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Masculinity and sexual violence in India

10 September 2015
Martin Rew is a lecturer in IDD. His reseacrch interests include: combined methods in poverty analysis; political economy, labour migration and globalisation; anthropology of the state; governance, decentralisation and political devolution; rural livelihood sustainability; social movements; donor approaches to political economy analysis; research methods; and minorities and resettlement in China. His recent projects include decentralisation, elites and political devolution in Orissa, rural labour relations and migration in Orissa, and the political economy of mining and protest in eastern India. Martin Rew is a lecturer in IDD. His reseacrch interests include: combined methods in poverty analysis; political economy, labour migration and globalisation; anthropology of the state; governance, decentralisation and political devolution; rural livelihood sustainability; social movements; donor approaches to political economy analysis; research methods; and minorities and resettlement in China. His recent projects focus on decentralisation, elites and political devolution in Orissa, rural labour relations and migration in Orissa, and the political economy of mining and protest in eastern India.

The brutal rape and murder in December 2012 of a 23-year-old student in a Delhi bus has been the catalyst for rapidly evolving activism against sexual violence in India.

The case garnered considerable national and international attention. Indian law forbids the naming of rape victims, so the student became widely known as Nirbhaya – Hindi for ‘the fearless one’, because she fought back against her six attackers as best she could – and she rapidly became a symbol of women’s inequality within the country.

So far, public action and protest has ranged from the rational, such as demands for the speedy resolution of rape cases and the abolition of intrusive medical tests to infer whether women ‘are habituated to sex’ (Baxi, 2013), to the controversial, including demands for mandatory death sentence for rapists (Gangoli, 2012).

I went to Mumbai during June and July this summer, funded by the School of Government and Society and IDD, to explore some of the social and political fallout. I wanted to understand men’s perceptions of and attitudes to the event.

I was particularly interested in the responses of middle class professional men who, some might argue, are least likely to be affected by the case’s legislative or social consequences because of their social and economic status. The perpetrators were ‘working class’ rural migrants, and this has problematically confirmed long-standing middle-class perceptions that rampant sexual violence occurs only among the Indian working class. Meanwhile instances of middle-class sexual violence go largely unchallenged.

After a fair amount of friendly persuasion I managed to conduct a good number of in-depth interviews and returned with two broad observations.

The first is primarily anthropological. It raises questions about perceptions of sexual violence and masculinity in the context of a rapidly globalising India. I think it would be useful to ask to what extent these perceptions are governed by ideas of time, and by conventional understandings of the male lifecycle.

Protests outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi. Photo credit: Ramesh Lalwani

Protests outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi.
Photo credit: Ramesh Lalwani

Many of my interviewees shared their belief that the rate of globalisation in India was too rapid, in terms of both the proliferation of sexual imagery and its effect on sexual desire. This was seen as having a detrimental effect on sexual maturity, particularly among men. It can also be said that sexuality in India has become increasingly uncoupled from the confines of marriage and is seen progressively in public discourse as a form of pleasure. There is certainly a sense in which this change has unsettled conventional ideas of appropriate male sexual behaviour across generations. Confusion and ambivalence about appropriate sexual behaviour in Indian society particularly intersects with the globalised profusion of pornography available through the internet.

This confusion is illustrated by the recent and very rapid U-turn of the Indian Government which partially lifted its ban on internet pornography at the beginning of August. The ban had sparked widespread debate on censorship and freedom.  Informally, however, and largely among Indian feminists, there continues to be discussion about how pornography might increase and legitimate sexual violence against women.

My second observation was more ‘developmental’. Men’s views on the legal responses to the case explore both the highly punitive and retributional discourses it has produced; interviewees also talk of a ‘failing’ judiciary.  Rape within marriage is not an offence in Indian law, and the lack of such protection for women is perceived as a glaring legal absence in the eyes of most Indian feminists.

Asking men for views on the need to criminalise marital rape, I found interesting parallels with perceptions about how dowry legislation is perceived to have been misused since its introduction in 1961, and perceptions of the possible consequences of criminalising rape. Previous research (Gangoli and Rew, 2014) has explored how dowry law has been used by women to escape unhappy and incompatible marriages rather than because their husband’s family genuinely continue to use threats of abandonment or worse to demand more dowry.  Many of my interviewees felt that similar forms of ‘misuse’ of the law could occur if marital rape was criminalised. This was a particular concern for them in the context of a judicial system that is so often open to corruption.

Gender-based violence and the legislative evolution set in motion by this case will be the focus of a special issue of the Journal of Indian Law and Society, likely to be published at the end of this year and put together by Rukmini Sen and colleagues at Ambedkar University in Delhi. It may even have some policy impact; we will wait and see.

With Dr. Geetanjali Gangoli, I am co-authoring a paper for this special issue about the Indian Law Commission’s report on the Nirbhaya case. We found that while there are many potentially positive aspects to the report, such as proposals for procedures to speed up court responses, the report also reproduces many past mistakes. For instance, it misses the opportunity to criminalise marital rape or to outlaw reference to the sexual history of a woman who alleges rape in judicial judgements.

It is possible that the material I have come back from Mumbai with this summer will feed into those findings and even evolve into stand-alone papers. However, taken all in all, it is clear to me that middle class men In India have been deeply affected by the Nirbhaya case. At the same time, they have diverse attitudes towards how both sexual relations should be promoted and how sexual violence should be policed in the future.

Action against gender-based violence is increasingly an explicit part of the global donor agenda. I would argue that understanding the attitudes of middle-class attitudes Indians towards gender-based violence has become increasingly important, because those attitudes will be a key driver of change. Even so, whether the political will to criminalise marital rape will materialise in India remains to be seen; I think that ultimately it will depend greatly on the strength and effectiveness of the Indian feminist lobby.

Scores killed by bombs and bullets as Boko Haram struggle escalates

8 July 2015

Paul JacksonPaul Jackson is a political economist working predominantly on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. A core area of interest is decentralisation and governance and it was his extensive experience in Sierra Leone immediately following the war that led him into the area of conflict analysis and security sector reform.

The latest attack ascribed to Boko Haram, a suicide bomb set off in the city of Zaria, has killed at least 25 people. While the group has not yet commented on the bombings, they follow a week of carnage across northern Nigeria – proof that the Boko Haram insurgency around Lake Chad and its long campaign against the Nigerian Government has entered a new phase.

Having been beaten back by a significant regional force led by troops from Chad, Boko Haram no longer holds the vast areas of land it once did, but it is also very clear that the Nigerian government does not control all of these areas either. The security of the people who live there is still anything but assured – that much has now been made clear by some of the worst violence Nigeria has seen for a long time.

On June 30, Boko Haram insurgents shot 48 men leaving prayers at a local mosque near Monguno in Borno State. The next day, around 50 gunmen killed 97 villagers near Lake Chad; the day after, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in villages in Borno, killing at least ten.

In a particularly disturbing attack on July 3, around 50 gunmen on motorbikes stormed in to the village of Mussa and killed anyone they found. Then, on July 5, the extremist group attacked a church in the north-eastern city of Potiskum and detonated two bombs in Jos, taking the week’s total of victims to more than 200 – though the isolation of many Boko Haram targets and the opacity of the Nigerian state means that nobody knows how many people were actually killed.


The fact that it also took around 48 hours for news of these atrocities to reach the new military headquarters at Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, speaks volumes about the Nigerian government’s loose grip on the country.

This violence is the worst since Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari came to power with a mandate to destroy the insurgency, which has killed more than 15,000 people. Since he took office the group has taken around 450 lives, launching raids and suicide attacks across the region.

Outside Borno, Boko Haram has recently been linked to a regular upsurge in violence during Ramadan. The suicide bombings in Jos targeted a Muslim restaurant and a mosque in what appeared to be an attempt to assassinate a Muslim cleric – Sani Yahaya of the Jama’atu Izalatul Bidia organisation, which advocates peace between faiths.

This significant spike in violence has led to concerns that Boko Haram and regrouped following the successful military assaults by the regional military force that brings Nigeria together with Chad, Cameroon and Niger to establish real regional military cooperation.

The Chadian intervention has been a real game-changer, forcing Boko Haram back and encouraging the Nigerian military to commit better quality troops and creating a regional military command in Borno.

Chaos and spiralling violence

While this slew of attacks proves Boko Haram is still very much alive, it also heralds a new phase in the saga. This is now a game of hit-and-run coupled with terrorism, rather than a struggle for territory. At the same time, the last week’s slaughter also shines a light on Chad and Nigeria’s sharply contrasting fortunes in their offensives against the group – and on deep underlying issues in both countries.

The Nigerian story is one of recrimination and spiralling violence. The Nigerians themselves have shifted their military headquarters to Maiduguri in Borno, 500 miles away from the capital, Abuja, until the insurgency is resolved. The aim is to centralise operations, cut bureaucracy and speed up decision making, while overcoming a common perception of the senior military personnel being removed from the soldiers on the front line.

The Nigerian military has a history of downplaying complaints of poor equipment and supply by those operating in Borno, even when disillusioned soldiers have refused to fight, or even in one case, shooting their commanding officer.

In keeping with many poorly disciplined and supplied militaries, the Nigerian army’s tactics have become ever more violent. A recent Amnesty International report accused the military of killing some 8,000 civilians, routinely engaging in torture and forcible detention and also accusing several military leaders of crimes against humanity.

Chad steps up

But whereas the situation has led to a great deal of soul-searching within the Nigerian military over its failure and embarrassment in not dealing with the militants, Nigeria’s Chadian counterparts scored a major success when they crushed a terrorist cell in their capital, N’Djamena.

The Chadians have reportedly arrested 75 militants who were planning attacks on their soil, which hosts the regional command centre for the forces combating Boko Haram.

These militants were apparently coordinating weapons and recruit trafficking for the group; among them is a senior and well-known leader, Naana Fanay, alias Mahamat Moustapha. Crucially, the Chadians also arrested a Boko Haram financier, who they believe could well hold further intelligence on Boko Haram’s poorly understood regional operations.

Both sides are escalating the fight – and a new regional fighting force comprising 8,700 troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin is due to deploy at the end of July. But the dramatic performance gap between Nigeria and Chad, the two pre-eminent military forces in the region, is a serious cause for concern. It remains to be seen if Nigerian military is actually capable of leading the fight against Boko Haram.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. The Conversation
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Prizes for local government: Latin America or England?

19 June 2015

Andrew NicksonAndrew Nickson is Honorary Reader in Public Management and Latin American Studies in IDD, with 30 years’ experience of teaching, research and consultancy on public administration reform, local governance, decentralization and urban water supply. He has particular interests in Sierra Leone, Nepal and Paraguay, countries where he has had long-term work assignments.

Last week I was in Panama City to deliver the inaugural address at the 2nd Latin American seminar on good practices in municipal management. My topic was the challenges of sub-national governance in the region, after thirty years during which local political democracy has gradually become the norm, accompanied by a growing share of fiscal revenue devolved to local government. However, as I pointed out in my address, progress in creating a genuine career system at the municipal level has proceeded at a snail’s pace, mainly due to the opposition of local and national political leaders, for whom the gift of political appointments remains a key tool in winning votes at election time.

I was also a member of a panel to select prize-winners for the ‘best practices’ carried out by local governments. Three things stood out. First, many of the 35 entries from around the region were rather mundane activities (e.g. modernising a municipal records office or a setting up a farmer’s market) that would be considered nothing special in the municipalities of northern Europe. Second, little Uruguay (pop. 3.5 million), won many of the prizes, as it did last time round. There is a simple reason for this. Uruguay has the most educated population, least unequal income distribution, and oldest demographic profile in the region. This combination, leavened with a radical cultural tradition passed on by forefathers from Italy and Spain, has produced one of the highest incidences of ‘active citizenship’ in the world. Finally, and related to this, some of the entries (especially the winners) were extremely innovative in the way that citizens interacted with local government.

Metropolitan Tax Authority (SAT) of Lima, Peru

Metropolitan Tax Authority (SAT) of Lima, Peru

Take for example the entry by the Metropolitan Tax Authority (SAT) of Lima, Peru, which won 2nd prize. In order to deliver council tax bills to householders in dangerous parts of the El Cercado inner city neighbourhood, SAT recruited unemployed, very low-income and older residents of El Cercado, giving special preference to single mothers. After training, these local staff proved to have a much higher success rate on bill delivery than the private firm to which the service had been previously contracted out. Their self-esteem and income rose, they become valued colleagues on the municipal staff, and this ‘social capital’ approach encouraged a higher rate of tax compliance by residents.

So how can there be so much creativity and innovation in local governance when municipal authorities often lack the solid career structures that I was lamenting in my address? Well maybe it is not such a contradiction after all. When an elected mayor has such freedom over appointments, this can be used for good or ill. Some just pack departments with friends and family, often as ghost-workers, and milk the system while in office. But many others, such as those represented at the Panama event, use that freedom to bring on board a team of dynamic, younger professionals, from academia, NGOs and the private sector, in order to spearhead radical change. What is exciting about this is the way that they actually put into practice the concept of ‘local democratic governance’, developed by UNDP, with a genuine passion. These mayors and their advisors get involved in day-to-day initiatives, work out-of-hours, are on first-name terms with junior staff, and are prepared to delegate real power to citizens. One way of getting this moving is through participatory budgets, whereby citizens actually decide municipal investment priorities in their neighbourhoods. These have become commonplace throughout the region.

The end result is that this variant of Latin America’s local government culture gets things done more much more rapidly and in a much more inclusive manner than the cold managerialist culture of English local government, with its silo mentality, nine-to-five approach, and where ‘community involvement’ is purely a tick-box devise used to extract funds from central government or the EU. So aren’t I contradicting myself? On the one hand lamenting the absence of a genuine local career system yet at the same time admiring the ‘passion’ of the personalist mayoral system of Latin America. This is a tricky issue to resolve. Indeed the ‘informality’ of the system does mean that many brilliant initiatives come to a grinding halt when a new mayor is elected, often seeking to distance him/herself from his/her predecessor by simply killing projects, even when they were successful. So this lack of an ‘institutional memory’ does make it more difficult for reforms to bed down. But as shown by the SAT project, which has already survived three periods of office of different mayors, this is not impossible.

Why the UK doesn’t mind if aid boosts military spending

18 June 2015

fisher-jonathan01Jonathan Fisher is a lecturer in IDD. His research is focused on the place and agency of African states in the international system, particularly in the realm of security and conflict. Within this he is interested in the role played by African governments in shaping how they are perceived and engaged with by Western actors. He has a particular interest in eastern Africa and the influence of guerrilla heritage on contemporary patterns of governance, conflict and cooperation across the region. He is also interested in how ‘knowledge’ on African security and conflict is negotiated and constructed in a range of settings.

Former coalition defence minister Gerald Howarth has expressed concern that “the UK is effectively subsidising the defence budgets” of its aid recipients.

Drawing on research undertaken by the House of Commons Library, Howarth highlighted that as Britain has increased the aid sent to a range of recipients, including Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the same countries’ defence budgets have swollen.

This was born out by analyses charting defence spending increases since 2012/13. Rises from $330m to $400m in Tanzania and from $430m to $460m in DRC did indeed coincide with injections of UK aid funds into those states. Picking up the story, the media announced with horror that British aid is “paying for foreign armies”. But Howarth’s “discovery” is rather less revelatory than it seems.


As any student of international development knows, all aid is “fungible” –- that is, if you put money into a state, it frees up cash for that state’s government to spend elsewhere.

An international non-governmental organisation that builds a school or hospital in a remote province might well believe it’s to be far removed from the grubby business of funding corrupt or authoritarian regimes.

Their actions, however, mean that these regimes have one less school or hospital to build themselves as few regimes can survive without providing any services to their populations. That releases space in the budget for other items, such as paying soldiers’ wages or purchasing helicopters.

The UK has also directly funded foreign militaries in a range of African states for some time. In recent years, it’s made major contributions to United Nations-sanctioned operations in Somalia, DRC, South Sudan, Mali and elsewhere, providing training, logistical support and sometimes considerably more.

It has also long provided training to many African militaries, police and security services – a strategy Whitehall views (perhaps somewhat optimistically) as a pragmatic attempt to foster professionalism and stability in some of the continent’s most conflict-ridden and violent regions.

Clearly, there are no guarantees in such a complex and risky arena. Given he served as a minister for international security strategy in a department that funds many of these operations, though, Howarth’s outrage at the indirect “subsidising” of militaries by other UK ministries was perhaps somewhat disingenuous.

Security and prosperity

What is perhaps most interesting about this particular controversy was the response provided to Howarth’s critique by the UK’s development arm. The Department for International Development’s spokesperson argued that UK international development investment “helps create more stable, secure and prosperous countries” and that more economically prosperous countries tend to spend more on their militaries.

On the face of it, that’s a slightly strange response. In the cases highlighted in the House of Commons Library research, we can see a rise in defence spending, but rarely a rise in the percentage of GDP spent on defence. Between 2012-2014, the latter has remained constant in DRC, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire and has fallen in Nigeria. In Tanzania, meanwhile, a 20% net rise in defence spending means that now 1.1% of the country’s GDP goes on defence rather than 1%. (By comparison, the UK spends 2% of GDP on defence.)

But of course, “stable, secure and prosperous” states are not necessarily democratic, transparent and accountable.

Many of Africa’s more stable, secure, and economically prosperous countries also trend towards authoritarianism. Many of these states are also major recipients of UK assistance for both developmental and defence, and in several of them, one party has held power for decades. These include Uganda (since 1986), Rwanda (since 1994), Ethiopia (since 1991) and Mozambique (since 1975).

Whether this is coincidental or not is an open question, but plenty of scholars (including me) have argued that it isn’t. Over several decades, a range of semi-authoritarian African states have successfully managed their relationships with Western governments and bureaucracies to their advantage over several decades. That has won them the support and resources they needed to construct the decidedly illiberal structures of rule they now preside over.

The difficult question here is not so much whether Whitehall is aware of its role in all this – it is – but whether it cares.

Over the past decade, the focus of British diplomacy and development policy has moved decisively away from promoting democracy, peace, political space and transparency in Africa and towards stabilisation and security. These days, London’s objective is to help nurture African states that won’t cause populations in the UK too many problems, whether in the form of terrorism, migration or disease.

In one sense, this is only fair; it is after all a government’s job to protect its citizens from harm as far as possible. But doing so at the expense of political freedoms abroad conflicts with some of the fundamental values of British political culture – and authoritarian states make unreliable and unpredictable allies.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Central African Republic takes a small step towards peace – but a leap is what’s needed

27 May 2015

Paul Jackson

Paul Jackson is a political economist working predominantly on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. A core area of interest is decentralisation and governance and it was his extensive experience in Sierra Leone immediately following the war that led him into the area of conflict analysis and security sector reform.

The signing of a major peace agreement by ten rebel groups in the Central African Republic is a welcome step towards peace after years of violent chaos.

Things really began to get out of hand when a December 2012 coup brought together a handful of northern rebel groups into a loose group known as the Séléka (the coalition). Previously rivals, they grouped together to overthrow president François Bozizé and install Michael Djotodia in his place in March 2013.

This led to an escalating series of reprisal killings in the capital, Bangui, by “anti-Balaka” self-defence militias.

The Séléka itself was not religiously motivated, but its members were disproportionately Muslim. Unfortunately, as with many loose confederations of armed groups, they proved impossible to control: Djotodia lost his grip on them almost immediately following the coup, and the Séléka looted the capital.

The anti-Balaka groups, however, explicitly described themselves as Christians and portrayed the conflict as a religious one, escalating the crisis beyond the initial political coup. The spread of violence between the two factions resulted in a religious schism that has killed 5,000, made almost 300,000 people refugees and displaced a million more.

Faint hope

The peace agreement must give hope to the thousands of victims caught up in the disaster, as must the release of 357 kidnapped children in the town of Bambari, about 200km north-east of Bangui. It is estimated that around 6,000-10,000 children are currently working as slaves for the militia groups.

The head of the UN’s integrated stabilisation mission, Babacar Gaye, stated that “on the path towards peace, the step made today is a very important one.” But the situation of the victims is still dire, and this has to be a step towards a lasting peace, not just a lull in the fighting.

The terms of the peace agreement itself make provision for a process of disarmament, demobilisation, reinsertion and repatriation (DDRR), as well as “the initiation of a reconciliation process in which those found responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity will be prosecuted.”

Such agreements are undoubtedly a critical first step, and in this case it has been reinforced by the repatriation of the 357 children. But without long-term external support for the state, the peace agreement is likely to fail. And the country could return to the cycle of political crises that have seen only one peaceful transition of power (1993) since independence.

The militias themselves are a symptom of an old problem with the Central African Republic (CAR): the depths of dysfunction that beset the central state, which is barely even there. The International Crisis Group has long ranked the country as a “phantom state”, and in fact worse than a failed state. It has lacked any meaningful institutional capacity since the fall of Jean-Bédel Bokassa in 1979, and prosperity has never been enjoyed by any but a few at the very top.

With all this history weighing heavy, the recent peace agreement is welcome, but it has to be treated with extreme circumspection. The CAR’s terribly poor institutional capacity has led to endless breakdowns of previous efforts to construct peace. In fact, the roots of the current conflict lie in the failures of previous peace agreements – and explicitly stem from the state’s failure to adequately implement their conditions.

Good neighbours

The most prominent group within the Séléka is the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), which was included in the 2007 Birao Peace Agreement. That agreement ended the CAR Bush War, which broke out in response to Bozizé’s 2003 ascent to power. It was followed by the Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreements of 2008, which laid out an amnesty programme for rebel forces alongside a DDRR plan.

Many argue that the amnesty conditions that resulted actually provided an incentive for the creation of new rebel groups. Alongside the express intention of being subject to a generous amnesty, seen as being preferable to suffering within a desperate economy.

The agreement in the CAR faces several critical challenges, not least the liquid nature of the armed groups themselves and their lack of boundaries or stability. At the same time, any DDRR process will require significant resources, training and monitoring. The UN has announced a 10,000 strong peacekeeping force, but it remains unclear whether this will be sufficient.

At the same time, even if the international community was to provide the resources, DDRR requires two basic things that the CAR lacks: an economy for those who wish to make the transition from combatant to civilian; and state structures for military and leadership to integrate in to.

Is it enough?

Even if the CAR had these things in place, moving on from the conflict would be no easy feat. In the medium term, reconciliation has proved difficult even in countries with strong and capable institutions and governments.

The truth and reconciliation model was famously adopted by post-Apartheid South Africa, but its success was heavily qualified – a pattern that has also dogged subsequent truth commissions. Rwanda used an alternative grassroots model of “gacaca” (justice on the grass), built around decentralised community courts, to try 2m people after the 1994 genocide – but that too was not without serious problems such as access to qualified lawyers.

But even these models could only be carried out because there was significant state capacity and political will. That is conspicuously lacking in the CAR.

In order for this peace process to succeed where so many previous attempts have failed, the CAR government must be able to project its power beyond Bangui into the areas where the country’s militias recruit.

This in turn can only be done with significant state-building support from outside the country – and that has been made far more politically difficult by recent allegations that French troops sexually abused local boys – allegations that the UN was apparently aware of, but did not initially relay to France.

So a step in the right direction the agreement may be, but as with many DDRR agreements, it remains a small one. And in isolation, it will not bring peace to many of the people who need it most.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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As refugee crisis deepens, the world is losing patience with South Sudan

19 May 2015


Jonathan Fisher is a lecturer in IDD. His research is focused on the place and agency of African states in the international system, particularly in the realm of security and conflict. Within this he is interested in the role played by African governments in shaping how they are perceived and engaged with by Western actors. He has a particular interest in eastern Africa and the influence of guerrilla heritage on contemporary patterns of governance, conflict and cooperation across the region. He is also interested in how ‘knowledge’ on African security and conflict is negotiated and constructed in a range of settings.

South Sudan has now been at war since 2013, with no end in sight. And while the two sides focus on defeating each other, the humanitarian situation on the ground is only deteriorating.

The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, has announced that heavy fighting in Unity state, South Sudan had forced all UN agencies and NGOs to evacuate their staff from parts of the region. This would apparently leave around 300,000 people who still desperately need emergency relief without any access to food and medical services.

Sadly, such announcements have become commonplace since the outbreak of South Sudan’s civil war, a conflict which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced over 1.5m.

To make matters worse, the conflict’s two major belligerents, the government of president Salva Kiir and the rebel movement led (in the loosest sense of the word) by his former vice president, Riek Machar, have shown scant regard for the humanitarian impact of their war.

Back and forth

The reports of the 300,000 stranded people came just after the Kiir government rejected a UN plan to relocate more than 100,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from virtual imprisonment in government-controlled “protection sites” to areas of their own choosing.

The responses from South Sudan’s factions were predictably stubborn. The Juba regime bristled at the suggestion that it is incapable of protecting its citizens, insisting that the 300,000 people stranded in Unity state have decided to remain there themselves. Machar’s rebels, for their part, attacked this position not for its unhumanitarian callousness, but by emphasising that the citizens concerned “have lost trust in the government”.

This is par for the course in a conflict which has seen the two sides and their variously aligned militias struggle fruitlessly to defeat one another for nearly 18 months. They continue to fight a zero-sum game which has turned citizens into bystanders, pawns, enemies or hostages, turned oil reserves from national resource to campaign funds, and neighbouring states from midwives of independence into allies or traitors.

The two sides have broken countless ceasefires (eight at my last count) and brazenly used regional peace talks hosted by Ethiopia as opportunities for rest and recuperation in five-star hotels. At every step, external involvement has been cynically used to secure an advantage in the field. Few analysts think the war is likely to end any time soon, particularly across the negotiating table.

Full responsibility

It is perhaps not surprising that Western and UN officials have increasingly expressed exasperation with the South Sudanese military “aristocracy”, which came to power on the back of a lengthy insurgency.

In September 2014, the UK’s then-undersecretary of state for international development, Lynne Featherstone, visited South Sudan and opined that “South Sudan’s leaders must accept full responsibility for starting the conflict and must work to end it.” More recently, Washington has condemned the two sides’ “lack of political leadership to resolve this man-made conflict”, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has chastised Kiir and Machar for their unstatesmanlike approach to the peace talks.

This is all an interesting departure from the late 1990s and early 2000s, where Western leaders thought nothing of taking responsibility for ending conflicts in Africa.

Interestingly, though, many African states also appear to share their Western counterparts’ frustration an endless conflict driven by the political and economic greed of a selfish elite.


Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn has labelled the war “senseless” and has accused both sides of abdicating “the most sacred duty leaders have to their people: to deliver peace, prosperity and stability” – shockingly candid language by the standards of African diplomacy.

And behind closed doors, similar sentiments can be heard from officials in Uganda, whose military intervened on Kiir’s side shortly after the conflict began. Across Kampala’s political and military elite, there’s a surprising consensus that the two leaders are feckless and their actions shameless.

Meanwhile, a report from the African Union leaked in March 2015 (since disowned as fake by the organisation) recommended that South Sudan be placed under UN/AU trusteeship to end the conflict, with any transitional government then established excluding both Kiir and Machar. If genuine, that’s an astounding recommendation, coming from from a body that has always promoted and defended African sovereignty against the interventionist machinations of the West (notably in Libya in 2011).

From one perspective, this apparent international consensus is encouraging. Leaders across the UN, the West and Africa appear to agree that the problem is the South Sudanese politico-military elite, and its creation of a destructive and extractive state that has essentially become a slush fund.

But the challenge is how to take this realisation and use it to come up with a new strategy to end the conflict.

Talks about the next set of peace negotiations and ceasefires continue within East Africa’s regional security bloc, but few involved can think outside the standard peace agreement model, which has so far failed to bear fruit. In 2014, Hailemariam reportedly threatened to arrest Kiir (then in Addis Ababa) unless he signed a peace agreement – one which was rendered worthless within days when fighting resumed.

This represents both the tragedy and promise of the South Sudan conflict: when the old architectures of conflict resolution fail, it seems no-one has a clue what to do next.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Deaths in the Mediterranean are a direct result of ongoing crisis in north Africa

22 April 2015

Paul JacksonPaul Jackson is a political economist working predominantly on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. A core area of interest is decentralisation and governance and it was his extensive experience in Sierra Leone immediately following the war that led him into the area of conflict analysis and security sector reform.

The rapid escalation this year in the numbers of people drowned as they flee in leaky boats across the Mediterranean is a direct consequence of the conflict in Iraq, Syria and north Africa, specifically Libya – where the implications of the Western intervention are playing out in the deaths of thousands, whether from the violence itself or as they try desperately to escape to safety.

Four years ago NATO member states and Arab allies began launching airstrikes that contributed to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Now, those same powers are discussing further action in Libya if the UN sponsored peace talks do not end in consensus, but this time the target will be the growing Islamic State movement linked to similar groups in Iraq and Syria.

The legacy of the fall of Gaddafi is the continuing lack of any state institutions coupled with a fragmented security architecture that has divided in to a myriad of armed groups, militias and rival factions that have left the army weak and the country subject to a civil war that has claimed more than 3,000 casualties and numerous human rights violations.

At its heart, the civil war is a conflict between two rival governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk, with only the Tobruk government having UN recognition as legitimate, but left controlling less than half of the country and half of one of the three main cities. This Tobruk coalition contains several former Gaddafi state officials, secularist and federalist elements along with the remains of part of the military.

The UN-recognised government headed by Abdullah al-Thinni, who was appointed by Libya’s House of representatives last year, is opposed by the originally legally installed government, the General National Council, which existed prior to elections held last year. The GNC is backed by a coalition known as “Operation Libya Dawn”, comprising a loose federation of Islamist groups, militias from Misrata and “Berber” groups. In November 2014, Libya’s Supreme Court cancelled the outcome of elections that brought the House of Representatives to power, essentially making its legal mandate void.

The country is also affected by the growth of Islamic State-affiliated groups, which hold territory in the cities of Sirte and Derna, and were responsible for a massacre of 21 mainly Christian labourers in February.

Last Tuesday, the military chief of the Tobruk forces, General Khalifa Haftar, voiced scepticism at any eventual outcome stating that he was “betting on a military solution”. Even with considerable military support from Egypt and the UAE, the Tobruk-based forces have so far failed to make significant progress against the GNC in Tripoli.

This is a critical problem. There does not appear to be a military winner in sight and among all the chaos, a wide variety of armed groups prosper as the centralised control of the GNC in Tripoli in particular weakens.

Ansar al Sharia, for example, is an organisation listed as a terrorist group associated with Al-Qaeda by the UN and is accused of murdering US ambassador Chris Stephens in Benghazi in 2012, but currently has a temporary alliance with Operation Libya Dawn in order to fight Heftar. But Ansar is losing members to the local chapter of IS.

Islamic State rising

IS has grown very quickly beyond its core in the city of Derna. It has a presence in Benghazi and Sirte and even in Tripoli where it has been responsible for a bombing campaign. There are several reasons why IS has expanded but Libyans have a long history of military service overseas and a key driver has been the return of fighters from anti-Soviet movements in Afghanistan in the 1980s, boosted by further fighters returning from Syria and Iraq.

A worrying aspect of the IS growth is proximity to Libyan oilfields – a favourite source of income for the insurgents. This group has also deliberately escalated the conflict to accelerate the fragmentation of the armed groups and enhance the attractiveness of more extreme Islamist groups.

In early April, for example, IS made a calculated attack in murdering 21 Egyptian police officers, prompting Egyptian airstrikes in support of the Tobruk Government’s air assets. While this did not bring Egypt in to the war, it did make that intervention public, reinforcing the view that Libyan stability is critical to Egypt’s domestic security.

The other main player in potential intervention is Italy, which had offered to lead on any UN-sanctioned action in Libya. However, there is significant disagreement over the method of intervention.

What can be done?

The most obvious intervention would be a peace-supporting mission following a UN-brokered peace agreement. This option, currently being led by Spanish diplomat Bernadino Leon, has some momentum amongst pragmatic elements of both rival governments but would need to create a national government capable of working across of these elements and also of maintaining control over government institutions. This government would be able to command international support, but would also need to develop a national approach to combating the growth of IS.

There is hope for this first option and it could command some of the most powerful military groups in Libya, but any UN force could be asked to take control of contested and politically sensitive installations across Libya to prevent those groups taking sole control.

However, this is an option that is likely to take time – and the international community, led by Italy, is unlikely to be very patient over this. With increasing disasters in the Mediterranean involving refugees fleeing the hardships of Libya, the threat of IS reaching Italy looms large – and a more likely approach would be to take the campaign against IS to Libya sooner rather than later.

The most likely outcome, therefore, would be that a UN-brokered peace agreement would be tied to fighting IS and not necessarily tackling the underlying issues fuelling the civil war. Egypt’s involvement in the civil war further complicates this, since any government in Tripoli is unlikely to sanction Egyptian support in any campaign against IS. Such an intervention could eventually exacerbate the conflict rather than solving it through creating new allies for the IS forces that already exist.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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