By Hussein Lumumba Amin
09 March 2017
Looking at the infestation of the South Sudan conflict, Uganda is suddenly hosting up to 500,000 refugees from the war torn country, with 2000 people crossing the border every day as we speak.
According to PRI (Public Radio International, US), the total number of refugees fleeing the conflict has reportedly reached the 1.5 million mark. “It is now Africa’s biggest refugee crisis, and the third biggest in the world after Iraq and Syria”.
The proliferation of weapons comes with new security risks, but the relations between the Ugandans and the refugees is said to be surprisingly cordial.
This is mainly due to the fact that the Ugandans in the West Nile region “know what it is like to be a refugee”.
Uganda’s history of the 1980’s shows that the entire West Nile region was persecuted and cleared of any human being by Milton Obote. His Uganda National Liberation Army (which was made mostly of Acholi’s and Langi’s pretending to have been disappeared by Idi Amin yet they were all training in neighbouring Tanzania), that army came to West Nile and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians in the entire sub-region simply for belonging to President Idi Amin’s ethnic group. While most Ugandan’s might have heard of the Ombaci Church massacre (24th June 1981), the untold genocide committed by the UNLA on the people of West Nile actually covered the entire region starting from the Karuma falls. The NRM party has blamed the massacre on Milton Obote’s UPC party, but surprisingly UPC blames Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) forces. Yet the person who led the massacre on Obote’s behalf was one Basilio Okello who in a twist of fate, would be part of those who overthrew his boss Obote three years later.
When they were done with the West Nile region, the indisciplined UNLA soldiers then focused on the Baganda ethnic group in Luweero district. As Ugandan’s all know, here the Obote junta went on an even greater massacre that saw 500,000 people killed, mass graves everywhere, and human skulls displayed on roadsides.
The situation was made worse for the people in Luweero because they had no nearby borders to cross to safety, and all escape routes were blocked by UNLA checkpoints and the infamous “Panda gari” armed patrols. The peasant population was literally holed up within their district, and at the total mercy of Obote’s fascist troops who had the most appalling human rights record, one that is yet to be full by grasped by world historians as the worst ever times in Uganda’s contemporary history.
Incidentally, the people behind the current killings in South Sudan, and those that massacred civilians in West Nile in the 1980’s, are both under the same ethnic group. They are both known to rule by sectarianism and tribalism.
So when today the Ugandans near Bidi bidi camp meet South Sudanese refugees, they are sympathetic because they know exactly what these refugees are going through, and those Ugandan’s know exactly what it is like to be a refugee forced to flee persecution.
The local businessmen are said to be doing better thanks to the arrival of the South Sudanese refugees and humanitarian organizations. But for Uganda’s overall exports to South Sudan, they have simply plummeted because of the ongoing South Sudan conflict.
Juba’s economy is said to be at a virtual standstill, and their citizens purchasing power depleted.
Todays global news reports say; “The situation in the country is edging closer to genocide”.
Which begs the question, is there a deliberate refusal by the international community to call a spade a spade?
Three years on, while civilians from known ethnic groups are constantly dying in sometimes well coordinated, well funded, and well planned ethnic killings, here we are still hearing the same statement since the very beginning that South Sudan is edging closer to genocide.
So when exactly does it become one? How many more deaths are required before South Sudan earns the official genocide certification from the UN, the EU, the US, the Chinese, IGAD or the AU?
Obviously the new US administration is engulfed in their new ” America First” policy, and seems genuinely clueless about any ongoing developments in Africa. Their European partners seem to be following in the same right wing direction, while Brexit was also decided in a referendum that was based considerably on “Britain First” ideology that also preaches anti-immigration policies including against refugees.
The writing is clearly on the wall. We as Africans should quickly rise to the challenge in resolving our own conflicts. This we must achieve based on international best practices, plus our own knowledge of Africa’s specificities. The days of first waiting for EU and US handouts to fund our peace processes seem to be numbered.
When fresh violence broke out last year in South Sudan (it had never really stopped since 2013), local unscrupulous opportunism rushed to incinerate the only agreement between the parties. The deal was made to completely collapse when it was hurriedly buried by individuals who have since not offered any pragmatic new arrangement besides telling Dr. Riak Machar to only appear back in the country after the 2018 elections. Polls that South Sudanese will be lucky to see given the persisting and escalating warfare going on around the country today.
But what happened in 2016 is that peace was literally not given any chance to survive, and they seem not to have realized that in order to end the conflict soonest, there was no other alternative except getting an agreement between the warring parties.
Now with todays fragmentation of the conflict, a definite military victory is nowhere in sight for any of the two initial sides, and a political solution is more difficult than it ever was.
In my assessment, some unscrupulous local individuals might be content with the status quo. People who might simply have not wanted to lose their senior jobs since sharing certain posts with their former enemies is required in the transitional government of national unity agreement. Such behaviours and other ulterior financial motivations can be expected from senior officials of the most corrupt country in the world. Their sense of entitlement is such that they can literally pluck millions of dollars from state coffers without even knowing that they are stealing public funds.
A situation akin to Uganda in the 80’s and 90’s when the so-called “liberation” officers would answer any complaining citizen with the famous question; “Where were you when we were fighting, dying and getting injured to liberate you?”
Meanwhile, using the words “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” to describe what is happening in South Sudan means a different level of implications for the international community. There are pre-determined military, diplomatic, humanitarian, and judicial interventions that the United Nations and regional organizations will have to immediately initiate if it is officially declared that the conflict in South Sudan is a genocide with rampant war crimes and crimes against humanity. We will also have to pin-point those responsible and indict them for prosecution.
There are already close to 900 UN police personnel, an appropriate civilian component, and up to 17,000 UN troops stationed in South Sudan. This figure includes 4,000 troops for the Regional Protection Force that in my opinion should have the same mandate as the UN’s Forced Intervention Brigade that crushed the M23 rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo in September 2014. Without a strong mandate, they will turn out to be mere spectators of the conflict just like the UN peacekeepers who found themselves in the midst of previous genocide situations.
As a person previously involved in UN peacekeeping in South Sudan, I am quite aware of the realities on the ground, but most especially the frustrating restrictions that peacekeepers can face in carrying out their noble duties.
Thankfully for persecuted populations in conflict zones around the world, the recently agreed Kigali Principles give UN commanders on the ground the authority to take immediate action to protect civilians in cases of abrupt outbreaks of violence. These are a new set of peace-keeping principles first presented during a summit in Kigali, Rwanda in May 2015.
Later in September of the same year they were also debated at the 70th UN General Assembly summit on Peace-keeping that was held in New York where President Obama signed on behalf of his country.
There are 18 principles in total, but the key operational changes in peace-keeping operations rules of engagement are in principles 3, 8, and 13.
Here, peace-keepers pledge “to be prepared to use force to protect civilians”, “not to hesitate to take action to protect civilians”, and “to take disciplinary action against our own personnel if and when they fail to act to protect civilians.”
I am not sure about the extent of these principles in regards to UN commanders being mandated to capture/arrest those committing crimes against civilians if and when the population comes under attack from rebels or any armed groups.
Meanwhile, is the fear of having to take action still preventing anyone from declaring the South Sudan conflict a genocide?
Let’s face it. Their government is currently unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens. They are in fact part and parcel of the ethnic violence. A reality that was recognized by the international community when in early 2016 it enacted sanctions on certain state and non-state actors fuelling the conflict. The government has no feasible plan or ongoing program for peace and stability on the table. One that is inclusive, workable, and agreeable by all the South Sudanese people.
Ethnic cleansing has widely been known to occur in South Sudan since the first day war broke out more than three years ago.
House to house searches were reportedly embarked on immediately by security forces in the capital Juba. The manhunts were said to be based on the ethnicity of those living in particular houses. Subseqently, entire regions have since seen what amounted to extremely graphic ethnic cleansing. Some of it happening in protected UN camps under the watch of international peace-keepers. Didn’t the international community say “Never Again” after Bosnia and Rwanda?
The South Sudanese refugees still fleeing their country today are also testimony to tribal targeting.
A quick look at media interactions amongst South Sudanese indicates the true nature of the conflict. While there are voices rhetorically calling for peace, it is violent hate speech on tribal grounds that is the overwhelming daily staple.
Who isn’t aware since 2013 that the Dinka tribe have been targeting the Nuer ethnic group and vice-versa?
Other tribes (there are more than 64 in the country) have reportedly had to take sides in the conflict. As a direct consequence, anyone of their people automatically becomes a “legitimate target” for the other side.
In Africa our names, shades of skin color, height, marks or skeletal features are all indications of ethnic background and are used in such conflicts to identify friends or enemies. During the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the nose shape was the main determinant of whether one lives or dies. In South Sudan, the markings on ones forehead (or the lack of them) can have the same implications.
These are some of the untold factors that foreign observers are usually totally clueless about, yet they are the untold realities of African conflicts.
But the bottom line here is that the international community is repeating the exact same past mistakes of total inaction.
What will it take to formally declare that genocide is already taking place in South Sudan?
PRI article on the refugees titled “Uganda, A Welcoming Place For South Sudanese Refugees”: