The United States Gets Tough With South Sudan

US President Donald J. Trump’s administration, expressing displeasure with the government in South Sudan, has started a comprehensive review of its aid programs to that country.

In a sternly worded statement, the White House said that the leaders of South Sudan had “squandered this partnership [with the United States], pilfered the wealth of South Sudan, killed their own people, and repeatedly demonstrated their inability and unwillingness to live up to their commitments to end the country’s civil war. The result is one of Africa’s worst humanitarian disasters.”

Announcing its aid review, the White House said: “While we are committed to saving lives, we must also ensure our assistance does not contribute to or prolong the conflict, or facilitate predatory or corrupt behavior.”

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is grappling with a famine. More than seven million people are at risk of sever hunger without food aid, according to the United Nations.

The Trump administration’s policy review should come as no surprise to South Sudanese leaders.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a stern message to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir in their meeting in Juba on October 24, 2017. The United States is “disappointed” in Kiir’s leadership and he must not take US assistance for granted, she said.

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 following a decades-long civil war that claimed more than two million lives. Today, the country teeters dangerously on the brink of civil war.

The current crisis is rooted in the tribal and personal rivalry between Kiir and Riek Machar, his former vice president. Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, fired Machar, a Nuer, in July of 2016, accusing him of plotting a coup. The Obama administration, among others, found those accusations to be without merit

Machar fled the country in 2016 after clashes between his forces and those loyal to Kiir left hundreds dead in Juba. The former vice president now lives in exile in South Africa.

J. Peter Pham, vice president for research and regional initiatives and director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, discussed the significance of the Trump administration’s new approach in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: What is the significance of the Trump administration’s policy review?

Pham: Up to now, the United States has been, at the very least, the midwife if not the parent of South Sudan. It was the hard work of American negotiators, first during the George W. Bush administration and then in the Barack Obama administration, which led to South Sudan’s referendum in 2011 and its peaceful secession from Sudan and recognition as the world’s newest independent state.

Since then it has been US assistance that has more or less kept the South Sudanese fed even as their leaders failed them. In December 2013, South Sudan descended into a horrible civil war with ethnic cleansing if not genocidal behavior.

The United States has been the foremost diplomatic partner of South Sudan and also its leading aid donor. The White House statement as well as past statements made by the US State Department, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US Ambassador the United Nations Nikki Haley, as well as USAID Administrator Mark Green, however, make clear that the administration is losing patience with the government and its taking of American support for granted.

Q: Is a tougher US stand going to be enough to convince South Sudan’s leaders to change course?

Pham: It is essentially an ultimatum. It follows in the wake of US sanctions on individual actors on both sides of the conflict. Earlier this year, the United States unilaterally imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan.

People, including myself, have been calling for some time for a review of US aid assistance to South Sudan not because we wish to hurt the South Sudanese people but because aid has been politicized. Aid has been used in the civil war primarily by the government as a tool to fight its opponent by denying areas under opposition control from receiving aid and also as a source of enrichment by requiring aid organizations to work with certain subcontractors—when it is not attacking aid workers. Aid itself has been turned into a weapon in the conflict and that’s not serving the South Sudanese people.

Q: Do you expect the United States to cut off aid to South Sudan? If so, what happens to a country that is on the brink of famine?

Pham: I think it is a very real possibility that aid will be cut off, but not because we wish to starve the South Sudanese people. We have fed the South Sudanese for the seven long years since their independence and for the decades before that. The United States has been very generous.

Aid will continue to refugees who cross over into Ethiopia, Uganda, and now that there has been a rapprochement between the United States and Sudan, possibly to refugees who cross over into the Republic of Sudan as well. But within the country it is clear that the ability of aid groups to act independently has been compromised by attacks on aid groups as well as the fact that many of the subcontractors that international relief workers have to use are politically connected to the regime. Aid itself has become a cash cow for the very government that we have lost confidence in.

Q: In such an event, could aid become a pull factor that could exacerbate the refugee problem in South Sudan’s neighborhood?

Pham: What the White House has announced is that the United States does not see a way of continuing to partner with the type of government we have in Juba. It is reviewing what we will do both as a policy with regard to the conflict and part of that is a review of our aid.

This was hinted at in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, which was released  in December. The geographic section on Africa is the second-longest geographic section in that document: only the section on the Indo-pacific region is more extensive. In it there was discussion of the possibility that the United States would henceforth—as a matter of policy in Africa and elsewhere—review aid in cases where aid enables outcomes that we don’t support or regimes that are corrupt or, even worse, oppressive. This announcement on South Sudan is the Trump administration being serious about its commitment and carrying through on what is more than empty rhetoric.

Q: The White House says that the transitional government of national unity in South Sudan is no longer inclusive. What political solution does the United States seek?

Pham: Although the White House statement does not lay it out explicitly, the other part of the review will, inevitably, touch the question recognition. In my Africa strategy paper for the incoming administration, I called it “earned engagement”: we partner with countries on the continent insofar as they meet certain benchmarks, prove certain capabilities, and show themselves legitimate and viable. Elections should have been held in 2014 in South Sudan. We are now four years past expiration of the constitutional legitimacy of the government.

After that, one could argue, that the internationally agreed to peace accord between the government and the opposition in 2015 gave a legitimacy to the government of national unity, which was supposed to have moved by now toward elections. That has fallen apart, as today’s White House statement notes. So, the legal and political legitimacy of the Salva Kiir regime in South Sudan is questionable at best.

Given the fact that the government has failed to serve its people, the review will lead to the unavoidable question of whether we continue to recognize this government as a legitimate government or deal with it otherwise. That has implications on those who make deals with this government. If, for example, it is an illegitimate government it may actually an act of corruption under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or worse, not a legitimate business deal, to strike deals which fund such a regime. Moreover, do we continue to host its envoys if they don’t represent a legitimate government, especially when some of those envoys have been accused of engaging in incitation to violence?

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and J. Peter Pham

Image: A woman waits to be registered in order to receive food aid from the United Nations World Food Program in Thonyor, Unity State, South Sudan, on February 26, 2017. (Reuters/Siegfried Modola)