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Five Issues to Watch in South Sudan

By Caelin Briggs

As we start the month of October, we thought it would be good to take stock of the recent developments in South Sudan, and to highlight some of the issues RI will be watching over the coming months.

Since June, we have seen major changes unfold in South Sudan, including the complete dissolution of President Salva Kiir’s cabinet, the firing of the head of the ruling political party, and the arrest of the South Sudanese army (SPLA) commander in Pibor. In addition, humanitarian access has been restored to much of Jonglei State and there has been a relative lull in fighting since July.

But now, with the dry season about to begin and new cabinet members in place, a number of things need to be closely monitored. Here are RI’s top five issues to watch in South Sudan during October and November:

1.    Resumption of hostilities in Jonglei

Each year, 90 percent of Jonglei is flooded during the rainy season. Stretching from May to October, the rains paralyze much of the state for five months of the year and prevent all travel by road outside of Jonglei’s few larger towns. The most positive byproduct of this seasonal pattern is that violence tends to slow during the rainy months because fighting becomes too logistically challenging. But now, as the roads begin to dry, the risk of renewed violence is growing daily.

The SPLA, whose abuses forced more than 100,000 people from their homes in the spring and summer, has maintained its presence in towns across the state and continues to pose a threat to civilians. Inter-ethnic tensions between the Murle and Lou Nuer communities are also running high after a major Lou Nuer attack in July. If and when fighting resumes, humanitarians and UN peacekeepers must be prepared to deal with the fallout. In particular, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) must take a firm and clear stance regarding its response to future SPLA attacks on civilians.

2.    Humanitarian access in Jonglei

After many months of pleading from the NGO and UN community, humanitarian access was restored to most of Jonglei in July by the South Sudanese government. The Red Cross and Médecines Sans Frontières have been able to evaluate the conditions of displaced persons who were forced into the bush by SPLA attacks, and regular food distributions have started in the towns of Labrab and Dorein. But if hostilities resume with the start of the dry season, humanitarians fear the government may once again clamp down on access to conflict-affected populations. Going forward, it is critical that the government not backtrack on the positive steps it has taken to uphold its Geneva Convention responsibility to provide humanitarian access.

3.    The government and humanitarian affairs

When he dissolved his cabinet on July 24th, President Salva Kiir also eliminated the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. For NGOs operating in the country, the move to abolish the ministry raised serious concerns about the government’s commitment to tackling humanitarian issues and its willingness to cooperate with the humanitarian community. The humanitarian affairs portfolio has now been given to the Ministry of Gender, but it remains to be seen how that ministry will handle this new role. As the new cabinet members settle into their positions, we will be watching the developments in this area closely to ensure humanitarian affairs remain a priority.

4.    The new minister of defense and the Jonglei investigations

One of the most controversial parts of Kiir’s cabinet shakeup was the appointment of Jonglei State Governor Kuol Manyang Juuk as the new minister of defense. Juuk’s selection raised eyebrows not only because of the atrocities that happened on his watch, but also because of Kiir’s stated commitment to investigating the Jonglei abuses by SPLA soldiers. It is unclear what role the governor-turned-minister will have in the investigation or the ongoing situation in Jonglei, but the government and observers must ensure that the investigation continues in a serious and meaningful way, and that there is proper oversight of any future Ministry of Defense activities in Jonglei.

5.    Abyei

On September 21, 2012, the African Union High Level Implementation Panel put forward a proposal on resolving the dispute over Abyei, a territory claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. The proposal included provisions for a referendum to be held in October of this year, which would determine the final status of the contested state. But so far the proposal has not gained traction, and the two countries are no closer to a referendum than they were a year ago. The terms of who will be eligible to vote have still not been agreed upon, and the Ngok Dinka – the largest ethnic group in the state – have become impatient with life in limbo and are threatening to hold the referendum on their own.

Sudan and South Sudan are both eager to avoid escalating tensions over Abyei, but it is still not clear what (if any) action will be taken to diffuse the situation. The upcoming annual migration of the Misseriya ethnic group into Abyei, which has led to clashes in the past, also has the potential to enflame tensions. Clearly, progress toward a political solution is urgently needed.

This is far from an exhaustive list of the issues to watch in South Sudan. But as the dry season begins, tracking these five combustible problems will be critical for the government, humanitarians, and the international community. We’ll bring you updates as the situation develops.

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