South Sudanese forces and rebels clashed in Upper Nile state yesterday, with both sides claiming control of the state capital Malakal today. The fighting was said to be the most significant violation of a ceasefire agreement, signed by government and rebel representatives in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, since that agreement came into force at the end of January.
The fighting comes as the delegations in Addis Ababa attempt to iron out the second phase of a peace process. This has been complicated by numerous factors, including legal proceedings against some members of the opposition movement, opposition leader Riek Machar’s announcement of open resistance to the government, and an intervention by Ugandan troops on behalf of the South Sudanese government.
The matter of Ugandan troops has been particularly troublesome for the peace process. The peace talks in Addis Ababa are sponsored by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), of which Uganda is a member. South Sudan is also Uganda’s primary export market. Other IGAD members, as well as international actors like the United States, have called on Ugandan forces to withdraw from the conflict. However, it is possible to suggest that the intervention may have been key in stabilizing the situation and pushing the rebel delegation to negotiate. Given the current status of the ceasefire agreement, that may be a moot point.
Whatever the case, Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kuteesa announced yesterday that there would be a phased withdrawal of Ugandan forces, starting in April, ahead of the deployment of an African-led peacekeeping force to the country. However, the exact timeline for the deployment of that force, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), may be delayed. ACIRC is currently in its formative stages. When it is fully operational, ACIRC is to provide the African Union with a force capable of rapidly responding to crises across the continent.
Perhaps more worrisome is that the fighting in Malakal, which took place near a facility operated by the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), reportedly touched off a riot inside the facility between internally displaced persons of different ethnic groups. Since the conflict began last December, tens of thousands of those fleeing the violence have sought shelter in and around UNMISS facilities. These facilities have subsequently been the target of violence and suspicion.
The UN estimates that over seven hundred thousands individuals are displaced internally and that over one hundred and fifty thousand have fled to neighboring countries. A significant portion of the population is also in need of humanitarian assistance. The UN’s Crisis Response Plan is only 18.5 percent funded, however. The UN continues to appeal for greater international engagement.