South Sudan Foreign Policy: A Country in Turmoil

By: Cirino Hiteng Ofuho

Cirino Hiteng Ofuho

First and foremost, South Sudan deserves a blue print foreign policy, which to date does not exist.  What can be said in general terms is that prior to its independence on July 9th 2011, Southern Sudan pursued a Liberation Movement foreign policy, which was successfully conducted due to the able and resolute leadership of its founding father and hero, Dr John Garang De Mabior (RIP 1945-2005).  From 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) was established to fight for democratic change in the Republic of the Sudan, whose successive regimes in Khartoum were perceived or regarded autocratic, repressive or oppressive, marginalising, etc.  The SPLM/A propagated for the creation of a democratic and none-discriminative New Sudan that should be multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, gender sensitive, of justice, equality and adherence to fundamental human right among other civil attributes of a modern society.

However, within the Movement, there were also calls for federalism/confederation and particularly for a strengthened autonomy for Southern Sudan including calls for a referendum that could lead to secession?  The emergence of the SPLM/A clearly unveiled two pronged strong divergent interests within the Movement: (i) those advocating for the New Sudan agenda, and (ii) those for the secession of Southern Sudan.  The former group were regarded progressives and identified largely with the Movement’s founding father and hero, Dr John Garang De Mabior and the latter were considered reactionaries whose shortcut objective was separation from the Northern Sudan and whose ideology was mainly drawn from the Anya’nya first civil war (1955-1972).  Despite those ideological divergences, the leadership of the SPLM/A accommodated both trajectories when mobilising both internally or externally.

As the Movement grew stronger by consolidating its hold on the ground, it also widened its regional and international contacts particularly from the late 1980s to the year 2000s.  During this period, protracted negotiations to end the war peacefully intensified and as a result, the Movement defined its new approach on how to end the war.  This new approach, for many of us, could be regarded as the cutting edge in the making of the SPLM/A foreign policy.  The Movement presented three tracks in a manual entitled: “Peace through Development” (printed in February 2000 in Nairobi, Republic of Kenya).  For the interest of those who may not have had the opportunity to read that manuscript, I will outline the tracks briefly below.  

  • Track One: This consisted of a negotiated political settlement between the SPLM and the government of the day in Khartoum and that time the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime. This was pursued by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
  • Track Two: This consisted of resolving the Sudan conflict through the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), of which the SPLM was a founding member. The NDA opened its fighting front in Eastern Sudan with access through Eritrea.  In which case the NDA was expected to build itself into a viable and credible alternative to the NIF regime in Khartoum.
  • Track Three: This consisted of the SPLM programme of ‘Peace through Development’ of the New Sudan. What was envisaged was that while the SPLM pursued the option of a negotiated peaceful political settlement with the NIF through the IGAD peace process (Track One) and through the NDA (Track Two), it should start socio-economic development of the New Sudan and provision of basic social services to the civil population in areas it controlled.

These three tracks constituted the basis for defining the Movement’s relations with the region and the international community, which is a reflection of its domestic management of the affairs of the New Sudan and becoming a responsible alternative in taking over power in the country.  This gave the Movement a positive image not just internally but also externally and therefore a high moral ground to conduct itself diplomatically until the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed on January 9th 2005.  This agreement was a clear success of the SPLM foreign relations engagement, which started by winning its immediate neighbours like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Uganda, without whose committed support our history could have been different.

When the CPA ushered the country into a Pre-Transition period, the SPLM was already a regional and international player and that is why during the Oslo Donor Conference in April 2005 and other engagements that followed, John Garang De Mabior and Ustaz Ali Osman Taha (then First Vice President of Sudan) were equally accorded sovereign recognition.  By the time the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGONU) was launched with the swearing in of the SPLM/A Chairman Garang as Sudan’s First Vice President on July 9th 2005, as well as the President of the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), the foundations for building trends for interaction with the region and the world were already laid.  Unfortunately, the country lost its fundamental agent of change three weeks into the TGONU.  This does not have to be elaborated here because all of us know the dire consequences of that tragic loss at the end of July 2005, whose effects are still haunting the country to date.

In 2006, the GOSS was fully composed with the appointment of Undersecretaries, which this author was privileged to be one of them, becoming a pioneer and founding technocrat of the then Ministry of Regional Cooperation (MRC).  All other institutions envisaged in the CPA for GOSS were also put in place.  However, during this time the roles of GOSS were limited because sovereignty of the country vested in the Presidency and Foreign Ministry in Khartoum, where the country’s foreign policy was defined.  That notwithstanding, the MRC started laying the foundations of what was to become a fully-fledged ministry of foreign affairs and international cooperation of the Republic of South Sudan at independence on July 9th 2011.

Throughout the transitional period, the MRC embarked in building institutions and developing personnel with critical assistance from the Royal Dutch and Republic of South African governments respectively as well as from other development partners.  There was also the advantage of having South Sudanese who served in the TGONU, particularly those civil servants in the ministry of foreign affairs in Khartoum, as per the terms of the CPA. They had to be relocated to South Sudan after independence and together with MRC personnel constituted the nucleus of the current ministry of foreign affairs and international cooperation key personnel.

Like other GOSS institutions, there were challenges and weaknesses that affected the speedy building of the MRC in Juba.  Apart from the frequent changes at the level of ministers, this author was also transferred to the office of the President in 2008.  There was (and there is still) an understanding or assumption that conventionally, and particularly in Africa, there is a very thin line separating foreign affairs from the office of the President.  After all the President is the custodian of foreign policy while the ministry of foreign affairs is simply an instrument for implementation?  As to whether this is the right approach or not is another story that could be tackled elsewhere?  In any case the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan (2011 Art. 43) outlines the external relations of the Republic of South Sudan, which is available for citation.  It does not clearly specify any details of what South Sudan foreign policy is? As mentioned earlier, there does not exist to date any blue print foreign policy of the Republic of South Sudan?

At this juncture, I would like to indulge in explaining how conventionally foreign policy is often constituted.  The foreign policy of established states or nations is fully stated according to the vision and/or programmes of the ruling party at the time.  This is not to deny the fact that, foreign policy objectives and interests are similar irrespective of what political party is in power?  For example, when the Labour Party in Britain took over power in May 1997 under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair, after nearly two decades in opposition, then Foreign Secretary Sir Robin Cook outlined what was termed ‘The Mission of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’ (FCO), which is the equivalent of the ministry of foreign affairs of any country in the world.  “To promote the national interests of the United Kingdom and contribute to a strong international community”.  He then went further to specifically spell in his key note speech of July 17th 1997 that “we shall pursue that mission to secure for Britain four benefits through our foreign policy”.  According to the new Labour Party, the four benefits were security, prosperity, the quality of life and mutual respect.  Thus, laying the claim of what came to be debated as to whether Britain was pursuing an ‘ethical foreign policy’?  This, in Britain, marked a total departure from the conservative era of Margaret Thatcher administration and her predecessors (Chris Brown, “Ethics, interests and foreign policy” in Karen Smith and Margot Light, ed. Ethics and Foreign Policy, 2001).

Unless specified and clearly qualified like what Sir Robin Cook stated above (according to the new Labour policy under PM Tony Blair), foreign policies of all countries in the world vary and very narrowly according to perceived national interests.  Without prejudice to current SPLM leaders, had John Garang lived, South Sudan could have continued its liberation movement foreign policy line vested on SPLM vision and programme.  Up to date that vision and programme has been lost under Salva Kiir leadership because the SPLM seem to have died with John Garang.  For example, the Juba regime has never even bothered to go around the region and the world to diplomatically thank all those who made it possible for South Sudan to become independent?

Before concluding this piece on the predicaments of South Sudan foreign policy, it is convenient to share briefly common definitions of what foreign policy is? Foreign policy is commonly understood to be the relations between states.  It is a governmental activity which is concerned with the relationships between states and other non-actors in the international system (Ian Manners and Richard G. Whiteman ed. ‘The Foreign Policies of European Union Member States’, 2000).  In realist perspective, foreign policy is the pursuit of national interests or strategic national interests (Henry Kissinger), primarily by the ministry of foreign affairs and office of the President.  In the United States for example, the State Department (in Foggy Bottom) is the instrument for executing U.S. foreign policy but with the close watch of the White House, which is the principle guide of all strategic national policies.  The same applies to most advanced governmental systems in the world.

Therefore, discussing foreign policy of the Republic of South Sudan presupposes that the regime in power has identified its clear national interest objectives or strategic objectives according to the vision and programme of the party.  That is why foreign policy is also a reflection of the proper management of domestic affairs.  In a nutshell, the stability of a country is an evidence of its leadership successful vision and programme, which in turn is a reflection of a country’s external perception.  It reflects how a country can also be perceived both regionally and internationally.  At the moment, this is not the case.  The Republic of South Sudan is in cross roads.  It has not only lost its patriotic liberation image but also its rightful standing in the region and the world.  There is therefore dire need for South Sudan to reclaim its hard won liberation legacy and deserved respect in the region and the world through drastic and swift change of leadership.  In fact, South Sudan requires a total overhaul of the current system of kleptocracy and inertia.  This cannot be overstated because the crisis of 2013 emerged as a result of the top leadership (particularly some members within the SPLM Political Bureau Chaired by Salva Kiir Mayardit) not only resisting against reforms within the party but also refusing to maintain the original line of the vision and programme of the party?  The split within the party top hierarchy and cadres was about anti-reformists versus progressive reformists.  This is what virtually caused the war and it is now being admitted even by those who programmed and executed the fighting of December 2013.  Therefore the coup claim was not only a sham but was orchestrated simply to mislead the region and the world.

Last but not the least, I would like to share what we members of the SPLM Leaders (Former Political Detainees), renowned as FDs or G10 + Plus, developed in a document, entitled “Our Program”, and it is about revitalizing our external relations.  In that document, which was also widely circulated, we stated that since the crisis of December 2013, the Republic of South Sudan has failed in its domestic responsibilities and as a result has tarnished its regional and international image.  In fact, South Sudan has not only become a pariah but it is a failed state.  Therefore, to restore the image of South Sudan as a sovereign independent country, there is need to urgently resolve the current national crisis.  This is the only way to restore respect in foreign relations as well as restore the values of our long liberation struggle.  South Sudanese have to be reminded that engagement with the region and the world did not just start on July 9th 2011.  It dates back to the commitment for freedom, justice, liberty or human dignity, democracy, equality and prosperity.

Consequently, South Sudan must recommit its foreign policy to protecting the national sovereignty and strategic interests, principles of good neighbourliness and promotion of international cooperation, peace and security, non-interference in the affairs of other states, regional integration, and abiding by principles of international law and order.  The country’s external relations shall enhance fully amicable diplomatic relations and international treaties and conventions.  Above all, it must focus on defence of sovereignty and physical control of national borders and maintain territorial integrity.  This is a critical matter given the fact that the delimitation of the borders of the country is yet to be completed.  South Sudan should exercise permanent sovereignty over its natural resources so as to ensure the economic wellbeing of its people and to alleviate poverty.

Finally, South Sudan values its relations with regional and international institutions.  As a result, we are member of the East African Community (EAC), IGAD, COMESA, the African Union, the United Nations, International Financial Institutions (particularly the Breton Woods institutions: IMF and World Bank), the African Development Bank (ADB) as well as key development partners worldwide both bilaterally and multilaterally.  The country shall continue to play an effective role within these organizations to enhance regional integration and international cooperation but more so for the “selfish” development benefits of its population.  Given its substantial endowment with natural resources, the Republic of South Sudan shall contribute meaningfully to the sustenance of international peace and security for the mutual benefit of humanity.

It is therefore incumbent upon the younger generation to focus on national cohesion through mutual coexistence to protect the life and sovereignty of country.  Elements of tribalism, sectarianism, perceived ethnic supremacy, amassment of wealth through corrupt means, nepotism, parochialism, to mention but a few of the tragic vices affecting humanity must be surrendered in lieu of safeguarding the hard won sovereignty. Citizens must continue to be optimistic in order to uphold the nation. Similarly, they should remain worried of the looming total collapse because of failure to regret ethnic chauvinism.  The country could tragically disintegrate?  The country’s standing in the region and the international community entirely depends on how it upholds the unity and harmony of the people.  The terms of the national anthem and the national emblem must be a religious reminder for the existence of the beloved country.  This is the deserved image.


Oh God We Praise and Glorify You, for Your Grace on South Sudan. Land of great abundance, Uphold us united in peace and harmony! … Oh Great Patriots! Let us stand up in silence and respect, saluting our martyrs whose blood cemented our national foundation! We vow to protect our nation. Oh God Bless South Sudan!


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