Western Bahr el-Ghazal: Living in a state of uncertainty
Earlier this month, I visited South Sudan’s Western Bahr el-Ghazal State (WBeG) for the first time. Though it receives little attention, the LRA has been active in this state since at least 2010, and my visit aimed to dig up more information on what is happening and what can be done to protect people there from LRA violence. Starting off in the state capital, Wau, I drove north to Raga, the last major town before reaching Sudan’s South Darfur region further to the north.
Later this week, I’ll write more about LRA activity in the region. For this first post, I want focus on the broader dynamics affecting the security situation, as communities in WBeG are facing issues that go beyond the threat posed by LRA attacks and that are important to understand.
Unlike in the neighboring South Sudan state of Western Equatoria, where people fear the LRA more than any other security threats, people in WBeG are primarily concerned about the ongoing tensions between Sudan and South Sudan. Many still remember invasions and bombings carried out by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) during the civil war here, which officially ended in 2005 with the partition of Sudan and South Sudan into two countries. If continued tensions along the border between the two countries escalate into open violence, people in WBeG could be among the first to suffer.
Much of the tension in this area is centered around an area called the Kafia Kingi enclave (in light red). Kafia Kingi is on the border between South Sudan and Sudan, is rich in mineral resources, and is claimed by both countries. Using borders drawn by British colonial authorities in 1956, South Sudan claims Kafia Kingi as part of WBeG. However, the enclave has been governed by Sudan as part of the state of South Darfur since 1960, and the SAF currently has bases in several enclave towns, including Kafia Kingi, Dafak, and Hofrat en Nahas. The past year has seen frequent clashes between the two governments’ forces in the area, including SAF bombings in WBeG and a brief occupation of parts of the enclave by South Sudanese forces in May 2012. This tension has been heightened by reports that South Sudan has allowed rebel groups from Darfur, who oppose the Sudan government, to periodically establish a presence in WBeG.
Even if ongoing border tensions do not lead to full-scale war, their impact on daily life is still felt. Last year, the Sudanese government closed the major border crossings to South Sudan, slowing the flow of goods to towns like Raga and Wau that have historically relied on goods coming from Sudan. Fuel and household goods now arrive via Uganda and Kenya, a longer route that has contributed to an increase in the price of goods and fuel. Border closures have also slowed cross-border movements of people, many of whom historically cross the border for livelihood opportunities or to visit family.
On September 27, the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments signed a series of agreements and protocols that dealt with movements of people along the border. Following the signing, Sudan immediately announced plans to reopen border crossings between the two countries. The agreements offer a sliver of hope that security along the border region will improve and allow people and goods to move freely and safely. However, the agreements leave many border issues unresolved and it remains to be seen whether senior officials in both governments will actually implement them, as they have already faced sharp criticism from some leaders from border communities in South Sudan as well as hard-liners in the Sudan government.
In the past two to three years, Joseph Kony and other leaders of the LRA have exploited these tensions and moved some of their fighters into and through this area. More on that later this week.