Peace talks between South Sudan’s government and rebels have resumed in Addis Ababa. Acting SPLM Secretary General Anne Itto calls for more humanitarian assistance from the international community.
DW: What role do political issues play in this conflict?
First of all, we are used to being a liberation or resistance movement and that has helped us to fight the war, to negotiate peace. But we realised in the SPLM that we needed to start the work for national state building so we thought it was time to review our basic documents and make a roadmap for the restructuring and reorganization of the SPLM.
In what way did that lead to the conflict that erupted in December?
The reorganization of the SPLM basically means democratic processes of electing leaders and representatives right from the grass roots, culminating in a national convention. In this national convention the chairperson of the SPLM is elected. That position is up for grabs. It turned out that four people in the political bureau, the organization that manages the SPLM, were interested in running for the position of SPLM chairperson. But instead of waiting for the national convention, three started campaigning. This created a rift between the incumbent chairman and those who were contesting. These differences led to the slight paralysis of our political work, particularly of our work on the review of our basic documents, such as our manifesto and the constitution.
You mentioned that dissatisfied people left the party. What are the economic and social factors that made other people join them and set up militias?
Nobody actually left the party. Even today, Riek Machar [the former vice-president of South Sudan] who organized a state coup is negotiating in the name of SPLA/ SPLM inner-opposition. Nobody left the party but people disagreed: one group remained in the SPLM government and another group of Riek Machar and his supporters went to the bush. The members of SPLM have remained intact.
Part of the provision of the comprehensive peace agreement was to absorb other armed groups which were mainly militia or armed groups under the command of warlords. In the interests of peace, the government of South Sudan absorbed many thousands. When the coup took place, 70 per cent of the army were militia. Possibly Riek saw this as an opportunity to entice them so that they can join to fight against the government, but they were not necessarily members of the SPLM.
Why was it so difficult, despite all the government efforts, to dissolve and disarm all the militias? What makes people still become members of such militias?
First of all, the militias were recruited by individuals to fight for their own individual interest. They don't fight for the interest of the state. Second, so many of them have been absorbed while they still remained loyal to somebody else. If somebody is in the army they only receive a salary but stay loyal to somebody else. It is very difficult to know who can mobilize them against the government. Exactly that happened.
What would you see as the way forward now to achieve lasting peace in South Sudan?
When this conflict broke out, IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) facilitated the peace negotiations on the comprehensive peace agreement. IGAD came back to us and offered to mediate. Under IGAD, the government and the SPLM in opposition led by Riek Machar have signed a cessation of hostilities agreement and an agreement that allowed for some of the political detainees to be released into custody.
What we are now waiting for is a monitoring and verification mechanism to make sure that two parties really stop fighting each other. From there we hope they will sign a permanent cease fire agreement. Once a permanent cease fire agreement is signed, the rest of the issues will be the responsibility of all Sudanese. They need to ask themselves what went wrong, what government system needs to be put in place, what will happen to the army. We hope there will be an inclusive national dialogue that will bring together youth, women, churches, Muslims and other political parties to come together and build consensus.
Though the conflict has only been four months it has been really devastating. So many have been killed; thousands have been displaced without shelter, food, medical care and clean drinking water. Humanitarian assistance for these thousands of people is urgent and we need to address it. Because if they are receiving humanitarian assistance than they will be able to participate in the national dialogue.
As far as the economic situation of the country is concerned, what impact is the conflict going to have, particularly now when South Sudan can only import small amounts of oil?
The consequences are great. First of all, many people have lost their livelihoods, many people cannot go to their farms and produce. It means they will have to depend on humanitarian assistance. Many infrastructures have been destroyed, that means fewer jobs are available. But most importantly, the money that the government would have invested in the delivery of basic social services and in infrastructure that supports economic development is now diverted to war. That is very serious because it means less money is available for people. If the war and the militias are not contained and if the cease fire agreement is not implemented, the oil installations can be affected, too. As far as I know, in Unity State the oil production per month has slightly dropped whileproduction in Upper Nil is okay. But all in all, there is less oil and that means less revenue for the government and that also means a smaller level of investment.
What recommendations do you have for the international community or the United Nations? What could they do to help to end this conflict?
First of all, I want them to understand that South Sudan is not a written off case. Thousands of people acknowledged the support that came to us during the time of the struggle for freedom, in the time that we are implementing peace and also in the time when we started to lay the foundations of our development. We are very thankful to the international community. We see this as a wake-up call at a time when we are starting our national state building. Certain things went wrong and it is time for us to review and revisit them and to come together and reprioritize our needs. We want the international community to join us in doing this because they have invested so much and we don't want that to go to waste. We want them to support IGAD because IGAD has done a good job in getting the parties of the conflict to sign a cessation of hostilities agreement. They are now moving forward to get the parties to sign a cease fire agreement - all that requires money. The commission of inquiry into human rights violations headed by President Olusegun Obasanjo needs to be put in place as well. This commission, set up by by the European Union, is very important because we need to begin holding people accountable for their crimes. It is only then that South Sudan will heal itself, that we learn how to reconcile and build a united country. But also we expect an all inclusive national dialogue where all South Sudanese will sit together. This is an important process that needs funding. And finally, there is the humanitarian situation: we hope they will find it in their hearts and in their budgets to step up humanitarian assistance to stop the suffering of the people.
Anne Itto is the acting Secretary General of South Sudan's ruling party SPLM.
Interview: Daniel Pelz