As South Sudan Nears a Peace Pact, Communal Violence Spreads

Okech Francis

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South Sudan’s foes moved closer to implementing a peace deal this week, yet the long-elusive pact may do little to halt rural clashes over grazing land and water that have killed more than 100 people in the past month.

Conflict is escalating in the central and northwestern parts of the country. The United Nations mission in the country was forced to send troops to quell violence in the Bahr el Ghazal region after fighting left 79 people dead. Groups have threatened revenge.

The national agreement is seen as key to rebuilding the East African nation’s oil industry and shattered economy after a five-year civil war. President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar agreed on Tuesday to meet a mid-February deadline to form a unity government after two previous attempts failed.

But the communal clashes are a stark reminder of the tensions across the country.

“The intensity of the violence shows just how great South Sudan’s challenges remain even in a best-case scenario of the national peace process solidifying,” said Alan Boswell, a researcher on South Sudan with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “In some areas, the state has effectively lost control as community militias battle it out over grazing land, cattle, or tit-for-tats.”

The world’s newest country has been mired since late 2013 in a conflict that’s claimed almost 400,000 lives, forced 4 million others from their homes and caused an economic crisis. While political violence has largely subsided, inter-communal clashes continue to result in the killing and injuring of civilians, cattle raiding and the looting of property, according to the UN mission.

Heavily Armed

Plans to intervene to root out the violence have been hampered by a lack of personnel, resources and the proliferation of weapons in civilian hands, police spokesman Daniel Justin Buolo said by phone.

“There is always a plan to ensure that these communal conflicts are resolved but as you know, the conflict has left us without the resources for huge operations,” Buolo said. “We don’t have forces in all those areas where the cattle keepers are always heavily armed.”

Still, creating a unity government should allay fears of a return to full-scale conflict. It may help the nation rebuild its economy and boost production from fields estimated to hold the third-biggest reserves of oil on the continent. Crude production has almost doubled to 200,000 barrels a day since hostilities eased 14 months ago -- still down from 350,000 barrels before the conflict.

Kiir and Machar have committed to resolve difference around the number of states in the country and their boundaries, as well as security arrangements during a 36-month transitional period. The announcement came a day after the U.S. imposed sanctions on two cabinet ministers for “obstructing the reconciliation process.”

Revenge attacks are likely to keep communal violence alive for some time to come, according to 28-year-old Matur Akol, a cattle herder recovering in a military hospital in Juba after being shot in the leg during the raid in Wau in the Bahr el Ghazal region.

“If you find your brother or any person from your side killed in fighting, you have a good reason to go and take revenge,” he said.

(Adds U.S. sanctions of cabinet ministers in third-last paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Okech Francis in Juba at fokech@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gordon Bell at gbell16@bloomberg.net, Paul Richardson

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