Donald Trump in South Sudan
Remember Miamingi and Helen C. Epstein
February 1, 2018
Last Friday, the Trump administration placed an arms embargo on the government of South Sudan. This small gesture towards peace is long overdue. Throughout the five-year conflict, the US has been shipping weapons to the nation’s brutal army, whose soldiers has been accused of genocidal acts and even raped and murdered aid workers. It’s heartening that the US has finally cut off this lethal supply line, but it’s an open secret that Uganda and Kenya have been arming the government too, and that Ethiopia and Sudan are helping the rebels. Unless these sources are also cut off, and unless the Security Council and African Union speak with one voice on this conflict, it will undoubtedly continue.
South Sudan, independent only since 2011, descended into civil war two years later when President Salva Kiir ordered his soldiers to disarm troops loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar whom he suspected of plotting a coup. No evidence of a coup plot ever emerged, but in the process, thousands of Machar loyalists, including many civilians, were killed in cold blood; militias loyal to Machar fought back and killed numerous Kiir loyalists. Soon the combatants’ original political aims were subsumed in an ethnic war which continues to this day.
At first, the Obama administration prevaricated, allowing the deadly situation to fester and escalate. In 2015, Kiir and Machar signed a peace deal, but Kiir failed to meet its terms and in July of that year, his soldiers attacked Machar’s bodyguards, killing hundreds. Machar fled through the forests of neighbouring Congo and was eventually detained in South Africa where he sought medical attention. Then in December 2016, the US belatedly urged the UN Security Council to sanction South Sudan, but that effort failed, as the war raged on and new parties took up arms.
By the time Trump took office in January 2017, some 14 armed groups were fighting in all corners of the country and some four million people had been forced to flee their homes. Negotiations have largely been left to the regional body IGAD, comprising nine Horn and Great Lakes countries. But some of those countries are believed to have helped fuel the crisis by arming one side or the other, helping to explain the slow progress.
The administration of Donald Trump isn’t known for moral leadership and few observers expected it to take much notice of this humanitarian catastrophe. However, in September 2017, the Justice Department placed travel bans and bank account freezes on three South Sudan government officials, including a cabinet minister, for war crimes. In October, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley flew to the capital Juba and read President Kiir the riot act: rein in your brutal army or face serious consequences. Further sanctions against businessmen with close ties to Kiir’s government were imposed in December.
Behind the scenes, the IGAD countries were holding talks and making deals, and just before Christmas, all parties agreed to a cessation of hostilities agreement under extreme pressure from South Sudanese civil society organisations and the international community. But like previous agreements, this one was abandoned almost at once. Fighting broke out within hours of its signing and the war is now as bloody and brutal as ever. This time, however, IGAD, the AU and the UN have called for punitive measures against violations of the agreement. We must wait to see if this call is followed up with action.
The arms embargo suggests the US, at least, may finally be serious about ending the war, but it must also recognize that South Sudan needs custodial care to lay the foundations for a totally new political structure, based on genuine democracy and strong protections for the nation’s numerous minority groups. Getting there will be difficult, but the evidence of the last few years indicates there is no other possible road to peace.
On February 5th, the High Level Revitalisation Forum on South Sudan will convene for the second time in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The warring parties, political and civil society elites, as well as representatives from IGAD and special envoys from the European Union, United States, United Kingdom, China and Norway will attend. The Forum should focus on rescuing the country from the criminal gun class and establishing a competent and inclusive international mechanism to manage the transition from war to peace.
Obviously, the security sector requires a complete overhaul. The failed 2015 peace agreement called for the cantonment and disarming of all combatants and community defence forces, which never happened. This time, a third-party force should be recruited to provide basic security while South Sudanese create a new national security force.
The country also needs a new constitution to establish institutions and create a framework for elections. At independence, South Sudan had only a provisional constitution to guide the transition. A second constitutional review process was derailed by the war.
South Sudan is rich in natural resources, including gold and oil. However, corruption is rife, heightening the grievances that ignited the conflict. The international community must accept that the nation lacks the capacity to steward its own funds during this transition period. A basket account, managed by the African Development Bank, should therefore be created to fund the transition.
Perhaps most importantly, South Sudanese need to come to terms with the horror they have just experienced. A truth commission, and criminal trials to hold to account those most responsible for the mayhem, could help entrench that precious shared sense of justice without which any nation is just a bunch of outlaws.
The international consensus is that the central driver of fragility in Africa is weak state institutions and the lack of legitimate and resilient institutions that can prevent conflict and fragility (AfDB 2013). In the case of South Sudan’s fragility, these appear to be secondary drivers. The primary trigger of country’s fragility lies in the motivations that have prevented leaders from making popular public choices. Opting instead to use oil revenues to promote disunity, disintegration, sectarianism, and violence rather than as a catalyst for nation building and development. Failure to address these motivations, the concern is that any institutions and structures of governance will meet the same fate, being used as instruments of oppression instead of liberty.
The primary driver of fragility in South Sudan has to do with the lack of a “coherent political ideology”. First proposed by Prof. Peter Adwok Nyaba, this debate is increasingly resonating among his critics as well sworn enemies. It calls for serious reflections so that people should learn to live with their differences whether gender, political ideas, facial marks or body complexion. It is the essence of democracy that may lead to the unity of ideas. It is on these reflections that an inclusive state can be built on.
It is a debate that IGAD and its development partners must bring to the centre stage as it negotiates and designs interventions that reflect the unique history and context of the country’s fragility, so it does not just address the obvious pitfalls of fragility but also the obscure ones.
The paper does not delve into historical milestones of the 1955-1972 war or John Garang’s SPLA’s unified secular and democratic Sudan; the SPLA `Nasir faction’ abandoning a unified secular Sudanese state in favour of the principle of `self-determination’ which ultimately carried the day or the roles played by the international community. All of these events explain in varying degrees the current realities including the collapse of governance, raging political disputes, President Kiir’s parochial politics and the lack of vision, neglect and aversion of the SPLM/A leadership to state building.
Instead, the aim is to highlight the challenge of fragility in South Sudan as a consequence of economic and institutional problems and the role of the neighbours and international community and to suggest a strategic approach and sustainable policy interventions for exiting fragility. This requires functional analysis of the political economy to design policies and programmes that are grounded in political realities. The paper is divided into sections showing the culmination of economic and political events that led to the creation of the autonomous southern region and its subsequent abolition – the search for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding supported by endogenous growth and development.