Comment & analysis

A tale of two crises: Conflict and COVID-19 in South Sudan

27 May 2020

While South Sudan’s leaders try to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), communities in many parts of the country are facing a dual threat to their safety as inter-communal violence breaks out with little intervention from national authorities. Urgent action is needed to address the power vacuum at the heart of this crisis and prioritise peace as the country battles COVID-19.

Since the government’s High Level Taskforce on COVID-19 announced a relaxation of preventive measures designed to combat the spread of the virus on 7 May, cases have increased rapidly. As of 24h May there have been over 655 reported cases, including two in overcrowded UN protection of civilian sites. All but one of the members of the original task force including Vice President Riek Machar, who is deputy chairman of the task force, and his wife, Defence Minister Angelina Teny, have tested positive for COVID-19. This has led to fears of a rapid spread in a country with very poor health systems and where social distancing is in many cases unlikely and in some cases impossible, and where poverty and violence further complicate any response.

Delaying the peace agreement

The COVID-19 pandemic has also distracted the revitalised transitional government of national unity (R-TGuNO) from completing the implementation of crucial provisions of the peace agreement at a critical moment in what is very a fragile transition, which will in turn hamper efforts to respond to the spread of the virus. Of serious concern is the ongoing delay in appointing authorities at subnational level, as the parties to the country’s peace agreement continue to disagree on how these positions should be allocated. This has left a power vacuum that has seen levels of inter-communal violence, particularly cattle raiding and revenge attacks, skyrocket in recent months. In Jonglei, inter-communal violence involving Murle and Lou Nuer has displaced thousands of civilians from their homes, seen the loss of lives and the destruction of property. In Unity, Warrap, Lakes, Western Bahr el Gazal and Western Equatoria states, communal violence has surged, with devastating impacts on people’s livelihoods and ability to engage in agricultural activities, which will have long term impacts on food security across the country.

Continuous disagreement over the establishment of state governments is creating uncertainty. President Salva Kiir Mayardit recently announced that an agreement had been reached regarding the allocation of states among the conflict parties, but its subsequent rejection by SPLM/IO indicates that in reality consensus has not yet been reached. In the communities where Saferworld works, this non-existence of both state and county level authorities is seriously impacting people’s security, as lawlessness and cycles of violence have increased, with no government response. The lack of administration at the local level is also a barrier to the ability of the government to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Communities are already enduring serious threats to their livelihoods, while closed borders have seen the cost of basic commodities double since the first case was announced on 5 April. One community member Saferworld spoke to have even suggested appointing caretaker governors to address this gap.

Threatening security

The pandemic has also seen a halt to the implementation of the security measures outlined in the peace agreement. Soldiers in some cantonment sites, such as in Wau, have been asked to leave so that an outbreak among the organised forces is avoided. The training and unification of forces are critical aspects of the security arrangements outlined under the peace agreement and if not done peacefully, it could compromise security sector reforms that are needed and risk further conflict. Trust and confidence building is badly needed between the forces even as integration is delayed by the spread of the virus.

Clashes have also been occurring in Central Equatoria’s Yei and Lainya counties in recent weeks between the National Salvation Front, which are not party to the peace agreement, and government and opposition forces. Civilians have been forced to flee their homes to the bush or Yei town where conditions are terrible. With rising numbers in COVID-19 cases in Yei town as well as the huge humanitarian assistance already required, county authorities in Yei and humanitarian agencies are finding it difficult to provide help to vulnerable people amid the violence. There are reports of access being denied to humanitarian agencies amid the fighting as they attempt to reach affected villages. There is an urgent need to find a peaceful solution, and at minimum, recommit to a ceasefire and allow humanitarian access to the area.

Addressing cycles of violence

As South Sudan begins to face the COVID-19 crisis, it is more important than ever that focus is not lost on the implementation of the peace agreement.  The threat of the virus should instead motivate the parties to push for progress so they might better face this challenge together. Communities and civil society have told us that they want to see the implementation of the peace agreement, both to shore up their own security, and to help the country effectively respond to the pandemic.

The national government should respond in hotspot areas where intra- and inter-communal violence is taking place, such as by engaging to support recommendations from past inter-communal dialogues. Responding to these conflicts by sending in the army to carry out forceful disarmament, as is happening now in Tonj and Rumbek, isn’t sustainable. If the real issues and power struggles underlying these conflicts are not addressed, communities will rearm and continue to fight.

Parties to the peace agreement should fast-track the appointment of state governments and county commissioners and administrative structures, with the support of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the international community. The current power vacuum at state and local levels is threatening security, jeopardising early peace gains and hindering humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable communities in South Sudan. Instituting state and local government structures with effective mechanisms to deliver basic services, including the provision of security, and promotion of peace, will save lives and better prepare the country to fight COVID-19.

It will be important for IGAD and other regional and international supporters to work with parties to the peace agreement to implement the security aspects of the peace agreement in a way that does not exacerbate conflict risks, particularly between the forces. Despite the impact of COVID-19 on training and reunification plans, steps should be taken to work with leaders of the various armed groups to build confidence and cooperation between the forces to prevent tensions from escalating.

The government of South Sudan and the National Salvation Front (NAS) must also be called upon to recommit to a cessation of hostilities agreement and the Rome declaration. Continued fighting between government troops and NAS forces in Yei and Lainya counties of Central Equatoria state is worrying, especially when civilians are preparing for the new cultivation season. IGAD should push the government and the holdout opposition forces to agree cessation of hostilities and refrain from further actions that compel civilians to flee at a time the nation is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The international community, donors, peacebuilding organisations and civil society should continue to invest in peacebuilding despite challenges posed by COVID-19. This is particularly relevant at the sub-national level, where investing in local peace initiatives that work to rein tensions and address grievances can continue. The pandemic is a threat to communities across South Sudan, but it cannot be a distraction from prioritising peace.


Photo: Local women in Malakal, South Sudan utilise a water point which provides clean water to an increasing local population. (Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy).