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Why gov’t should consider urgent resolutions of border disputes

By Mamer Abraham


Time seems to run out with the approaching elections and the smooth ending of the transitional period for the revitalized agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS).

In spite of this impending milestone for the country to witness its first democratically elected president, the stagnating border disputes must also be empirically pondered so that they will not plunge the country back into conflict.

South Sudan has never enjoyed peace of mind since its independence in 2011, as the country struggled with its own body parts on ethnic grounds, as well as corruption related to land ownership among South Sudanese themselves.

As each community tries to control its land from being grabbed by fellow South Sudanese who need to settle, this allows a window for the neighboring countries to encroach and grab territories along the country’s borders, making some people think these conflicts will last a lifetime.

Currently, the country has virgin disputes at all its borders. For example, there is still an outstanding dispute at the border of South Sudan and Sudan in Abyei, basically to determine the final status of Abyei, whether it belongs to South Sudan or Sudan.

Although Abyei is an administrative area in South Sudan after it voted 99 percent to be part of South Sudan in 2013, this vote was protested by the Misseriya Nomads, who demand grazing rights in the land the people of Abyei live in as their ancestral land.

But the case of Abyei will not be an issue to think of resolving soon, with the current political situation in Sudan worsened by the conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

There is also a dispute between South Sudan and Uganda that recently ensued after the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) started pitching tents towards the Kajo-Keji County territory of Central Equatoria State.

While at Nadapal, the Turkana of Kenya and the Toposa of South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria State had been fighting over ownership of a portion of land that is endowed with minerals. This was sensed earlier when the Kenyan government relocated to the South Sudan border town of Nadapal in Eastern Equatoria instead of Lokichogio, which had been the border for years.

In Ethiopia, there are claims of Gambella being part of Ethiopia, but the dispute at the country’s border with Ethiopia has been cold as the two sisterly nations value their bilateral relations far beyond differences.

There is also a case of Kafia Kingi that is being contested by both Sudan and South Sudan at the border of South Sudan with the Central African Republic (CAR).

The only border without any significant known issue so far is South Sudan’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been considered porous due to the constant crossing of rebels like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and so forth.

Most of these border areas with disputes have tribes that are shared between the bordering countries, or the border communities have intermarried and therefore either have long histories of conflict or histories of sharing resources that complicate the resolution of disputes.

Why disputes drag

According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS), conflict had been a threat, as had ethnic insurgencies coupled with the locals being unable to rightfully identify their actual nationalities.

“Underlying all of these challenges are a weak national identity and fragile state-society relations,” reads part of the publication from the ACSS.

This, in simple terms, means that there are a number of tribes that South Sudan shares with the neighboring countries, and these tribes have spread their tendrils across the borders of either country.

In the actual sense, the border tribes have uncles and aunties in either of the countries, and this sometimes makes it difficult to settle the matter, or rather for them to identify themselves as per where they belong.

As such, trust and confidence in the governments seem drained at some points, leading to prolonged conflict resolution.

In 2017, Tasew Gashaw, a scholar for the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding, published a research paper titled “Cross-Border Intergroup Conflicts in the Horn of Africa: A Case Study of Ethiopia-South Sudan Borderland People,” published by the Wilson Centre.

The research paper detailed how the indigenous communities in Gambella lack proper services, including poor infrastructure and education, which is said to be the major cause of intercommunal conflicts at the borders.

“People along the border suffer from a lack of infrastructure and education, exclusion from social and state services, and cross-border intergroup conflicts,” the research paper continued.

“The South Sudanese government’s lack of inclusion of these people in development and Ethiopia’s insufficient use of economic inclusion and diversification have resulted in weak development performance and low-skilled labor in the semi-autonomous regional state of Gambella.”

Another possible cause, according to Tasew, was the British divide-and-rule policy that left the South Sudanese communities without the basic know-how of their norms and cultures.

Tasew argued that the divide-and-rule system of governance instead encouraged competition among communities, which has remained up-to-date.

“The “divide and rule” colonial policy of the British undermined the norms, culture, and legitimacy of the traditional institutions of the local communities. This policy divided the borderland people into different sects, destroying common understandings of their culture and creating competition among the various groups,” Tasew wrote.

The research paper further detailed how the central government’s protection is far from the border communities, making them vulnerable and feel as if forgotten, and therefore, several unlawful acts like the proliferation of small arms and the infiltration of armed groups interfere with border stability.

“Second, the government does not have the capacity to address the needs of security, good governance, and justice. As a result, the borderlands are often left without government protection, creating a conducive environment for the proliferation of small arms, light weapons, and armed groups that further conflicts in the borderland region,” the research continued.

These and many other reasons that might have been left out in this article might be a good explanation of why South Sudan’s border disputes are unending, not forgetting continuous internal rebellions that disrupt the delivery of services to the grassroots.

Attempts to resolve

Most of these disputes had high-level committees formed to quell the conflict, but as times seem to change and generations with various mentalities grow and influence one another, such conflicts that were temporarily quelled continue to live and hurt communities with massive losses of lives and property.

On October 3, 2023, President Salva Kiir Mayardit called for restraint and promised to discuss prospects for the resolution of the conflict at the South Sudan-Uganda border with Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

This came after the president was briefed by the governor of Central Equatoria State, Emmanuel Adil Anthony, over the volatile dispute between the communities in Kajo-Keji County and Yumbe District of Uganda over claims of land ownership.

The examiner, a Ugandan publication, also reported that President Museveni had dispatched two cabinet ministers to the border districts of Yumbe and Moyo in Uganda’s West Nile region to resolve the disputes between the two sisterly countries.

Angelo Daya, the Central Equatoria State’s Security Advisor, stated that the government had already formed a committee to resolve all the country’s border disputes, adding that the state governor would in the future hold a meeting with the Yumbe District Commissioner.

Gadino Ochama Ojok, the executive director and secretary general of the South Sudanese Network for Democracy and Elections (SSuNDE), said the border issue was urgent and the national government must swiftly act.

“I think President Kiir and President Museveni should show leadership at this level. They should really de-escalate the situation and ensure that the land in contention is brought to the rightful owner,” Ojok noted.

Although these border disputes dearly need the involvement of the governments of the countries involved, a lion’s share lies with the border communities on how best these disputes can be resolved once and for all.

On the other hand, regional bodies and international bodies like the African Union and the UN Security Council must not peep and stay back but resolve the South Sudan border disputes once and for all because they are the root causes of conflict and instability that have plagued South Sudan for decades.

But all starts with the will of the government of South Sudan in claiming its borders as well as the local communities wanting an end to round of conflict that hinder services from reaching them.

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