Conflict in South Sudan enters a new phase as the US banned the export of weapons and defence services to the newly independent nation Friday. On the same day, the European Union imposed sanctions on three current and former officials implicated in human rights violations in Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
Heather Nauert, the US State Department spokeswoman, said her government “will not stand idly by as innocent Sudanese civilians are murdered”, adding that the US decision was in response to the brutality and violence practised against workers in the humanitarian field.
The decision was announced despite the fact that the US government doesn’t sell weapons to South Sudan. However, the move bans any US company or citizen from sending weaponry or military services to warring factions in South Sudan.
The State Department will amend the 40-year-old international trade rules on weapons to include South Sudan, Nauert said. The rules apply to defence services and commodities as well as data that compromise US national security.
The EU announced sanctions imposed on three Juba officials including asset freezes and a travel ban to EU countries. The EU statement mentioned the “deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in South Sudan” as being behind the sanctions imposed on former Army Chief of Staff general Paul Malong, Deputy Chief of Defence General Malek Reuben Riak and Minister of Information Michael Makuei Leuth.
The EU decision brings the total number of persons under restrictive measures in South Sudan to nine, as six officials were already listed by the UN. The US said its sanctions against the same officials were for “destabilising” Africa’s youngest country.
Although Washington has been the staunchest supporter of the independence of South Sudan, the US ban is regarded as a warning from the administration of US President Donald Trump to the government of Silva Kiir.
The ban may indicate the US and EU have run out of patience of South Sudan’s warring factions. It is symbolic, nevertheless, since the country buys weapons from China, the Ukraine and some former USSR states.
During the opening of the 30th round of the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa, the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Feki, said “it was time” to impose sanctions on those obstructing peace efforts in South Sudan. He warned against the “unimaginable brutality” and “blind violence” between the fighting groups.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the AU Summit that his organisation supported the AU initiative in South Sudan. “We will be side-by-side with the African Union in respecting African leadership in solving African problems,” he said, referring to South Sudan’s warring factions’ non-commitment to ceasefire agreements.
Civil war in South Sudan began in December 2013, after its independence in June 2011, when Kiir accused his deputy, Riek Machar, of staging a coup to oust him. Creating one of the African continent’s worst upheavals, the civil war resulted in the death of tens of thousands of South Sudanese, the displacement of four million while risking the lives of 1.5 million living on the brink of famine, according to UN reports. In addition, 95 relief workers were killed.
Tens of ceasefire agreements did not hold in South Sudan, including one brokered by the AU in 2015 that was breached only hours later, and another in May 2016 after which infighting spread from Juba to other parts of South Sudan.
Violence and infighting in South Sudan goes back to tribal rifts that extend for tens of years between Kiir’s majority Dinka tribe – comprising 40 per cent of citizens – and Machar’s Neur tribe – forming 16 per cent of citizens.
The Dinka Council of Elders dismissed the US ban on weaponry and defence services as ineffective. A member of the council and parliament, Aldo Ajou Deng Akuei, said the US decision will not stop the war. “The government doesn’t feed or control opposition militias. There are many unknown forces,” he wrote on Facebook. “The US has lost its international power… and is no longer the leader of the world like before the fall of the USSR in 1991.”
The situation is more compounded in the country with the involvement of multiple militias that belong to neither Dinka nor Neur.
Deputy Director of the Kush Centre for African Studies Alor Magock believes that tribal fighting in South Sudan is sponsored from within. Violence in the Lakes state between tribesmen from Dinka, Weroub and Bakam left 60 people dead in December. Raping, theft and the death of 170 people and the injury of 200 were the result of battles between sponsoring warlords over farms.
In a country where the government no longer controls many of its regions, tribal in-fights feed vengeance.
Magock believes the US ban will remain symbolic if Russia keeps rejecting UN Security Council resolutions. “Some African powers, like Uganda, support the government of President Silva Kiir, which makes the AU’s mission to impose sanctions on South Sudan more difficult,” he added.
“The two main warring factions are being pressured by regional and international powers to end the violence. This could lead to peace.”
Neighbouring countries, whether supporting or opposing the government of South Sudan, are expected to keep pushing for peace in an effort to prevent further massacres and famine.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly