South Sudan: The End of a Noble Experiment?By Steve McDonald // Friday, December 27, 2013
On December 15, 2013 fighting broke out in Juba, South Sudan in the Presidential compound among elements of the presidential guard, an elite unit of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). This fighting quickly overlapped into the streets of the capital city with hundreds of civilian casualties. President Salva Kiir immediately accused a political rival, former Vice President Riek Machar, of fomenting a coup. Machar was not only Vice President, but had also been a general in the SPLA who had fought during the civil war with northern Sudan that led to independence for South Sudan in July 2011. In July 2013, President Salva Kiir had dismissed most of his cabinet precipitously, including Machar, and later restructured the command of the SPLA. Many observers thought those actions were an attempt to remove Machar from a position of power, as Machar had already declared he was going to run for president against Kiir in the elections slated for 2015. At the same time as he accused Machar of a coup attempt, Kiir detained eleven key former ministers of government and senior officials, many who had been key players in the past negotiations for independence. These individuals remain in detention.
Persistent Challenges of Governance and Development
All of these political machinations were unfolding against a backdrop of social and economic chaos. Since independence, the government of South Sudan has been wracked with incompetence, malfeasance, and corruption. Basic human needs have gone unmet for one of the poorest nations on earth, despite generous international aid flows. Job creation is minimal and unemployment rampant. Elites were lining their pockets, while the vast majority went hungry. Warlords were making deals with international entrepreneurs in their sectors, but the central government seemed totally ineffective. One Sudanese, who left government, told me it was as if the ministers were still “in celebration, drinking champagne and enjoying their Mercedes and other perks of office,” and gave no thought to governance.
All of this happening in a society that has known civil war for over almost 50 years, and has been beset with its own ethnic tensions and developmental challenges. No small wonder that a flash of violence would turn into a major crisis, as political rivals and supporters breaking down on ethnic lines, mainly Dinka and Nuer, began flailing away at each other. Fighting has spread to other major cities, particularly Bor, Bentiu and Malakal, all in the oil producing states of Jonglei and Unity. Machar, whose whereabouts is currently unknown, apparently fled to Jonglei, where he has supporters in the SPLA and launched counter attacks against his rivals. The fighting took on an ethnic overtone as Machar’s Nuer followers attacked primarily Dinka, and Kiir’s Dinka followers had victimized primarily Nuer. As usual, it was civilians who were caught in the crossfires who suffered most. Official death toll from the UN numbers over 1,000, but informal estimates from eye witnesses say it is much higher. Also, about 60,000 refugees have sought shelter in the UN camps, and up to another 60,000 have been internally displace elsewhere.
Immediate Action by the International Community
Mediation efforts got underway immediately, with the UN Special Representative, Hilde Johnson, calling for a stop to the fighting, and a stream of outside Special Envoys and neighboring political leaders, including the US Special Envoy Don Booth, Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam, and IGAD Foreign Ministers plus IGAD negotiator General Sumbeiywo all visiting over the last week or so. Former SPLA/M leader John Garang’s widow, Rebecca Garang, who has great standing within the SPLA, has reportedly attempted to mediate with the rebel officers, possibly Machar himself. This all led to an IGAD hosted “summit” in Nairobi, Kenya on December 27, attended by President Kiir, which resulted in a commitment by his government to negotiate a settlement and a call from IGAD presidents for Machar to follow suit. The missing ingredient, of course, was Machar himself, who remains elusive and without whom, no settlement can be reached.
Bleak Outlook for Immediate Future
With no end to fighting in sight, no revenue or services flowing to the population, and a government incapacitated, South Sudan is floundering, to say the least. Short-sighted and self-aggrandizing policies on government’s part, and a lack of any attempt at reconciliation or trust building among marginalized and disaffected population groups, has brought this newest country in the world to the brink. Waiting just outside the world’s immediate focal range is the Sudan, which seems poised to re-inject itself into the south to protect the oil fields and its own primary revenue source. This could go from bad to worse, with a reigniting of the civil war between north and south that had ended in 2005. The one positive is that the world’s attention has been focused. The UN Secretary General, U.S. President Obama and his administration, and other key world leaders, including the Chinese, the major purchaser of Sudanese oil, all call for an end to hostilities and together are pushing for some longer-term solution.
Photo Credit: SPLA Soldiers Redeploy South, United Nations Photo via Flickr.
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