06 Mar 2019

Organised crime likely to rise in war-torn South Sudan

Amid signs of a faltering peace deal, South Sudan is grappling with already entrenched forms of armed and organised crime.

On 31 October 2018, South Sudan celebrated the signing of a revitalised peace deal, which was intended to end the civil war that has been ongoing since 2013. But the deal was met with scepticism, and now, six months later, is showing signs of faltering. Rebel groups like the National Salvation Front, led by Thomas Cirilo, did not sign the agreement­ – exclusions that were always likely to increase resistance to the proposed transition, and fuel acts of lawlessness and criminality.

The world’s youngest nation has experienced one of the most dire humanitarian crises in recent history, marked by a litany of human rights abuses and crimes against civilians. A recent report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan documents in detail these horrors, which include brutal killings of adults and children, gang rape and torture.

The crimes forced a third of the country’s 12 million people out of their homes, and tens of thousands sought safety in UN camps set up to protect civilians. Even in these camps, a worrying gang culture developed where boys and girls alike engage in petty crimes as members of organised gangs. Officials fear these youths may become a new generation of high-level organised criminals or extremists.

According to official sources, over 3.2 million unauthorised small arms are in circulation in South Sudan

The country’s battered economy is entirely dependent on oil, and social services are funded by the international community. The country is in debt due to advance oil sales, which means the resumption of oil production is unlikely to help generate significant revenue in the short term. Large-scale corruption amid economic hardships in recent years makes it hard to imagine how salaries of a bloated transition government and military would be paid promptly.

A recent investigative report found that elite politicians and members of the military are competing to buy homes and invest in the East African region. Nairobi and Kampala serve as second homes and safe havens for a number of top government officials.

The elite’s relentless zero-sum scramble for power and profit facilitates other forms of organised crime within South Sudan, which could spread to neighbouring countries. The peace agreement could be merely a chance to renegotiate a greedy political and economic order that maintains a kleptocratic stranglehold on the country’s revenue.

In South Sudan, armed gangs act with impunity while enjoying high-level political patronage and protection

During the South Sudan civil war, crimes such as kidnapping for sexual abuse or ransom was largely practiced by armed groups, while cattle rustling became widespread due to rampant lawlessness. The growth of gangs whose sole means of livelihood is crime is likely to continue, fuelling increased criminality. This will be facilitated by a multitude of small arms and light weapons currently circulating in the country.

According to the country’s Ministry of Interior, over 3.2 million unauthorised small arms are in circulation. Networks of criminal groups could establish or strengthen already existing links with similar groups in neighbouring Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

In 2017, cattle rustling spread to neighbouring Ethiopia as Murle tribal militia from Boma state killed at least 50 people from Dinka villages and abducted about 60 women and children in two raids in Jonglei state, which borders Ethiopia to the country’s east. The following month, media reports indicated that over 170 people were killed and an unknown number of cattle stolen in three attacks in Western Lakes state, in central South Sudan. If unchecked, such attacks, described by local officials as a cycle of revenge, could provide cover for cattle theft and arms trafficking by international organised crime syndicates.

Did the South Sudan peace deal merely renegotiate a greedy political and economic order that maintains a kleptocratic stranglehold on the country’s revenue?

Abductions are likely to limit the reach of humanitarian aid and cut off hope for ordinary citizens. UN staff and humanitarian aid workers, mostly South Sudanese nationals, have borne the brunt of kidnappings by fighters of various groups. UN reports show that abductions of aid workers have risen sharply in South Sudan since 2015. This year the UN confirmed abductions in various states, especially Western Equatoria.

As cracks begin to show in the fragile peace deal, it is clear that South Sudan faces many organised crime risks, as armed gangs act with impunity while enjoying high-level political patronage and protection. If the South Sudan government and the international community do not urgently disarm and demobilise fighters through civil society initiatives, and prioritise concerted efforts to remove the millions of illicit small arms currently in circulation, this risk could easily lead to uncontrollable organised crime ­– if not a resurgence of civil war.

Deo Gumba, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – East and Horn of Africa, ISS

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