Disarmament was never going to be easy in Jonglei, one of South Sudan’s most violent states. But the process of trying to remove weapons from a population which is armed to the hilt, has fared worse than even the most pessimistic predictions.
‘For any disarmament programme to work, it has to be driven by confidence rather than fear.’
The disarmament campaign instigated by the government in March 2012, aimed to foster peace, but in reality unleashed a storm of violence and human rights atrocities in South Sudan’s largest state.
Reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate citizens have been tortured, raped and killed by soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) conducting the disarmament.
Victims described being beaten by soldiers and having their heads submerged in water to extract information about weapons. Others spoke of how soldiers looted their property and destroyed crops.
These brutal tactics are a key reason for the disarmament campaign's failure. Observers say the soldiers riled locals by disarming some communities of their weapons while not disarming others, creating a volatile imbalance of power, fuelling insecurity, and undermining any confidence in the government.
The officials clearly had their work cut out: Jonglei, where most citizens are shepherds, is awash with arms, which are used in conflicts and also in a spate of thefts, especially of livestock. Divisions between Dinka, Nuer and Murle communities are pronounced, and, exacerbating local tensions, all these groups are heavily armed, a legacy of decades of war.
Because of this insecurity, handing over weapons makes people feel vulnerable to attack. Careful explanation is needed to show how disarmament is needed to install long-term security and protect their children in the future.
‘South Sudan will need to tread carefully to restore wounded trust of the people in the government – and in each other.’But the forces’ aggressive approach, combined with a lack of accountability, weakened any trust in the rule of law. Human Rights Watch cited the Pibor County Commissioner as saying that in one instance there had been 14 cases of killings and serious injuries to civilians by disarmament forces but military authorities arrested suspects in only five cases.
For any disarmament programme to work, it has to be driven by confidence rather than fear. This is not the case in Jonglei. With all that has transpired, it is understandable that people have completely lost faith in the authorities’ ability to create a safe environment and ensure a fair disarmament process.
People of Jonglei State have had their confidence in the young nation badly soured by the botched disarmament campaign. It is obvious that they will continue to carry and use their arms.
Before attempting another disarmament campaign, South Sudan will need to tread carefully to restore wounded trust of the people in the government – and in each other. Only when that is achieved, can they even consider attempting civilian disarmament in Jonglei.