Understanding the Roots of Conflict in South Sudan


Interviewer: Katherine Noel, CFR Editorial Intern, Council on Foreign Relations

Interviewee: Alex de Waal, Executive Director, World Peace Foundation
September 16, 2016

Five years after gaining independence, South Sudan is gripped by a civil war that has killed an estimated 50,000 and displaced 1.6 million. Civil war along ethnic lines broke out in December 2013, following President Salva Kiir’s accusations that former Vice President Riek Machar was plotting a coup d’état. But the root of this war was not ethnic strife, says expert Alex de Waal in an interview. “The reason things turned from a political crisis to a war was not because of ethnic divisions as such, but because the army was not a professionalized, institutionalized army,” he says. To move toward peace in South Sudan, “the initiative should be taken at the African level, particularly by the African Union,” says de Waal.

Security forces patrol the Dar Petroleum Operating Company oil production operated in Palogue oil field within Upper Nile State in South Sudan, September 7, 2016. (Photo: Jok Solomun/Reuters)

After its independence in 2011, how did South Sudan so suddenly fall into a political crisis?

A combination of a hubris arising from international indulgence post-independence and an excess of money meant that the country’s political elites made some catastrophic errors, including shutting down their national oil production six months after independence because of a dispute with the northern Sudanese. They had a valid case to argue, but to cut off the source of 98 percent of your revenue when you are very politically fragile is insane—absolutely insane.

If you look at the public expenditure per capita of South Sudan at independence, it was eight or nine times higher than that in Ethiopia. It was five times than in Uganda. This was a middle-income country with a lot of money. Whatever you may think of the Ethiopian government—and their human rights record leaves a lot to be desired—if you go to Ethiopia, you see that that money is being used for public good—a lot of infrastructure, a lot of health services—a huge physical material transformation of the country and economic development. In South Sudan, it was just either stolen by elites or spent on the military.

What this meant was that the actual mechanisms for the political management of South Sudan collapsed. President Salva Kiir’s “big tent” policy, which in practice meant using state funds to buy loyalties by licensing corruption, required a large income, which no longer existed. And the political competition within the ruling party intensified—not only between President Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, but also with other members of the political elite.

How and why does political identity default to ethnic identity in conflicts like the civil war in South Sudan?

“The reason things turned from a political crisis to a war was not because of ethnic divisions, but because the army was not a professionalized, institutionalized army, but rather a collection of militia.”

The reason things turned from a political crisis to a war was not because of ethnic divisions as such, but because the army was not a professionalized, institutionalized army, but rather a collection of militia, each of which was organized on the basis of personal loyalty to its commander—in effect, ethnically based armed units

In all these poorly institutionalized societies, that’s what tends to happen. And the specific reason why it did so in South Sudan was both the legacy of previous conflict, where groups had been organized on an ethnic basis. And the groups that had organized around the president, the militias, including the Mathiang Anyoor or the brown caterpillar, who carried out the massacres in Juba in the first days of the conflict in December 2013—they had organized on an ethnic basis.

So there were ethnically based grievances and ethnically based narratives of fear, which meant that when fighting broke out, people fled to their brethren for security.

And then Riek Machar, not having the wherewithal of the government, not having the resources that the government had to try and construct a multiethnic coalition by buying in diverse members of the elite, immediately fell back upon ethnic mobilization because it was very quick and it was very cheap. He could call upon the [ethnic] Nuer militia and the so-called “White Army” to mobilize almost overnight, because that’s what they’ve done for some twenty years.

And then, inevitably, the conflict became primarily Nuer versus Dinka [the predominant ethnic group supporting President Kiir], though if you look at any particular locality you will find that it’s not that simple—that there are some Nuer groups and some members of the Nuer elite that, for whatever reason, have brought their communities onto the government side. And some members of the Dinka elite, particularly around Bor, who have tried to stay out of it entirely, or are even sympathizing with the opposition.

What is the capacity for the UN to play a stabilizing role given the recent criticism of its peacekeepers for failing to prevent rape and other abuses happening in the capital?

The UN Mission in South Sudan is justifiably criticized for some serious failures to protect civilians and humanitarian workers under threat. But the UN’s biggest failing is political—a failure of the political leadership in 2013 to take steps that surely could have been taken to mitigate the political crisis as it erupted.

The most cogent proposals that are now coming forward for future international engagement in South Sudan are quite ambitious. They involve, first of all, a regional protection force, which is a beefed-up peacekeeping force consisting of troops from neighboring countries that would be mandated to be a lot more proactive and would be given the right equipment and to, in theory, go out on fairly aggressive patrols and other operations that could actually protect civilians who are under immediate threat from the warring parties.

It’s not very encouraging that the existing troops have not been able to do that. The next challenge to the UN is if it is to have any sort of stepped-up political, administrative role, is it actually capable of doing it? This would require a type of dedicated administration and political leadership that we haven’t seen from the UN in South Sudan over the last few years.

The recent rapes and beatings of aid workers and civilians by soldiers at a Juba hotel have been linked to a lack of accountability for human rights violations during Sudan’s decades-long civil war. How much has that war shaped the actions of combatants in South Sudan today?

One issue here is, yes, just the general impunity that these combatants have enjoyed. And particularly in this instance, the South Sudanese combatant abuses have been overlooked for years and years, because they were the “good guys” [in the long civil war against northern Sudan forces]. They were on our side. The other element here is that if you look at U.S. policy towards South Sudan, it swung from being very close, very intimate, to being one of bitter rejection as if by a spurned lover.

Just as the attitudes of pro-South Sudan activists in Washington, DC, swung from support to skepticism, so did the sentiments of their erstwhile friends. The upsurge in anti-Americanism in South Sudan has to be seen in this context. Members of the South Sudanese leadership feel betrayed. They have lost a lot of face and have been discredited. They expected Americans to extend unconditional love, and never to be called to account for their misdeeds.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned South Sudan’s leaders to carry out the terms of the peace deal or face sanctions and a loss of U.S. aid. Is this enough to spur compliance?

It won’t be enough to spur compliance, because unfortunately the terms of the peace deal are such that they could not be implemented or complied with without committing political suicide by the key actors.

The August 2015 peace agreement simply cannot be implemented: it was based on three false premises. First, that the political rivals could reconcile and resolve their differences. Second, that funds would be there to make it materially worthwhile for them to participate in a power-sharing agreement—but the country has actually gone off the macro-economic cliff and into meltdown. And finally, that the security of the national capital Juba could be provided jointly by two armies that were still bitterly unreconciled and deeply distrustful of each other. A crisis was only a matter of time.

What do you see as the next steps in South Sudan?

The initiative should be taken at the African level, particularly by the African Union. The AU has the legal mechanisms required to intervene very forcefully in South Sudan. The Constitutive Act of the AU contains a couple of key provisions. One is a prohibition on unconstitutional changes in government. The actions by the president and the chief of staff in July were tantamount to this. They didn’t remove the head of state, but they basically tore up the peace agreement which was the closest that they had to a constitution. Notwithstanding its flaws, it should have been protected. And if it needed to be revised, it needed to be revised through discussion. So South Sudan should, in my view, be suspended from the African Union.

“The African Union has the legal mechanisms required to intervene very forcefully in South Sudan.”

The other key provision in the Constitutive Act is for forcible intervention in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. In 2014, the AU itself carried out an investigation into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law during the armed conflict. The report was released last year. It found crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by all sides. Now, it would be rather naïve to believe that the same parties would resume the same war without committing the same crimes. And indeed, all the evidence we have is that they are committing the same crimes. They’ve not yet been documented fully, but that’s just because of lack of time and lack of access. The AU, based on its earlier investigation, has every reason for saying these crimes are being committed and it should intervene.

In such a case, of a double crisis of a lack of constitutional government alongside the commission of these crimes, the AU is entitled to intervene. And the most sensible proposal for that is for the regional protection force to take control of the capital city and remove other armed groups there, and create within the capital city a protected space for political dialogue, civic dialogue, where all South Sudanese civil and political forces can be represented in a nonviolent manner. And on that basis, then [they can] begin a process of national political dialogue and nation-building, backed by the military force of neighboring countries.

Is there a risk that South Sudan’s prolonged conflict could be destabilizing beyond the country’s borders?

It certainly has a destabilizing effect. It is affecting Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan and it is keeping regional rivalries alive that have other destabilizing consequences. Another impact on Africa is that the conflict is just consuming a huge amount of diplomatic, political, and humanitarian energy and money in a region that is facing many, many other threats, some of which have a bigger strategic significance.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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