Over the past two years, voluntary and forceful disarmament campaigns have been rolled out in Unity, Lakes, Jonglei and Central Equatoria states, but with little success.
In 2012, former Jonglei State Governor and current Minister for Defence Kuol Manyang Juuk handed over his weapon to officials, kick-starting the disarmament campaign in the capital Bor.
That campaign amassed over 10,000 guns, according to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) leadership. However, this accomplishment was marred by reports of human rights abuses including rape and torture by soldiers.
Other hurdles have delayed the governments bid to recover small arms and light weapons from civilians who often obtained them during the civil war. Eye witnesses say, for example, that many people only handed over one or two guns, keeping hold of others they own. Disarmament campaigns in South Sudan have also been hampered by travel difficulties, especially during rainy seasons when many roads are impassable.
Under the radar
For this reason, the removal of illegal arms has been largely carried out in the dry season, a period characterised by cattle raiding and revenge attacks. This background of aggression and risk made it less likely for civilians to willingly handover arms.
Communities denounced the initiative in Lakes and Unity states, accusing the government of disarming rival communities at different times, meaning that those who retained their weapons for longer were able to terrorise defenceless” groups.
There have also been reports of externally supplied arms being used to fight proxy wars, for example, with politicians re-arming their communities behind the back of governments.
These acts have been blamed for fuelling armed rebellions, inter-communal violence and a spate of cattle raids frequently killing and injuring scores of people, as well as depriving many of their scant possessions.
Linguistics Professor Patrick Otsudi blames illegal arms for undermining social, economic and political progress in the country. Security is compromised, he says, as criminal activities such as cattle raiding, revenge killings and armed robberies take centre stage, preventing people from moving freely and also discouraging much-needed investment in the young country. If I told you to go to Jonglei or Bentiu now, you will say it is not safe but if I tell you London, you will quickly ask me when the air ticket will be ready,” he says.
He also warns against disarming the civil population while the respective national, state, and local governments are divided and sections of the national army are loyal to individuals, for instance, during the current crisis which has pitted soldiers loyal to rebel Riek Machar against those who support President Salva Kiir.
Disarmament for only some
Recurring rebellions and the emergence of militia groups in several parts of the country have also derailed disarmament efforts, not least because they continue to supply arms to some communities.
Juba, the national capital, witnessed door to door and roadblock searches for illegal guns over the last months. Although there has not been the extent of human rights abuses inflicted on citizens elsewhere, especially in Jonglei, neither locals nor analysts see the disarmament campaign as a success.
One Juba resident, who declined to be identified, is haunted by one night in late March when she was robbed of 500 South Sudanese Pounds (about US$ 165) and a cellular phone. Her attackers, she says, were the same soldiers who had searched her neighbour’s house for guns two days earlier.
I felt frightened … There was somebody pointing a gun at my head telling me not to look at him,” she said. If I had something do to somewhere else, I would leave Juba.”
The woman described how the two soldiers planned to rape her but she was saved by another soldier who appeared to be in charge of the group and who criticised his colleagues’ behaviour.
She added that the disarmament exercise was a waste of time because many guns remain hidden until the soldiers leave again.
Her downbeat assessment of the campaign was echoed by Geoffrey Duke, an official at the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms. He said it remains unclear how many illegal guns were recovered during Juba’s disarmament, adding: We have not seen a clear reduction of crimes because arms ow easily and re-armament is easy.”
Information on forthcoming disarmaments is reportedly leaked to civilians by relatives within the forces carrying out the disarmament, giving locals ample time to hide any illegal firearms.
Duke added that the nation’s weak security institutions fail to protect people, motivating them to acquire weapons to protect themselves. Soldiers’ delayed salary payments, combined with their easy access to arms stockpiles, encouraged many to sell guns to civilians for a profit, he said, adding that he saw no swift conclusion to South Sudan’s negative cycle of small arms and light weapons proliferation.