When war is your comfort zone

Violence broke out in South Sudan in December 2013. It started as a political power struggle but soon evolved to also follow ethnic cleavages. To avoid what may become one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in Africa’s history, it is crucial that the political leaders of South Sudan give peace a real chance. Former leader of UN operations in South Sudan, Hilde Frafjord Johnson, addressed some of the key challenges to peace in South Sudan when speaking at the Oslo Center last Friday.

Nobody home

South Sudan became an independent nation-state in July 2011. However, inter-communal violence, financial mismanagement and the lack of collective management prevented successful state building. The first years of independence were dominated by negotiations with Sudan, especially regarding management of the oil resources. With the government entangled in negotiations in Khartoum there was nobody home to manage the new country.
– The divorce came before the papers were ready and without really solving the issues. South Sudan jumped from being a backwater of a country to a state without institutions, says Frafjord Johnson.

In-party fighting

At the same time there were tension within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). When the political leadership should have focused on the critical issues affecting the development of the country, they were instead entangled in internal fighting.
– The internal conflict of the SPLM-leadership has a long history. There were personalities in the government that could not work together. It is not politically based. It is all about power, ethnicity and identity and that is what makes it very difficult, says Frafjord Johnson.

The way forward

There were a lot of factors that made the conflict blow up, and although international actors in the country warned against it, no one had estimated the dimensions of what were to come. South Sudan is now at the brink of state failure. It is a man-made disaster, but it is the people who are paying the price.

It is the political leadership of South Sudan who will determine the outcome of this conflict, but it is not a straightforward process. Democracy and peaceful conflict resolution are unfamiliar concepts for a people who have grown up in a context of violence and guerrilla warfare.
– When the comfort zone is fighting you need a strong leader to say; now is the time when we save our country and take another risk for peace, says Frafjord Johnson.

Hilde Frafjord Johnson is optimistic and believes there is a chance for political agreement. What is needed now is political will to establish a government that can actually work. That is the challenge for President Salva Kiir to overcome.
– As the president he is responsible. It is in his hands. He will ultimately go down in history as the one who saved the country, or the one who allowed it to implode.

← Somalia: A long journey to democracy   |   Hope amid challenges in Somalia →