Arms Collection Begins in Southern Sudan

Article excerpt

Authorities in Sudan have begun a series of weapons collection programs aimed at increasing security in the semiautonomous southern region of the country as part of an effort to increase stability there prior to national elections scheduled for April. The disarmament campaigns, which require civilians and the military to give up small arms, are mandated by a 2005 peace agreement. But the financial and political weakness of southern Sudan's government has led some observers to question its ability to carry out the campaigns successfully, in spite of assistance from the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The campaigns come at a critical time in Sudan's history. Since its independence in 1956, the country has been engulfed in two civil wars over resources, religion, and ideology. The more recent war ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which laid out the framework for a power-sharing arrangement between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south. In addition to requiring the disarmament campaigns, the peace agreement includes mandates for national elections in 2010 and a referendum on southern secession in 2011. The agreement is widely believed to be the sole provision standing in the way of a return to civil war, but implementation is faltering, and tensions are mounting in the run-up to the national elections. Reportedly, both the north and south are gearing up for a return to war.

Another concern is the rise in ethnic violence, which, according to one UN source, is escalating to "levels rarely seen even during the war." The UN estimates that more than 1,000 people have been killed in southern Sudan since the beginning of the year, a death toll that exceeds that of Darfur, the war-torn western region of Sudan, over the same period of time. According to one estimate, there are 2 million small arms in southern Su- dan, an area slightly smaller than Texas. Almost all are in the hands of civilians, who view the weapons as necessary for their safety and survival.

Salva Kiir, the president of southern Sudan, announced the government's recommitment to the civilian disarmament campaign May 22.

The statement came a year after the declaration of Operational Order 1/2008, which began a six-month program in southern Sudan aimed at completely disarming the civilian population.

Obstacles to Disarmament

The initial program, started in June 2008, did not have a clear mandate. As a voluntary disarmament measure, it gave civilians incentives to relinquish their weapons. However, it also explicitly condoned the use of force if peaceful methods did not prove sufficient, without clearly defining the limits of such force. The interpretation and application of the program were left largely up to the discretion of the 10 state governors whose job it was to carry out the program. Many of the collection efforts were marked by high numbers of civilian and military casualties as a result of efforts by the southern Sudanese army to disarm the civilian populations by force.

While expressing hope that the 2009 cycle of civilian disarmament would be more successful, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, the head of the southern Sudanese mission to the United States, said his government would be proceeding "with caution." The southern government conducted an emergency meeting with traditional leaders May 18-24 in Unity state to discuss issues of insecurity, Gatkuoth said in an Aug. 5 interview. The meeting highlighted the need to involve chiefs and traditional leaders in the disarmament process and examined the shortfalls of previous disarmament attempts, he said.

"State governors do not have the police force necessary to conduct disarmament," he said. For that reason, he said, the southern government allowed its army, known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), to assist. Gatkuoth emphasized that the SPLA was brought in solely because the southern government did not have the capacity to carry out the project without military help. …