiary posts as appropriate. Similarly, MINUSMA partners with the Union of Free Radios and Televisions of Mali and religious leaders to provide information on COVID-19. MINUSCA held media awareness-raising sessions to promote objective and professional reporting on the pandemic while helping journalists protect themselves against the virus in their daily tasks. As a result of these workshops—held in line with WHO and host governments’ protection and prevention guidelines—more than fifty journalists signed up to a Charter of Good Conduct on reporting on COVID-19 in the country.

 

Patrolling and Informing

Strategic communications are part of UN peacekeepers’ daily work on the ground, and everybody has a role to play. As most civilian personnel are working from home, military and community policing patrols by the mission become opportunities to relay life-saving information. A community violence-reduction program such as the one in the Central African Republic also involves at-risk populations in income-generating activities such as mask-sewing and soap-making to help combat COVID-19 while expanding their economic options.

It is in this challenging context, and through the examples of peacekeepers continuing their work outlined above, that the United Nations can leverage the power of information and its ability to build strong partnerships with local communities while saving lives. The crucial work of those continuing to undertake core activities, despite the current challenges, is a credit to the resilience of both peacekeepers and the communities they serve.

 

Charlotte Morgan is an intern at the Strategic Communications Section of the United Nations’ Department of Peace Operations

Sophie Boudre is a public information officer at the United Nations

 

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir arrives for talks at the African Union aimed at forming a power-sharing government ahead of a February 22 deadline, in Addis Ababa on February 08, 2020, Michael Toweled/AFP
South Sudanese president Salva Kiir arrives for talks at the African Union aimed at forming a power-sharing government ahead of a February 22 deadline in Addis Ababa on February 08, 2020. (Michael Tewelde/AFP)

The African Union (AU) has suspended South Sudan’s participation in meetings over its inability to pay financial contributions of about US$9 million for the past three years. Hakim Edward, deputy spokesperson for South Sudan’s ministry of foreign affairs, explained that the country had not been deprived of its membership, but South Sudanese diplomats may not take part in or contribute to African Union meetings. He said efforts were under way to resolve the matter.

The failure to pay its dues points to South Sudan’s economic woes as it tries to formalize a unity government, a critical component of the 2019 peace agreement that put an end to a bloody seven-year civil war. The deal was struck around the same time that the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report detailing how several South Sudanese officials had embezzled state funds, and how lucrative oil contracts had been used to fund armed militias engaged in the civil war.

 

The suspension risks hampering critical discussions

 

Suspending South Sudan’s participation in meetings is the result of new measures the AU implemented in 2018 to ensure member states fulfill their financial obligations. But it risks alienating South Sudanese and hampering critical discussions, especially as the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) struggles to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. South Sudan’s healthcare infrastructure is among the poorest on the continent, and millions of internally displaced people living in UN-protected camps are at high risk of contracting the virus.

 

Lab technician tests samples for COVID-19 in a laboratory in Juba, South Sudan on April 6, 2020. South Sudan reported its first coronavirus case on Sunday, one of the last African nations to confirm the presence of COVID-19 within its borders.
A lab technician tests samples for COVID-19 in a laboratory in Juba, South Sudan, on April 6, 2020. (AFP)

(Juba, SOUTH SUDAN) As COVID-19 spread across Africa, South Sudan, the youngest nation in the world, was one of the last African countries to report its first case. Despite having more time to prepare for the eventual arrival of the disease, the country has struggled in its response to the pandemic. Online and in hushed conversations behind closed doors, intellectuals and ordinary citizens are saying the country is on autopilot in its fight against the disease. To date, South Sudan has reported 1,776 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 30 deaths.

A United Nations staffer who had flown into Juba days earlier tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on April 5, 2020. The case sparked outrage on social media against the UN for importing the disease. The incident exposed the sometimes-tense relationship South Sudan has had with the UN mission in the country since the South Sudanese Civil War began in December 2013. In just more than six years, until a peace deal was struck in February 2020, an estimated 400,000 people died in the war.

President Salva Kiir Mayardit and First Vice President Riek Machar Teny jointly launched the High-Level Task Force on COVID-19 to deal with the virus. This task force has so far coordinated and communicated to citizens the measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, informed by guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The measures included a curfew; a ban on social gatherings, and the closure of all points of entry into the country, schools, and non-essential businesses, among others.

The sweeping plan has lacked coherence and the necessary risk analysis to develop an all-round plan that fits the South Sudanese context. Given the country’s history of violent conflict, many underlying social and political challenges complicate the response to the pandemic. This includes the neglected healthcare infrastructure, economic crisis, and food insecurity. Roughly half of the 11 million population are dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Weeks went by without a clear roadmap or decisions made by the High-Level Task Force (HLTF), which led to the suspicion that the entity had been reduced to merely announcing the number of infections instead of formulating strategic policies and measurements. Decision-making was flawed, and there was no clarity on whether it was the presidency driving the response or the HLTF.

It should be noted that South Sudan has a collegial presidency—established under the peace agreement—comprising the president, the first vice president, and four other vice presidents.

 

COVID-19 Outbreak among Cabinet Ministers

First Vice President Riek Machar shocked the nation when he announced on May 19 that both he and his wife Angelina had tested positive for COVID-19.

Several other cabinet ministers, including the defense minister, also tested positive for the virus. Thus far, more than ten other senior members of the cabinet have tested positive, although their identities have not been revealed.

This paralyzed the work of the existing COVID-19 task force. In response, a new body called the National Task Force Committee was formed to adopt the task of the defunct HLTF. Vice President Hussein Abdelbagi Akol was put in charge, but he tested positive barely two weeks after taking the leadership position, further plunging the country’s fight against the pandemic into uncertainty.

Since then, other leaders in government and civilian life have tested positive for COVID-19, including Vice President James Wani Igga, who is in charge of the economic cluster; several members of cabinet; as well as military and civilian leaders, of whom some have died.

 

painful
A woman submits to a COVID-19 nasal swab in Juba, South Sudan, in April. (AFP)

 

Long-Term Consequences

The government’s mishandling of the pandemic will have dire consequences in the long term and exacerbate existing socio-political problems.

In the meantime, fighting between the army and armed opposition groups in Central Equatoria, and intercommunal violence in Jonglei and Bahr El Ghazal have created another layer of associated problems. There were reports of massive displacement of civilians, killings, kidnappings, and theft of cattle.

The pandemic’s effect on the economy is going to be much more devastating than the virus itself, mainly because it will have a serious direct impact on many more people. The government has worsened the impact by its approach to the pandemic, which has been described as a scorched-earth policy, rendering useless the indispensable sources of livelihood for many people.

It should be recalled that four out of five South Sudanese live below the poverty line, and these four work in the informal sector, which has been hardest hit by the government’s containment measures. A local said, “We made sacrifices for as long as those very orders were in place, yet reaped an exponential surge in cases of corona.”

The window of opportunity to contain the outbreak was misused. Now, most South Sudanese do not have a social safety net to endure directives that have rendered their sources of livelihood obsolete. Job losses have been reported as businesses cut down on employee numbers, and prospects for employment have dwindled under the cloud of COVID-19.

In recent months, the price of oil—which accounts for more than 90 percent of government revenue—has plummeted, further undermining the government’s capability to do anything meaningful in regard to socio-economic planning and wellbeing of citizens. As the containment measures have negatively impacted the economy, non-oil revenue has also diminished, eroding government’s ability to provide basic services.

 

Back to “Normal”

Some of the containment measures have since been relaxed. All points of entry have been opened for domestic and international traffic, and businesses are permitted to reopen providing they implement physical distancing and wearing of masks.

For now, ordinary citizens in the streets of the capital Juba console themselves with the knowledge that COVID-19 is less lethal than Ebola (which has fortunately not crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Uganda to the south), and that it is mainly the elderly and people with underlying health conditions who are at risk of developing severe complications. Most people have resumed their normal activities, disregarding COVID-19 guidelines.

 

Patrick Anyama is a freelance writer in Juba, South Sudan.

 

A powerful figure in South Sudan, the country's defense minister and the wife of Vice President Riek Machar
Angelina Teny, a powerful figure in South Sudan as the country’s defense minister, and the wife of Vice President Riek Machar.

 

The office of South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar revealed on Monday, May 18 that he and his wife, Angelina Teny, who is the defense minister, had tested positive for COVID-19. A number of his staff members had also contracted the virus. During a televised address, Machar announced he and his wife would be self-isolating in their home in the capital Juba for the next two weeks, while reassuring the public they were “feeling well and healthy”.

Machar is the leader of the SPLM-IO, a former rebel group turned political party whose decision to form a unity government with President Salva Kiir’s SPLM in late February formally brought to an end a seven-year-long civil war that had led to the displacement of more than 4 million people out of a population of about 11 million.

 

The country's healthcare system is one of the weakest on the continent.

 

South Sudan is one of the last countries in sub-Saharan Africa to officially confirm its first case of COVID-19; the tally has now risen to 290 known cases and four deaths.

After years of conflict, the country’s healthcare system is one of the weakest on the continent, raising fears that the virus might spread in camps for internally displaced people and beyond the country’s borders. Food insecurity exacerbates this risk, as many South Sudanese have been forced to violate quarantine measures to ensure they and their families can feed themselves.

 

Prime Minister Abe at a TICAD IV Event in Tokyo last year with African leaders
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe addresses attendees, including top African leaders, of the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development, held in August 2019.

 

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has taken a much more significant interest in African affairs. This has primarily focused on economic development, but also geopolitics, at times with a commitment to work with India to counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

The seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), held in August 2019, provided a window into Japan’s policies in Africa. The event was designed in part to help Japanese companies (and their government) to position themselves in Africa, where rival China’s influence is well established. The Japanese welcomed some of Africa’s most prominent leaders, including South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

Japan pledged to some US$30 billion in public and private investment over three years at the 2016 edition of TICAD. Yet, this has often been spent prudently—such as a US$94 million doled out to renovate a Kenyan geothermal plant.

The 2019 event ended with Japan promising some US$20 billion in private sector investment over three years.

“If partner countries are deeply in debt, it interferes with everyone’s effort to enter the market,” said Abe at the event. Elsewhere, his comments on sustainability of engagement in Africa offered veiled swipes at China’s role in Africa.

Despite being the fourth-largest spender on development aid in Africa, Japanese trade with the African Union has been much slower to develop. Indeed, Japan’s trade with Africa in 2017 was worth US$17 billion, less than half of what it was in 2008. Meanwhile, China conducted some US$204 billion in trade with Africa in 2018 alone. However, other metrics tell a different tale there were some 800 Japanese competes in Africa in 2018 as compared to just 250 in 2010.

One possible reason Japan is treading cautiously in Africa is that it likes to avoid moving unilaterally and may be seeking to work more closely with partners in Africa.

Of potential partners for engagement with Africa for Japan, the most important may be that other large Asian democracy which is concerned about the rise of China – India.

Japan and India were the two main drivers behind the launch in 2017 of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), which is often touted as an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Bangladesh, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, the Maldives, Mauritius, Mongolia, Myanmar, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all became members of the project.

Yet, three years later, little has come of the effort, and a frustrated Japan may refocus on its vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, a vision announced in Kenya by Prime Minister Abe in 2016 at the TICAD VI summit.  

 

Madagascar's President Hery Rajaonarimampianina (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of talks at the latter's official residence in Tokyo on December 5, 2017
Hery Rajaonarimampianina, former president of Madagascar, and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe shake hands at the start of talks at the latter’s official residence in Tokyo on December 5, 2017.

 

Japan’s plan to help Madagascar build a port at the outer edge of the Indo-Pacific region suggests how seriously Japan is committed to the plan. 

Japan envisions several economic corridors: a West African Growth ring to connect the Ivory Coast, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Ghana; an East African route to connect Kenya’s Mombasa with Uganda (which is likely in keeping with IGAD’s infrastructure corridor plans); and the Nacala Corridor which will run through the Southern African countries of Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique (in order to export coal to Japan).   

On the security front, Japan is well ahead of potential partner India in developing ties with the continent. India held its first defense exercise with seventeen African nations last year. Japan, conversely, has built its first overseas military base since World War II in Djibouti, and spent funds to help stabilize northern Nigeria.

These commitments have not come without risks. In 2017, Japan was forced to withdraw its 350-man peacekeeping contingent based in Juba, South Sudan, after its deployment caused controversy in Japan due to the ongoing South Sudanese Civil War. That same year, a Chinese official newspaper reported that a Japanese naval ship had sent scuba divers to approach a Chinese warship while both ships were docked in a Djibouti harbor.

“Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous,” said Prime Minister Abe at the opening session of TICAD VI.

 

 

General Johnson Juma Okot
General Johnson Juma Okot (via Facebook)

 

President Salva Kiir of South Sudan has appointed a new army chief of staff, having fired the previous occupant, General Gabriel Jok Riak, only days before. No official reason was provided for the general’s termination, but in a Facebook post he suggested there was no ill will, saying he was “now the most relieved, happiest; and a normal citizen of this beloved country”.

The deputy chief of Defense Forces, General Johnson Juma Okot, has been designated as General Jok Riak’s replacement. This decision by the president is a risky one, as a former army chief of staff, Paul Malong Awang, formed a rebel group that participated in South Sudan’s bloody six-year civil war following his dismissal, and his deputy, Thomas Cirillo Swaka, formed another rebel group. Both outfits have refused to sign the 2018 Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan peace agreement.

 

He is the first military officer from the Equatoria region to hold such a position since independence in 2011.

 

General Juma Okot’s appointment is a positive development in the beleaguered nation’s attempts to form a unity government, as the general is the first military officer from the Equatoria region to hold such a position since South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Assuring the South Sudanese army is in accord with the unity government has become even more critical since South Sudan recorded its first death linked to COVID-19, forcing President Kiir to consider issuing a total lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.

 

A photo essay in Deutsche Welle puts the spotlight on the Mundari people of South Sudan, a semi-nomadic cattle herders living along the White Nile River, north of the capital Juba.

 

South Sudanese members of the Mundari ethnic group wrestle in a dusty patch where the tribe brought cattle and sheep for sale in Juba on July 7, 2011 two days before South Sudan secedes from the north and becomes the world's newest nation. The Mundari are majorly cattle keepers who live in the south and pride themselves in being good wrestlers. AFP PHOTO/ROBERTO SCHMIDT ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP
Two members of the Mundari ethnic group wrestle in a dusty patch in Juba, where the tribe brought cattle and sheep for sale. The Mundari pride themselves in being good wrestlers. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP)

 

The Mundaris’ pastoral lifestyle seems like an oasis of calm in a country that has just recently emerged from a civil war, but they, like so many other communities in South Sudan, have also been affected by the instability and chaos. Armed men raid Mundari communities for their prized cattle, taking the animals to the capital Juba to sell them.

 

a Chinese-funded highway project initiated last year seeks to connect Juba to Terekeka

 

As refugees begin to trickle back and a semblance of normalcy returns, the influx of middle-aged men has doubled the cost of a dowry for a bride from twenty to forty cows.

Even their relative isolation is likely to change: a Chinese-funded highway project initiated last year seeks to connect Juba to Terekeka, a winter retreat for the Mundari, shortening travel time from four hours to one. 

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Sep 22, 2020