Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ethiopians Caught Up in South Sudan Crossfire

Addis Fortune 
A teething problem has continued to engage South Sudan- the three-year-old youngest nation of the world – as it enters its seventh day of violence. Already the disturbances have  claimed the lives of hundreds of people, including a young Ethiopian woman.

, according to the South Sudanese government, started as a “coup attempt” masterminded by the ousted Vice President, Reik Machar – the new kid on the East African block – plunged into ethnic violence within days.

The clash first ignited inJuba, the capital city, on the evening of Sunday, December 15, 2015, but quickly spread to other parts of the country, predominantly in the Jonglei and Unity states. Media reports suggested that at least 500 people lost their lives and 800 were injured in the ongoing crisis.

Since the onset of the conflict, fears lingered that Ethiopians living in the country would be trapped. This was given the fact that thousands of Ethiopians are living and working inJuba. The fears, however, have not come true to too large an extent, one confirmed death and a handful of injuries registered.

The deceased is a young Ethiopian woman, who was shot near the Customs Area on Sunday. In her mid-20s and coming from the Hadiya Zone in Southern Regional State, she ran a coffee and tea shop in the area, according to Ethiopians inJuba.

“She was shot by a stray bullet while sleeping,” a coordinator of the Ethiopian Community Association in South Sudan (ECASS) by the name Ephrem, told Fortune.

While President Salva Kiir appeared on state TV in his military uniform to address the nation about the “foiled coup attempt”, Ethiopians scrambled to finalise the necessary requirements to send her body back toEthiopia.

The efforts of the Ethiopian Community and the Embassy in South Sudan failed to materialize since theJubaInternationalAirportwas shut down. The Airport remained closed until Thursday, when it started to host the evacuation of American andUKcitizens. The morgue at the Juba Teaching Hospital, the main medical facility in the city, was crowded with causalities and had no more space to keep the deceased Ethiopian.

Left alone with no option, the Ethiopians decided to bury the woman inJuba. Her remains were laid to rest in a graveyard in the Konyo-Konyo area ofJuba.

The cause of the clash that claimed her life and hundreds of others remains unclear, but many agree that it is related to the ongoing power struggle between President Kiir and his political opponents, including Reik Machar (PhD). Kiir sacked Machar – who had been serving for eight years as his deputy – and his entire cabinet in July which led to political tension inSouth Sudan.

In his first major cabinet reshuffle, Kiir removed 29 ministers and their deputies from their positions. The shakeup also touched Pagun Amum, secretary general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and 17 police brigadiers.

Most of the ousted ministers were key personalities in the two-decade-long war against the government ofSudanand openly criticised President Kiir. When the Presidential decree was announced in July, many raised their concern that the sacking of such key figures could threaten the stability of the country.

Their concern was aggravated by a series of incidents over the subsequent five months. It did not take long for Machar to announce his desire to run for chairmanship of the SPLM, so that he could run for President during the first national election ofSouth Sudanin 2015.

Machar did not limit himself to expressing his ambition to clench the presidential seat, but also challenged Kiir on various forums. The former Vice President openly criticised Kiir for showing dictatorial tendencies and making decisions without consulting the party leadership.

Although Machar was ousted from the Vice Presidency position, he is still the deputy chairperson of the SPLM and one of the 27 members of the National Political Bureau – an organ of the ruling party that formulates policies, plans and programs.

Machar is not alone in forwarding heavy criticisms against President Kiir. The ousted Secretary General of the SPLM, Pagun Amum, who is known for his role as chief negotiator of the ongoing peace talks between South Sudan and Sudan; Deng Alor, former foreign minister and minister of Cabinet Affairs, and Rebecca Garang, widow of the late SPLA leader John Garang, are among the main critics of Kiir.

“They undermined Salva Kiir,” a political analyst, who consults on Horn of Africa issues and wanted to remain anonymous, told Fortune. “They said he has no charisma and leadership capacity.”

Garang, who is a co-founder of the SPLM, made a peace deal withSudanin 2005 that ended bloody civil war between North andSouth Sudan. The issue of implementing the positions negotiated by Garang, who died in a plane crash a few months after the 2005 peace agreement, is one of the main contentious issues in the ruling SPLM.

Machar and those former fighters, who are famously known as “Garang Boys”, believe that the SPLM engulfed into crisis immediately after the tragic death of Garang. They alleged that Kiir has a “soft heart” toKhartoumand abandoned Garang’s and the SPLM’s vision.

“They want to punishSudan,” the political analyst said.

The “Garang Boys” said that in the SPLM “decisions are essentially made by one person”. They also accused Kiir of discouraging the efforts to transform the SPLM “from a liberation movement into a mass based political party”.

They claimed that the crisis in the SPLM reached “boiling point” in March 2013 when Kiir cancelled a meeting of the National Liberation Council (NLC) – the highest organ of the body between the conventions. The SPLM convention does meet once every five years, while the NLC would have a regular session once a year, according to SPLM’s by-laws.

The Council’s meeting has been postponed three times in less than two months, due to the sharp political differences among the leaders of the party, according to the popularSouth Sudanwebsite, Sudan Tribune. The party finally agreed to hold the meeting for two days, on December 14 and 15, 2013.

Warning signs were seen days before the much-anticipated meeting. Some leaders of the SPLM, including Machar, members of the political Bureau and the NLC called a press conference and revealed to the Southern Sudanese people on the internal crisis over the SPLM leadership, which they claim has paralysed its functions in the government.

The statement, nevertheless, failed to be appreciated by the SPLM. In its rebuttal letter, the SPLM accused some party members of attempting “to discredit and distort facts about the SPLM leadership”. The letter also warned the group.

“We finally cautioned the group against inciting the army and threatening to create instability, chaos and disorder and falling into an abyss,” the Press statement of the SPLM released from the general headquarters on December 8 read. “This is a dangerous domain they tread into their own peril.”

The tit-for-tat press statements of the two sides was the mark that the incident had reached at the juncture that showed “unbridgeable differences,” according to the political analyst. Not surprisingly they did not take long before unidentified gunmen with an army fatigue shot at a place close to power.

President Kiir was quick to react to Sunday’s military violence inJuba. Throwing his usual cowboy hat and suit aside, Kiir appeared on state TV wearing a camouflaged military uniform.

He told his people and the world that the fighting that rocksJuba”was an attempted coup” and blamed “a group of soldiers allied to the former vice-president Riek Machar and his group”. Machar immediately denied the allegation through his spokesperson.

What really happened on Sunday evening is still sketchy, but many observers agree that those who began shooting are members of the Presidential Guard allied with Machar. However, they disagree with the Presidential claim of a coup attempt. They believe that the incident was “a mutiny among the presidential guards along the lines of existing loyalties of Kiir and Machar”.

“It doesn’t seem to be a fully-fledged coup, in the sense that there’s an organised attempt by Machar to seize power,” Magdi el-Gizouli of the Rift Valley Institute told the Wall Street Journal. “It appears a bit disorganized.”

An Addis Abeba based political analyst agree with such analysis. The Sunday incident did not even use the main tactic of a coup attempt, according to him. He argues that those who are attempting a coup d’état first try to control key government offices, such as the presidential palace and police stations, as well as the main channels of communications, state TV and Radio.

“If it is a coup attempt, it is amateurish,” the political analyst said.

If what happened inJubalooked amateurish the conflict that spread outside of the capital more deadly. The ethnic violence is severe in Bor and Akobo in Jonglei state. Nuer rebels controlled the troubled town ofBor, which was known for tribal conflict even before the currentSouth Sudancrisis.

On the same week, two Indian peacekeepers were killed in Akobo while defending the United Nations (UN) base against the assailants. The armed attackers from the Nuer tribe targeted 32 Dinka civilians who were sheltered at the base, the UN said. Around 35,000 people are currently seeking refuge in UN compounds acrossSouth Sudan.

Hundreds of Ethiopians are among the civilians sheltered in the UN compound in Bor, according to Ethiopians inSouth Sudan. The Ethiopians did not even have time to collect their belongings when they ran for their lives, an Ethiopian inJubawho talked to the refugees over the phone, told Fortune.

Expecting the worst, hundreds of Ethiopians have already leftSouth Sudanafter the fighting broke out. Many headed toKampala, the capital ofUganda, South to the now troubled Republic. A few Ethiopian UN workers were airlifted on Thursday. Those who work for Vivacell – one of the five companies providing telecom services in South Sudan – also moved toKampala. Around 20 Ethiopians are currently working at Vivacell.

Following the opening of the Uganda-South Sudan border, other Ethiopians are using road transport to leaveSouth Sudan. On Friday afternoon, around 100 Ethiopians have been seen in the border town ofNimule, while processing their visa.

“Nimule is crowded with people fleeing fromSouth Sudan. Hundreds of cars are lined up to cross the border,” Dagne Tuffer, a driver who was transporting Ethiopians toUganda, told Fortune on the phone from Nimule.

“Many people use trucks,” he said. “Even containers are used to transport people.”

Few Ethiopians are able to leave the troubled country. Many stayed behind to wait and see the development of the situation on the ground. Employees in the Juba Branch of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) even opened their office and continued business as usual on Thursday and Friday. Residents said that despite the heavy presence of military on the streets,Jubawas relatively calm on those days.

Ethiopian traders who spoke to Fortune said that they did not face any problems except the rush to close their businesses before the curfew, which ran from 6pm to 6am. Rumors were circulated inJubaabout Ethiopian shops being looted by gunmen, however no one was able to confirm it, according to Ephrem, the coordinator of ECASS.

To prepare for the worst case scenario, the Ethiopian Community started registering Ethiopians in Juba and others parts ofSouth Sudan. The registration started on Thursday and will be used for future measures, like evacuation, according to Ephrem.

“So far, around 1,000 Ethiopians have come to our office and registered,” Ephrem told Fortune. “The number will definitely increase when we get all the data from various areas ofJuba.”

Though the Ethiopian government prefers to “monitor the situation” and the ongoing mediation of a delegation of foreign ministers from East African countries – led by Tedros Adhanom (PhD), minister of Foreign Affairs – Britain, the US and Uganda have already sent planes, on Thursday and Friday, to airlift their nationals out of South Sudan.

Dina Mufti, the spokesperson to the Ministry, told Fortune that the Embassy inJubais closely monitoring the situation and dealing with the situation of the citizens there. He said the Ethiopian government could not do exactly what those countries located far from the region have done.

“Whenever things threaten the well being of our nationals, we definitely take measures,” he said. “This has been our track record.”

What those measures could be in real terms, Dina was not willing to disclose. However, judging how governments are responding to the crisis from what neighboring countries such asKenyaandUganda, it may involve sending troops and military helicopters to secure evacuations of their citizens.