The African Union (AU) was formed, among other things, to promote peace, security and stability on the continent; to promote democracy and its attendant institutions; to promote and protect human and peoples’ rights, in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.

As far as South Sudan goes, the AU has been a disastrous failure on all the above objectives – and do not even get me started on Burundi, DRC, Somalia, Chad, CAR and other troubled African countries.

South Sudan attained independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011 but the country has had trouble finding its political footing. This has led to endless conflict that has so far seen over 3 million people flee their homes to neighbouring countries.

“All they (the AU) do is sit in their boardroom meetings, drink tea and release reports when common people are being butchered like goats on the ground.” Juma John Stephen, survivor and journalist)

Juma John Stephen is one of the thousands lucky enough to escape the violence and make it to Uganda. In an interview with This is Africa, he scoffs at the AU and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni for prolonging the violent conflict in his home country. “All they (the AU) do is sit in their boardroom meetings, drink tea and release reports when common people are being butchered like goats on the ground,” he says.

The latest effort at peace in South Sudan is in danger of failure. Photo: Business Insider.
The latest effort at peace in South Sudan is in danger of failure. Photo: Business Insider.

Juma came to Uganda to have his academic documents certified and then to secure them in a safe deposit box at a bank. Two months earlier, he and colleagues had started operations on a radio station that they founded under the King Media umbrella. However, the station had to close in its infancy due to the insecurity.

The history of the violence

After more than 20 years of guerrilla warfare, which claimed the lives of at least 1,5 million people and displaced 4 million more, South Sudan gained independence from Khartoum in 2011. A year after independence, disagreements with Sudan over the oil-rich region of Abyei erupted into full-scale fighting. A peace deal was reached in June 2012, enabling South Sudan’s oil exports to resume.

In 2013, a civil war broke out after South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, sacked the Cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of planning a coup. Kiir reappointed Machar in February 2016 as a sign of peace. In an interesting turn of events, Machar has since been fired and reassigned again.

“There needs to be strong and consistent pressure on the warring parties to abide by the agreement’s terms and this pressure must especially come from the African Union to be effective,” Phillips Odwokacen, political scientist, Uganda Christian University)

In 2015, a ceasefire was reached but it failed to hold and the country slipped back into fresh violence. More than 3 million people have been internally and externally displaced by the fighting, according to UN and Red Cross figures. Many of them are now living in Uganda.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at least 217 cases of sexual violence in Juba have been documented between 8 and 25 July.

Even though the warring parties have reached an agreement to end the conflict, they did so grudgingly, arguing that the terms of the agreement were imposed on them by external forces. As a result, there are more forces working within in South Sudan to undermine the peace efforts than those that are working to bring peace. Not surprisingly, these deliberate efforts to undermine peace have resulted in renewed violence and new cases of serious human rights abuses.

AU reluctance a bad signal

In 2014, the African Union Commission of Inquiry (AUCISS) released a report on the conflict. The reported confirmed that mass killings, torture, mutilation and rape against civilians, as well as forced cannibalism, had indeed taken place in South Sudan. These activities amount to serious war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The AU has been criticised for being slow to act.
The AU has been criticised for being slow to act.

Surprisingly, no action has been taken to apprehend the perpetrators. It is this inaction that has fostered a culture of impunity: heinous crimes come with no consequences.

“There needs to be strong and consistent pressure on the warring parties to abide by the agreement’s terms and to permanently put aside any plans to resort once more to war. This pressure must especially come from the African Union to be effective,” argues Phillips Odwokacen, a political science lecturer at Uganda Christian University (UCU).

Odwokacen observed that the conflict in South Sudan could have been one of the shortest wars in history had the African Union rushed to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.

Uganda’s role questioned

However, it was Uganda that ‘intervened’, under the pretext of repatriating civilians out of harm’s way. Yet reports indicate that Uganda’s forces are in South Sudan at the invitation of President Salva Kiir. Although there was consternation in the international community, Museveni has been reluctant to withdraw the force, despite repeated international calls to do so.

No wonder many South Sudanese now look at Museveni and the AU as part of the problem rather than the solution. This, in addition to other factors, has hindered effective coordination, resulting in further delays in the implementation of the fragile Peace Agreement, as well as the implementation of AUCISS’s recommendations. All of this makes it rather urgent that African Union leadership in respect of South Sudan be more coordinated, better resourced and more decisive.

The AU cannot just be ‘concerned’ by the violence in South Sudan; it has to act decisively to save the lives of people. The debate must shift from boardrooms in Addis Ababa to the battlefield of Juba and other principalities, where mass graves are being dug and filled every day.

With IGAD’s 3 000-man team joining up with the 12 000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), we can only hope for the better. Going forward, the African Union will have to do much more than simply express concern about conflicts.

Now is the time to act.