South Sudan on the Edge

Not even thirty months after it achieved independence, South Sudan teeters on the edge of a profound abyss. What started a barely week ago as an “attempted coup”—at least according to President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s version of events—quickly transformed into an orgy of ethnic violence which, in turn, precipitated a renewed call to arms by dissident commanders whose forces have now seized control of the capital of the country’s largest state as well as the capital of its key oil-producing region. “South Sudan stands at a precipice,” President Barack Obama said in a statement on Thursday, correctly noting that the recent conflict “threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past.”

While the speed with which events are happening is somewhat startling, the crisis could have been foreseen. On the very morning of South Sudan’s independence on July 11, 2011, I noted:

Despite possessing some considerable natural resources, seldom does a new state come into being suffering from as many disadvantages as those which hobble South Sudan. Not only is the Texas-sized territory totally landlocked and the nearest major seaport (in Mombasa, Kenya) some 3,000 kilometers away, but it is totally lacking in the infrastructure that might mitigate these disadvantages…Despite the fact that it possesses more than eighty percent of Sudan’s proved petroleum reserves—the fifth largest such in all of Africa—very little of this wealth was shared with the South until the last few years and hardly any of this latter amount has trickled down to South Sudan’s ten million people, ninety percent of whom are illiterate and roughly the same proportion of whom currently live on less than one dollar a day. While eighty percent of the South Sudan is arable, less than ten percent of it is cultivated and not particularly productively either, leaving about half the population dependent on food aid.

Nor is it particularly evident that the nearly $6 billion that the international community has pledged in aid to South Sudan since the 2005 peace accord has been particularly effective, except perhaps to maintain the legion of international NGOs which have flocked there and driven up the costs of doing business in Juba to surreal heights. In fact, in combination with the “curse” of resource wealth, the lavish aid may have hitherto perversely relieved South Sudanese leaders of any sense of urgency regarding the private-sector development their new country desperately needs if it is to grow its economy and the transparent, democratic institutions required for its political legitimacy and good governance.

Moreover, South Sudan’s successful secession will, undoubtedly, embolden various rebel movements in the North…Confronted by the severe challenges it now faces, it will be very tempting for the regime, especially if it feels it has no other viable options to ensure its survival, to try to distract attention from these woes by fomenting conflict with its new neighbor.

Alas, all these things have come to pass. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which assumed power in the southern capital of Juba continued to aid its former comrades-in-arms in what was left of Sudan, the so-called SPLM-North, in their fight against the Khartoum’s government authority in the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. In response, the Sudanese government shut down South Sudan’s exportation of oil through the pipeline running through its territory. Subsequently, in early 2012, troops from the two countries came into conflict along their still-disputed border. Meanwhile, within South Sudan, with the country’s dozens of major ethnic groups at perpetual loggerheads over the distribution of power and opponents accusing President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, of scheming to stay in power indefinitely—a charge to which he lent some credibility by dismissing the entire cabinet, including Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, in August of this year—the country has seen little of the significant investment and consequent economic development that its wealth of natural resources, hydrocarbon and otherwise, would ordinarily have attracted. While continuing disputes with Khartoum may have stalled new oil deals, the only thing blocking the development of the mining, agriculture, and forestry sectors was incompetence and corruption in the Juba regime. According to no less a source than President Salva Kiir himself, writing in a plaintive letter last year on the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, a group of just 75 officials under him managed to steal an astonishing $4 billion during the transition period. The president has subsequently made some gestures such as the appointment earlier this year of a National Reconciliation Committee, chaired by Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan with Roman Catholic Bishop Paride Taban as his deputy, the moves may have come too late.

While many media reports have depicted the current crisis as a fight between the Dinka and Nuer, South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, in reality the conflict is really over politics—or the lack thereof. Among those reportedly aligned with the Nuer forces against Salva Kiir and his loyalists are Rebecca Garang, an ethnic Dinka and widow of South Sudan’s founding father, John Garang de Mabior, and Pagan Amum, an ethnic Shilluk, who was previously the SPLM’s secretary-general (Garang has been placed under house arrest by the government, while the whereabouts of Amum are uncertain). Major General Peter Gadet Yak, the Nuer officer whose militia forces captured Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, on Thursday was one of South Sudan’s most capable battlefield commanders until he broke with the government shortly before independence in a dispute over its lack of inclusivity. The “Mayom Declaration” he issued at the time, in fact, presages some of the issues which have now been brought to the fore:

There is an absolute failure in the area of good governance. For instance our entire nation has witnessed rampant corruption on the top echelon of GOSS. It is shocking that only five years in government, the private bank accounts of the leadership of [the Government of South Sudan, GOSS] in foreign banks [fattening] from zero to tens of millions of dollars! Little wonder that the more than 20 billion dollars of oil revenue received by GOSS could not be seen in terms of tangible services delivery in areas such as health, education, water, etc. Our children went without schools while the children of our leaders enjoyed the best education in foreign lands. Our people continued to die from treatable diseases while those in charge and their families visited the best hospitals abroad. In fact, the current leadership of GOSS never felt the sense of belonging to the South for their families continued to stay in their expensive mansion in east Africa, America, Australia, etc. These leaders of GOSS continue to siphon off the meager resources of the South bleeding our people dry…

In the states the security has broken down due to tribal and sectional fights gripping the South as the traditional leaders are deprived of their traditional authority. County commissioners have turned the counties into fiefdoms and their misbehavior has become a source of insecurity. On the political level, the SPLM leadership continues to pursue the politics of exclusion within itself and outside it. It denies the other Southern political parties the right to propagate their ideas and present their political program to the people. Above all, the SPLM leadership used [the Sudan People’s Liberation Army] high command to intimidate other leaders in the South reducing the level of our supposedly national army to a party militia.

Regardless the general’s motivations and personal bona fides, the charges he laid ring more than true—all the more so after Salva Kiir’s dismissal of his ministers earlier this year and subsequent inclusion of various controversial figures in the new government. In fact, one longtime South Sudan watcher with whom I spoke and who is currently on the ground even went so far as to dismiss the recent allegations of “attempted coup” as “actually a coup by the government against its democratic opposition.”

The international community bears at least part of the responsibility for things having reached such an impasse. In addition to the United States, the European Union as a whole and Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom as individual nations signed on as guarantors of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which paved the way for the partition of Sudan and the emergence of the southern region as the world’s newest state. And yet, despite the billions of dollars which donor countries have poured into South Sudan—the United States alone has pumped about $300 million a year in aid to the country since independence—they never quite held its government politically accountable, but rather, under pressure from certain advocacy groups and their celebrity spokesmen, allowed the regime in Juba to essentially treat foreign assistance as a welfare entitlement.

In any event, the last few days have seen what apparently began as an incident of rival factions of the presidential guard firing on each other spiral out of control with the regime lashing out at perceived opponents and many of those not already aligned with Salva Kiir banding together in a full-blown attempt to oust him, while both Nuer and Dinka civilians caught in the middle have apparently been hunted down and killed because of their ethnicity. Even three US military aircraft on a mission to evacuate American citizens from South Sudan came under fire on Saturday and were forced to turn back when four service personnel sustained wounds (the Americans and citizens of foreign partner nations were eventually flown out on Sunday using United Nations and US civilian helicopters). On Sunday, President Obama sent a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate, formally notifying Congress under the War Powers Resolution of the aborted mission as well as serving notice that he “may take further action to support the security of U.S. citizens, personnel, and property, including our Embassy, in South Sudan.”

Meanwhile, also on Sunday, the South Sudanese information minister acknowledged that the army commander in oil-rich Unity State had defected and had taken control of the state capital, Bentiu, in the name of the opposition. In response to these developments, Uganda and Kenya have deployed troops to South Sudan, ostensibly to protect their stranded citizens and deliver emergency supplies, but undoubtedly to also secure their respective nations’ strategic interests as their neighbor unravels. One suspects that the government in Khartoum, which faced protests of its own this fall and is counting on transit fees since oil production has resumed, will not be passive either.

Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry called Salva Kiir to emphasize that “only through leadership and political dialogue will the challenges facing South Sudan be resolved” and to announce the dispatch of the US Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Ambassador Donald Booth, to the region. The United States and its European allies need to be more engaged, as I argued two years ago:

While the United States and other partners of South Sudan have helped to win freedom for the peoples of South Sudan, the challenge now is for them to consider what can be done to assure that political independence is not followed by state failure and/or conflict, but rather that there be a real chance for improved human security and geopolitical stability, the promise of which justified the international community’s recognition of the breakup of a sovereign state in the first place.

The basic challenge remains the same, even if the international community is just finally coming to terms with the sheer magnitude of the humanitarian crisis unfolding before it and the geopolitical stakes hanging in the balance.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. 

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Image: Street in Juba, South Sudan, Feb 2013 (Photo: Flickr/Stephen Begin/CC License)