Measures to contain COVID-19 should not overlook peace and security concerns in South Sudan
In addition to the threats paused by COVID-19, South Sudan faces even more devouring challenges. Among the competing priorities are deeply entrenched ethnic rivalries, divisions and suspicions that often result in bloody wars. Moreover, active armed opposition group by politico-military parties that are not signatories to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflicts in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) also present conflicting priorities and challenges. The recently sworn-in Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) must address the conundrum presented in handling the aforesaid issues alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.
The TGoNU is faced with other pressing governance issues; first, an ill-equipped healthcare system that does not have the capacity to manage wide spread COVID-19 cases. The second is a situation of socio-economic hardships caused by the deteriorating oil prices in a country that has not yet diversified its economy and mainly depends on oil revenues. The third includes weak governance institutions and systems that can hardly guarantee the rule of law and very high proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW).
Given the unfamiliar COVID-19 context, South Sudan is now faced with double edged sword where on one side, the virus can quickly spread in an uncontrolled conflict context and on the other; an explosive spread is likely to instigate political instability. In such a context, extreme responses to contain the virus, including lockdown measures have the potential to magnify pre-existing conflict dynamics. It is stressful to imagine the instability that is likely to follow: budget shortfalls, food shortages and delays in the implementation of the peace agreement exacerbated by the pandemic. Therefore, governance, peace, security and COVID-19 need to be addressed simultaneously. In this article, we specifically discuss the challenges that small arms and light weapons present to long-term peace and security in South Sudan amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Small Arms and Light Weapons are rampant in South Sudan. Several households own both licit and illicit arms and some communities may not even know that arms possession is illegal. The prevalence of Small Arms and Light Weapons threaten the government’s monopoly of controlling overt use of violence. Some communities have for example been able to self-organize and resist governmental security enforcements. The rapid spread of COVID-19 will make communities vulnerable and as such increase the impact of local conflicts including cattle raids, interethnic skirmishes and revenge killings - all of which are exuberated by the many arms owned by civilians.
While the exact number of arms among civilians is not known, civilians certainly continue to acquire arms through covert means including licit and illicit purchases, looting of government stockpiles, and cross border transfers among others – with government stockpiles being the initial primary source. The threats of Small Arms and Light Weapons also emanate from their very nature: cheap, simple to use and repair, lethal, durable therefore police and civilians can easily use and conceal them. As such, civilians are able to sustainably own and use arms.
The high proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons among civilians is therefore, a key threat to the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (RTGoNU), and poses long term challenges to peace and security in South Sudan. Moreover, when people’s incomes are affected due to COVID-19 responses, they are likely to use their arms to resist any mechanisms that threaten their livelihoods, and this could magnify conflict dynamics.
Easy access to Small Arms and Light Weapons has not only intensified social conflicts but has also escalated criminalities, human rights violations and political intolerance. Weapons that should be used to protect citizens are now used as criminal arsenals. The once honorable art of hunting has turned into large scale poaching and the once traditional and cultural practice of cattle raiding has turned into deadly warfare. As South Sudan progressively moves towards an election, efforts should be made to ensure that arms do not turn the ballot into bullets.
Within this context, enforcing a lockdown to contain COVID-19 may not be feasible. Lockdown measures put forth to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were for example openly violated by citizens. The fact that civilians are armed makes a confrontation much more likely. Given the myriad responsibilities of the RTGoNU, including the urgent need to dialogue with powerful armed opposition groups, the government cannot afford a confrontation with its citizens. This could explain why the South Sudan government was quick to relax some key lockdown measures.
While many other countries seem to be concerned about economic recessions due to COVID-19 responses, in South Sudan the additional risk that it could magnify local conflict dynamics is even more daunting. It is also possible for parties in conflict to take advantage of the vulnerability caused by the COVID-19 to ambush their enemies.
It is likely that COVID-19 is going to be with us for some time. Therefore, as the government puts in place measures to contain it, other important processes that hold the peace agreement together must not be overlooked. In addition, efforts that address local level conflicts need to be sustained. Donors and experts should support non-state actors including church institutions, civil society and traditional leaders to play a complementary role of mobilizing an all-inclusive, unanimously agreed upon and people-centered nationwide voluntary disarmament process. Thereafter, the good practice of burning surplus arms should be applied - and all the voluntarily surrendered of arms publicly torched in a sentimental expression of the end of the conflict. Such a process should be cemented by declarations of ‘Never Again to War’ by leaders.
For South Sudan, the pandemic should be a clarion call to action and unity of purpose. Since peace and security concerns are as worrying as the pandemic, any efforts to contain the pandemic including by international actors and NGOs should be cautious not to overlook long-term peace and security needs.
The writers work for Justice Africa. Stephen Pande has worked for various peace and security initiatives the Eastern Africa Region including the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms (SSANSA) where he served as the first team leader. He is also the current focal person for the Regional Network on Peace and Stability (RENOPS)
Jimmy Awany is a socio-academic peace practitioner working on community peace initiatives in South Sudan. He has built extensive practical experience engaging with civil society. He holds a BA in Social Sciences from Makerere University and an MSc in Development studies from SOAS.