South Sudan emerged from decades of bloodshed in 2011, liberated from its brutal Islamist masters in Sudan. Yet, ever since the heady independence celebrations in the new capital Juba, the fledgling nation has been sliding toward civil war. In August this year, the situation deteriorated to the point that aid workers now warn of a massive famine, and Sudan experts see little chance of a lasting cease-fire.
It is not unusual for a guerrilla army to hold together until it reaches its goal, and then fracture into political feuds. Add to that several bloated egos who manipulate ethnic tensions to their own ends, indifferent to the thousands of innocent, unarmed civilians who are slaughtered to serve their gross ambitions.
Underlying tensions within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) came to head on December 15th 2013 with a dispute about the need for governmental reform. A fight between factions of the Presidential Guard quickly spread, taking on ethnic overtones, with majority Dinka killing minority Nuer. Rebels led by the recently ousted Vice-President Riek Machar, (an ethnic Nuer) soon had the army in retreat. John Ashworth, advisor to Sudan’s Ecumenical Forum, and a long-time resident, believes the government would have fallen within days had it not been for troops from neighbouring Uganda, which has economic interests in South Sudan.
Soon atrocities were being committed by all sides, with radio stations inciting people to rape and murder, echoing Rwanda twenty years before. Recently, a “one month special campaign of rape” was declared by one group against another.
Farmers have been unable to plant or harvest, millions have fled to squalid camps, and the UN believes four million (out of a population of nine million) face severe food insecurity. UNICEF predicts 50,000 children will die shortly.
According to the United Nations Peacekeepers’ (UNMISS) human rights report, “In the light of the widespread and systematic nature of many of the attacks and information suggesting coordination and planning, there are reasonable grounds to believe that the crimes against humanity of murder, rape and other acts of sexual violence, enforced disappearance and imprisonment have occurred.”
To make sense of this horror, one must go back to 2005 when the ‘troika’ of UK, the USA and Norway negotiated the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The deal made secession from Khartoum possible, via an interim SPLM government, followed by a 2011 referendum. The Southern Sudanese had endured decades of ethnic cleansing by their northern rulers, leaving an estimated two million dead. Their land had been marginalized, while its oil funded infrastructure projects in the capital, Khartoum. At independence there were 160 kms of paved road in a nation the size of France. There were 120 doctors to serve a population of nine million, and a girl was statistically more likely to die in childbirth than finish primary school.
Disaster struck when the charismatic SPLM leader, John Garang, died in a helicopter crash in 2005. His deputy, Salva Kiir, instantly recognisable because he always appears in the black cowboy hat given him by George W Bush, took over. Kiir soon bewildered his international backers as SPLM worthies stole billions of dollars of aid. Rather than prioritising much-needed infrastructure, health or education projects, Kiir’s government proposed building a series of cities in the shape of African animals.
More seeds of self-destruction within the SPLM were sown by Kiir’s ambitious deputy, Riek Machar. In 1991 he had split the rebel army, opportunistically siding with his oppressors in Khartoum. An ethnic Nuer, he was responsible for the Bor Massacre which the Dinka have understandably never forgotten. He eventually returned to the fold, and for the sake of national unity Riek was made Vice-President to the ethnic Dinka leader, Kiir, after elections in 2010.
President Kiir sacked Riek in July 2013, along with other rivals, arresting journalists and creating a one party state. Riek abruptly distanced himself from the wholesale corruption and mismanagement he oversaw for years. Once the fighting began in December 2013, Riek retreated to the bush to lead his SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO). He refused Kiir’s offer of an immediate cease-fire, and has kept the wretched IGAD (Intergovernmental Agency for Development) regional negotiators tied up in fruitless talks ever since.
As the fighting has spread it has become clear that Riek has only partial control over the various rebel militia groups, some of whom are being armed by Khartoum, ever the spoiler. At one point when he controlled the oil fields, Riek was rumoured to be trying to sell South Sudan’s oil to Khartoum. At the time of writing conflict still rages for control of Bentiu in the oil-producing area.
For its part the international community made a critical mistake in the early stages of the civil war: they condemned all sides equally. Kiir’s financial backers (the US and EU) were naïve to have been disappointed by the hapless president; they had assumed if they threw enough money at South Sudan they could turn it into Finland. Their moral equivalence overlooked the fact that Kiir had won a democratic election in 2010, and it emboldened Riek to believe he had their implicit backing, so he fought on.
The delivery of humanitarian aid is almost impossible without ceasefires, and UN and NGO officials are targeted for robbery, abuse and attack. In unusually blunt terms Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she was, “appalled by the apparent lack of concern about the risk of famine displayed by both leaders.” She continued, “It is clear the conflict has taken a dangerous trajectory and civilians are being deliberately targeted based on their ethnicity and perceived political affiliation.” She called the attitudes of Kiir, Riek and other so-called leaders, “a shocking display of indifference.”
Sudan expert Eric Reeves predicts there will be no meaningful peace deal in the short term: “It would seem that the rebel forces that Riek controls—and there many he does not, even as he is not representative of most political opposition in South Sudan—are simply unwilling to reach an agreement, even if the cost is continued war that poses the gravest possible threat to all the people of South Sudan. It is on the basis of this decision—and the decision to refuse Salva Kiir’s offer of an “immediate cease-fire” on 27 December 2013—that Riek will be judged by history.”
At the end of August a rebel group led by Peter Gadet allegedly shot down a UN helicopter, killing three people who were delivering food aid. Gadet’s men tormented an African IGAD negotiator to the point of having a fatal heart attack. Riek has also just rejected IGAD’s latest cease-fire deal which outlined plans for a transitional government in which Riek would have been prime minister to Salva Kiir’s president. Riek accused IGAD of bias, but commentators suggest he does not wish to be associated with something he knows will fail.
The authoritative Juba-based Sudd Institute believes no deal is possible without Kiir and Riek, yet it is by no means clear they have the nation’s interests at heart. “The behaviour of the elites in the construction of the new state, coupled with deplorable economic and social conditions, catalysed the spread of violence. In essence, the allegiances of the elites to the state institutions and to the central tenets of state building have been virtually non-existent.”
What now? The Sudd Institute highlights the need for a broad, nation-wide consultation process on the future shape of South Sudan’s institutions. Any transitional government made up of Kiir and Riek should begin by apologising to the nation, they say. The Sudd Institute also criticises the seniority principle that has dominated the SPLM and the army, meaning merit and talent take second place. (This author was told that 47% of members of the interim parliament between 2005 and 2011 were illiterate). Added to this is a lack of infrastructure, health facilities, schools and security, without which South Sudan is unlikely to break out of the cycle of conflict. The Small Arms Survey points out that the recent flood of weapons has turned traditional cattle raiding by gangs of unemployed young men into a deadly occupation, accompanied by rape and atrocities.
However, tackling South Sudan’s structural problems requires a massive investment. International backers who were initially so over-optimistic had their fingers burned by Kiir and the SPLM. China, India and Malaysia have investments in the oil business, but they are exploiters rather than nation-builders. South Sudan has little obvious strategic importance in a new world order concerned with limiting the spread of terrorism. Yet, if Khartoum has its way, playing its old game of divide and rule, arming rebels, it could regain its fundamentalist Islamist foothold in the oil-rich region it so reluctantly gave up in 2011. That possibility alone should concentrate the minds of world leaders.
Founder and Chair
This article originally appeared in issue number 7, 2014 of InterLib, the magazine of the Liberal International British Group.