Sunday, 17 November 2019

A lesson from crisis management in South Sudan

Africa Trends, IDSA, Jan-June 2019

South Sudan appears to be on finally be on the mend, following the revitalisation of the peace agreement that addressed its first bout of civil war that began in December 2013. This positive development is an appropriate juncture to revisit the crises in the country from a lessons-learnt point of view. Robust mandates by the Security Council authorise missions to “use all necessary means” to deter forceful attempts to disrupt the political process, protect civilians under imminent threat of physical attack, and/or assist the national authorities in maintaining law and order.”1 This use of force would willy-nilly be the order of the day in case the political capacities of the mission are not up to the mark in terms of prevention and tackling of political impetus to instability. This lack would leave the mission with little else to cope with than robust response by its military component. This implies that robust mandates need to be implemented by providing strong political divisions in the substantive side of the missions at headquarters level. The article below relies on personal experience of the author to make the case that the lack of political capacities in the UNMISS led in some measure to its inability to cope with the succession of crises that beset South Sudan, with an eminently avoidable premium then being placed on robust peacekeeping by its force component.
Three crises are covered here to argue that the drift in UN peacekeeping towards ‘robust’ peacekeeping2 can be contained and reversed by upgrading the political capacities of UN missions and mandating peacemaking assistance for parties to conflicts impacting the mandate in the host nation. The first was the localised crisis of rebellion by the David Yau Yau led Murle in Jonglei province in 2012-13.3 The second was the national crisis of mid-December 2013 which eventuated in a recently stabilised civil war between the majority Dinka and the largest minority the Nuer.4 The third was a spike in the civil war that occurred in July 2016 triggered by the return of the former vice president Riek Machar to Juba leading up to a renewed outbreak of ethnic fighting.5 The recommendation, stemming from the experience of crises as part of the UNMISS, is for enhanced political mediation capacities in the substantive side of missions. This would enable missions to discern, prevent, cope with and end conflicts that potentially impact, retard and set back mandate delivery by missions, thereby avoiding an undue premium being placed on the use of force by the force components under the questionable tenets of the doctrine of robust peacekeeping.

The Murle crisis

This was a mini-crisis that nevertheless tested the crisis management structures of the UNMISS, in particular, posing a challenge for its protection of civilians (POC) capacities. The David Yau Yau rebellion had as a backdrop the repair of relations between Sudan and South Sudan following the signing of the nine agreements in September 2012 following their border war earlier in the year. The security aspect of the agreement was on discontinuation of the support for proxies by both sides. The Murle tribe had aligned with the Sudanese in the civil war prior to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. Juba decided the time was ripe to demilitarise the Murle as also assert its new-found sovereignty over Murle inhabited areas in Jonglei.
It proceeded to do so in early 2013, with a view to wrapping up operations before the onset of rainy season by mid-year. The resulting fighting led to death of five Indian peacekeepers in a Murle ambush near Gumurukh in April. President Salva Kiir allowed for a window of opportunity for the David Yau faction of ‘Cobra’ Murle warriors to return to the mainstream by announcing amnesty in end-April. The Murle, for its part, rebelled, taking over the politically important Boma town, dealing a blow to the government in May. The Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) retook Boma, dispersing the Murle, who then posed a threat further north in the area of Pibor. This forced the march of the White Army, comprising of armed Nuer youth, who attacked the Murle – for a second time following their earlier attack the previous year at Likongule in 2012.6
Not only had the UNMISS to prove responsive to the fighting, but also provide protection to the Murle population. The population had disappeared into the proverbial African ‘bush’, making it difficult to do Tier II POC, i.e.the military protection leg of POC. The mission’s Tier I POC response – the political leg of the three tiered POC doctrine (the third being humanitarian access)7 - was in establishing a link between the government and the Murle forces in the bush. This was undertaken by the Force Headquarters, laying the foundation for talks between the government and the Murle under aegis of Bishop Paride Taban, the head of the famous Kuron peace village in neighbouring Torit. Eventually, the talks resulted in the Murle reconciliation with the government in early 2014,8 after the outbreak of the national Dinka-Nuer crisis of December 2013, with the agreement being signed in mid- 2014.

The December 2013 crisis

The second crisis was a national level crisis in which South Sudan spiraled downwards into a civil war. The early warnings of this were apparent, when Riek Machar9, the vice president, was stripped of his additional charge and later removed from the position by mid-2013. He wished to contest for elections, which was not taken well by the president. The power play between the two culminated in the conduct of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) convention in mid- December without Machar and supportive leaders attending the second day of the convention on 15 December.10 That evening fighting broke out in the barracks of the SPLA in Juba, which spread to civilian areas of the town by next morning. In the forenoon, UN camps in Juba were inundated with internally displaced Nuer from surrounding localities, victims of a civil war outbreak that was to consume the rest of north and east South Sudan, areas of inhabitation of Nuer over the remainder of the year. The SPLA split along ethnic lines and the major cities – Bor, Bentiu and Malakal – changed hands several times, resulting in rounds of ethnic killings.
The UNMISS military was overwhelmed with its POC duties in camps in and adjacent to UNMISS bases, even as the rest of the mission went into crisis management mode, sending away to safety all but the minimum essential staff. At the outset of the crisis, the Indian peacekeepers lost two members protecting the Dinka who had taken refuge in their camp at Akobo from a Nuer mob. In the course of the event, the Nuer killed some of the 36 Dinkas who had taken shelter at the camp.11 The Nuer White Army bestirred yet again and at the turn of the year posed a threat to the national capital, Juba.
The political side of crisis management was taken over by the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which sent in foreign ministers in the first round of peacemaking prior to Christmas, followed by a higher presidential level delegation after Christmas. It appointed three interlocutors, who proceeded with shuttle diplomacy between belligerents over January 2014, cobbling together a cessation of hostilities agreement signed off on 23 January. Thereafter, parlays covered a monitoring and verification mission. A final agreement – Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) - was signed in Addis Ababa in August 2015,12 even as ceasefire monitoring was undertaken by IGAD with assistance from UNMISS under a Joint Monitoring Evaluation Committee (JMEC).13 The UNMISS mandate was redefined, removing from its purview the multi-dimensional aspects and multi-sectoral support to the government, and limiting it to the core functions of POC, protection of human rights and humanitarian assistance.14

The July 2016 crisis

The ARCSS implementation led up eventually to the return of Riek Machar, the leader of the SPLM-in-Opposition to Juba in July 2016. During his meeting with the president on his return, there was an outbreak of fighting between the security details of the two principals. The resulting escalation led to Machar fleeing Juba once again and a renewed bout of ethnic bloodletting. This was the second national level crisis, which though brief, resulted in several hundreds of thousands leaving South Sudan over the following months as refugees. This round of the crisis witnessed the infamous ‘Terrain’ hotel incident in which UNMISS was allegedly less than responsive to calls for assistance from the activists of the humanitarian workers against a violent attack including and sexual assault by an SPLA outfit on them. A fallout of the incident was the removal of the UNMISS force commander, a Kenyan, leading to the withdrawal of the Kenyan battalion by its national authorities in protest. The very fact that an entirely predictable crisis recurred on UNMISS watch a second time suggests a deficit in UNMISS political capacities. Early warning was very much there in the manner the ARCSS was signed, with the signing being spread over several days as Kiir procrastinated and the manner the SPLA delayed the arrival of Machar’s security detail to Juba prior to his move.
The political side of the crisis management was once again with the IGAD and resulted over time with a revitalised agreement, the Revitalised ARCSS (RARCSS) in June 2018. This was made possible by better relations between major IGAD members, Sudan and Uganda, who were seen to be on opposite sides of the South Sudanese civil war. In the first round of the national crisis, Ugandan troops had intervened on the side of Kiir, at the invite of the national government. Sudan for its part had been restrained, as its erstwhile proxy forces had returned to South Sudan the previous year in wake of the September 2012 raft of agreements.
The revitalisation of the ARCSS was affected under threat of targeted UN sanctions. The UNMISS ground level input for the talks was through the Special Envoy of the Secretary General based at Addis Ababa. The improved relations all round, including better internal stability in the other major IGAD members and Ethiopia being under a new and reconciliatory administration, provided the backdrop to the return of Riek Machar to Juba for a second time; but this time without a problem. The RARCSS is, at the time of writing, under implementation, though behind schedule, with elections coming up three years on.


The brief overview of the crises above reveals that the UNMISS was not an active participant in the political track of conflict management, left to cope with the outcome and consequences of the crisis. In view of the norm of impartiality, it did not mediate the talks in the localised Murle crisis. In the higher order crisis, the UN took a backseat, deferring to the regional organisation, IGAD, the control of the talks. This was perhaps to enable the regional states to sort out their differences and power equations that had provided the backdrop to the onset and continuation of the civil war. The African Union backed this arrangement, confining itself largely to addressing the human rights consequences. The five years that went into the peace process and the setback it received midway in the July 2016 crisis indicate the complexities confronting peace processes.
However, it is for consideration whether the availability of enhanced political capabilities in UNMISS could have prevented the turmoil in first place. The first special representative of the secretary general (SRSG), Hilda Johnson, was an expert on the region, with strong ties with all political actors dating to her involvement with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) formulation and its implementation in her official capacity with the Norwegian government that had an intimate role in the peace process.15 The political affairs division head was from the region and a distinguished diplomat of an IGAD member state, Ethiopia. The UNMISS therefore had the political heft, but its political affairs division, that could have provided the staff support for facilitation of the political process was undersized. The UNMISS civil affairs division had a country-wide presence but was engaged in reconciliation at the grass roots level. The UNMISS interpreted its mandate as supportive of the government and therefore precluding of a peacemaking role, unless asked for by the government. As a result UNMISS was on the sidelines of the resolution efforts in the Murle crisis, at best acting as a facilitator with a logistics backup. It was not quite up to taking on peacemaking in the national crises.
The upshot of the deficit in UNMISS’ political capacities was the continuation internal instability in the country. The impact was on the military component’s conduct of peacekeeping in that a more robust stance was required of it. UNMISS was a Chapter VII mission and therefore it was unexceptionable for use of force considerations to figure in the discussion on options for the UNMISS to address insecurity.
However, in case UNMISS was to undertake peacekeeping robustly, deploying the force at its command, this would have vitiated its operating environment. It was already under considerable strain with the government restricting its access and coverage of areas at will. If the UNMISS military component had adopted a robust peacekeeping mode, it could have ended up at cross purposes with the non-state actors challenging the government, i.e. the Murle in the 2013 crisis and the Nuer in the larger crises. Even so, there were calls for more robust peacekeeping. An Indian deputy force commander was able to bring moderation into the responses. But the attitude and preference of the military staff officers from western countries, who had done tenures in Afghanistan and Iraq, was for more robustness.


The lack of political capacity in the mission to address challenges as they emerged resulted in a vitiated security environment calling for robustness in the use of force. The corollary is that had the political capacities been up to the mark in the UNMISS ab-initio, there would have been a greater preventive and peacemaking effort on the part of the UNMISS. Hilde Johnson in her book on the crisis prelude and aftermath16 recalls the inquiry by Riek Machar prior to leaving Juba at the crisis outbreak if he could seek shelter in a UNMISS compound. If the UNMISS had had some political role, it could have considered the request favourably, taking it up with the government. As a counter-factual it can be hazarded that it could, through such action, have nipped the crisis in the bud. This could have been subsumed under its Tier I POC responsibility. However, during these instances, UNMISS was handicapped; thereby making insecurity more likely and making robust peacekeeping as the default response option for the UNMISS. The gravamen of the argument here is that to the lack of UNMISS political capacities can be attributed – inter-alia - the deterioration in the security environment in South Sudan.
Therefore, it is imperative that the political capacities in UN missions be commensurate with the likely political tasks the mission is to perform, alongside allowing for a capacity to undertake Tier I POC at a minimum and peacemaking in case of higher order political disruption involving the national elite. It is worth recalling that the Independent High-level Panel on Peace Operations in its land report, colloquially called the HIPPO report, has said as much:
Lasting peace is not achieved nor sustained by military and technical engagements, but through political solutions. The primacy of politics should be the hallmark of the approach of the United Nations to the resolution of conflict, during mediation, the monitoring of ceasefires, assistance to the implementation of peace accords, the management of violent conflicts and longer-term efforts at sustaining peace…..Whenever the United Nations has a peace operation on the ground, it should lead or play a leading role in political efforts prior to and during peace processes and after agreements are reached. Absent a major role in supporting a peace process, the success of a United Nations mission may be undermined.17
The work for the Department of Peace Operations is thus amply clear. It must privilege the substantive side in its thinking as it approaches mandate making. This would ease the work of peacekeepers and contain the thrust in recent years towards a militarisation of peacekeeping under the cover of robust peacekeeping. That this is in hand is evident from UN missions such as in Somalia having a mediation role and capacity.18 The implication for India as a leading troop contributing nation, that is skeptical about the direction peacekeeping is taking while moving away from traditional peacekeeping and the increased propensity for use of force in peacekeeping, is to urge the UN to strengthen the mandate of the missions to undertake some political roles. This would help India repay the sacrifice of seven Indian peacekeepers in South Sudan.