An SPLA soldier is pictured behind a South Sudan flag as he sits on the back of a pick-up truck in Bentiu, Unity state, file. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

On Tuesday 9 July, South Sudan will mark eight years of independence. I deliberately use the word ‘mark’ rather than ‘celebrate’ because it could be argued that there is little to celebrate for Africa’s youngest nation. 

In 2011, there was good reason to celebrate the hard-fought for independence that ended the continent’s longest running civil war that had resulted in the loss of 1.5 million lives and four million displaced. Tragically South Sudanese had barely started to enjoy the benefits of independence when the country was plunged into a civil war.  

Independence is not just about self-governance, but also the guarantee of pursuing stability, prosperity and development for the current and future generations. It is an opportunity to reflect on its past and take stock of the progress, challenges and opportunities that exist. However, there must be peace for the people of South Sudan to enjoy the true benefits of national independence.

I was profoundly moved by a group of South Sudanese women who recounted their experience of war, peace and war again to an assembly of human rights and humanitarian organisations in Nairobi. 

“We were so, so happy when we got our independence and we were able to go back to our country after years in exile” recounted Amira (not her real name). For Amira and her family, the joyous independence celebrations in Juba in 2011 were followed by a period of settling into what she thought was their final home and building a successful business while at the same time constructively contributing to the building of their fledgeling nation.

Rather than fuelling national prosperity, South Sudan’s rich oil reserves have been a key driver of the conflict that has resulted in the deaths of thousands and displacement of millions of South Sudanese. Amira and her colleagues were forced to flee their homes in Juba when war broke out in 2011 and become refugees yet again, eking out a precarious living in Nairobi, their dreams of a prosperous homecoming destroyed.
African efforts to broker peace between the warring parties through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have resulted in numerous ceasefires that were broken until the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in August 2018. Despite the signing of the deal, peace in South Sudan has been elusive with the process of peacebuilding facing numerous challenges that have in effect slowed down the momentum towards reaping the fruits of independence.

On the occasion of presenting the report on Human rights in Sudan at the 40th UN Human Rights Council Session, Ms Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission of Human Rights in Sudan (and Director of South Africa’s Foundation for Human Rights) stated that the recent peace agreement had led to an overall improvement of security and peace, bringing hope to the people of South Sudan but she noted that the Commission’s concern about the impact of protracted conflict on the population, the precarious humanitarian situation and the “use of rape and sexual violence used as a tactic of warfare against women and girls by all of the warring parties to sow terror and fear amongst the civilian population”.

Reading the Commission’s report I recalled the experiences of sexual violence recounted by South Sudanese refugee women in my personal encounters.  

Sexual and gender-based violence, the pillaging of South Sudan and the continued violations of the peace agreement will not end without concerted efforts to end impunity and bring those responsible to account. As Yasmin Sooka pointed out: 
“The Commission’s report serves to remind this Council and Member States of the African Union that there can be no lasting peace in South Sudan without justice and accountability for the victims of these crimes. The current stalemate in the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, and the absence of real measures taken at a national level to prosecute these crimes, is an incentive as the perpetrators know that little will be done to hold those responsible accountable.”

I agree with Sudanese expert Daniel Akech Thiong’s critique of the international community’s approach to the war in South Sudan: “the typical diplomatic approach of trying to end the war by proposing power-sharing agreements is doomed to fail. This strategy rewards violence, ignores the root causes of conflict, and encourages dissatisfied elites to take up arms to whenever they want a bigger share of power and public resources.”

The internationally acclaimed award-winning documentary The Profiteers by Kenyan journalist John-Allan Namu lays bare the activities of the predatory elite responsible for continued war in South Sudan. This powerful documentary is a compelling argument to end impunity and hold accountable the profiteers of war. It challenges all those involved in working on a peaceful deal in South Sudan to look beyond mere power sharing agreements. I directly influenced me to applaud the recent UN Security Council’s decision to renew until May 2020 the arms embargo it imposed on South Sudan in 2018, as well as the sanctions put into place in 2015 on the spoilers of peace. 

Yasmin Sooka’s statement outlined concrete suggestions for genuine peace in South Sudan. 

“We believe that stopping this conflict and building sustainable peace requires sustained political will and effective leadership on the part of the government, the African Union and IGAD. The implementation of the transitional justice framework set out in Chapter V of the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan and reaffirmed in the Revitalized Peace Agreement, and the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan is critical in ensuring that South Sudan is enabled to deal with its past and secure long term stability and prosperity. For this it needs the support of the international community.”

I would add that it needs the solidarity of African citizens to ensure that the people of South Sudan can enjoy genuine independence, free from conflict and trauma. 

* Elinor Sisulu is a human rights activist and political analyst in South Africa