COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

The challenges of confronting COVID-19 amidst fragile peace in South Sudan

Just a few months ago, many South Sudanese were breathing a sigh of relief, believing that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic had largely passed them by. Today, a virulent second wave is sweeping through the country causing huge harm to people’s health and wellbeing, damaging the already dire economy, and further interrupting the stagnating peace process. The number of cases is headed towards the 10,000 mark and there have been more than 100 deaths, although the true number of people affected by the virus is likely to be much higher given testing is largely limited to travellers and those with symptoms.

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Photo: Gregorio Cunha/UNMISS
Photo: Gregorio Cunha/UNMISS

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has not been immune. The peacekeeping mission implemented strong prevention measures well before COVID-19 arrived in the country. Despite that – like everywhere else in the world – our personnel have contracted the virus, and six have sadly lost their lives. UNMISS is working in partnership with the Government of South Sudan in the national-led response. It has funded and constructed medical facilities across the country, donated emergency vehicles, installed water bores and handwashing facilities, provided prevention training, printed tens of thousands of educational posters and flyers, and run promo-trucks broadcasting safety measures in communities around the country. 

Given the evolving political and security situation in #SouthSudan, it’s important that @unmissmedia re-calibrates to ensure that it is fit-for-purpose.

Of course, the mission’s activities to protect civilians and build durable peace have been impacted by the pandemic, including some restrictions on movements. However, personnel have remained committed to supporting the country as it passes through this emergency. A balance needs to be struck between keeping UN staff and peacekeepers COVID-19 free while at the same time not cutting back on our mandated tasks. The work that the UN does must continue. If it does not, the ramifications of COVID-19 will be much worse. Food supplies, health services, reconciliation activities to bring peace between warring parties – all these actions, and many other, make a huge difference in this country and must continue. 

Experience from the Ebola outbreak provides important lessons. While more than 11,000 people in West Africa died of Ebola, it was estimated later that many more died because vaccinations did not occur and health centres were unable to provide treatments. It has been important to ensure that these basic services on which so many South Sudanese depend are able to function. 

Despite the pandemic, some positive progress in the peace process has been made. The Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity was formed along with the presidency and Council of Ministers. Governors in the states have been appointed and local administrative officials and structures are being established. 

However, progress is still far too slow. The Transitional National Legislature is yet to be reconstituted and there has been minimal progress on constitution-making, transitional justice, and economic reform. The 35 per cent quota for women in government appointments is yet to be realised. Most significantly, the unifying of armed forces has not been completed, despite multiple self-imposed Government deadlines. 

Slow implementation has come at a cost. The power vacuum at local levels has opened opportunities for spoilers and national actors to exploit local tensions and fuel sub-national violence. The cost has been borne in humanitarian terms, exacerbated by the devastation of flooding. It is estimated that most of the country requires food aid. 

Despite those challenges though, importantly, the ceasefire continues to hold, and political violence has significantly reduced. 

Given the evolving political and security situation in South Sudan, it’s important that UNMISS re-calibrates to ensure that it is fit-for-purpose. An Independent Strategic Review, commissioned by the Security Council, and the new mandate is guiding that process. 

While #COVID-19 has added a layer of complexity to an extremely fragile peace process, it has not stopped forward momentum.

Our focus going forward is broadening our approach to protection of civilians and reinforcing the nimble, proactive and robust peacekeeping actions that we take. This includes redeploying troops from UN Protection of Civilians sites (POCs), which have been transitioned to conventional displacement camps under the sovereign control of the Government, to areas where communities face the threat of intercommunal fighting. Numerous new temporary bases have been set up to enable increased patrolling to hotspots by integrating missions involving troops as well as civil affairs and human rights teams to bring communities together, deter violence and address underlying causes of conflict.

Peacekeeping engineers from seven different countries are also building and improving 3,200 kilometers of roads.  The tangible impact of this work can’t be overstated. It is an often-overlooked legacy of peacekeeping. In a country with just 400 kilometers of paved road, improving roads boosts communication, increases trade, jobs and, most critically, it builds peace through linking communities.

We are also looking to redeploy staff and resources to build the capacity of important institutions, including the courts, justice system and national police. Our UN police officers are actively supporting the national police service, building their professional capacity and even co-locating with them in some areas to provide hands-on assistance. We are also looking to build on the success of mobile courts by making them permanent so that all victims have access to justice. We are also prioritizing technical support for security sector reform and looking ahead to elections.  

At the end of my four years in South Sudan, I look back at how far the country has come. There is a ceasefire, a peace deal, a transitional Government, a Presidency, Council of Ministers, and local leadership slowly being installed. The majority of people who flocked to protection sites in 2013 and 2016 have either left or now live in the newly transitioned displacement camps which is a result of improved political security. The reality is, though, that the peace process remains extremely fragile. While COVID-19 has added a layer of complexity to this process, it has not stopped forward momentum. Similarly, the UN has continued to respond, deliver, and adjust to the new realities of the global pandemic on the ground.

Looking forward, there are still important questions to address in support of South Sudan’s longstanding vision for transitioning from conflict to peace. The first is the continuing absence of a financial system that works for the people of South Sudan. The wealth of the country bypasses its people, siphoned off in secrecy with no public accountability for how it is spent. South Sudan has also become one of the most dependent nations in history. Its education and health systems, its roads and infrastructure are provided by outsiders. As the international community, we have to ask ourselves if we have too eagerly stepped in and shouldered responsibilities that should be the job of the South Sudanese government, thereby adding to their dependency. In doing so, we have undermined the dignity of the broader population. 

As my time in South Sudan comes to an end, it is pleasing for me to see the transformation of South Sudan from conflict to recovery is underway. UNMISS is also in good heart, performing strongly and poised to implement change.

I have been proud to work with the special people in the UN who work in some of the toughest conditions in the world, far from their loved ones. Yet every morning, they get up, do their jobs and do their best.

I’m also immensely proud to have worked alongside the people of South Sudan. They inspire me with their seemingly endless patience and hope as they fight against huge odds to achieve the much brighter future they deserve. They are, without doubt, the toughest, most resilient people I’ve ever met. And yet, despite hardship, they sit, discuss, and never give up. Perhaps above all, I’ve enjoyed their wonderful sense of humour in the face of huge adversity.

I will miss this young country of South Sudan and I wish it well from the bottom of my heart. 

David Shearer is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for South Sudan and Head of UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.