(Middle East Online) - South Sudan has comprehensively failed as a state in barely six years, with severe famine and a massive internal
, and external, refugee problem. The causes go back to colonial rule, observes Gerard Prunier.
Pope Francis’s planned visit to South Sudan in October has been postponed indefinitely, the Vatican has announced. He still wants to go, but it would be impossible just now given the violence in the country, which only became independent in 2011.
The human cost of the internal conflict that started in December 2013 continues to grow. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than five million people facing severe food shortages, nearly two million displaced internally, and 1.8 million refugees outside the country — 928,000 in Uganda, 320,000 in Ethiopia, 72,360 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 400,000 in Sudan, 70,000 in Kenya and 1,600 in the Central African Republic (which has its own security problems). These figures, from May, may already be too low as the UNHCR estimates that more than 60,000 flee each month. The exact numbers killed are unknown: sources close to the UN estimate that 300,000 have died from disease, lack of medical attention for wounds, famine, and long hard journeys on foot. Fighting may have directly caused 50,000 deaths. (The total population of South Sudan is estimated at 12 million; no rigorous census has ever been undertaken).
This internal conflict has already caused at least as much death and destruction as the war waged by the southern Sudanese against the Khartoum government (1983-2002), if not more. The churches, a few NGOs and the UN are trying to help, but the $1.6bn aid appeal launched by the UN in 2015 has had a poor response: 46% of the target has been pledged, but there is no guarantee it will be disbursed. The UN has been forced to reduce the amount of food it is distributing in Uganda, the most seriously affected country in that part of Africa. David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, calls the situation deplorable.
What was originally a war between opposing factions has given way to a conflict that is now bogged down and fragmented. It’s no longer possible to negotiate effectively with either the government or the ‘rebels’, since no one can guarantee a minimum level of security, even for the pope.
The media’s original explanation for this disaster suggested a disdain for Africa. At independence, two rival warlords — Salva Kiir (a Dinka) and Riek Machar (a Nuer) — became president and vice-president. The media claimed that Machar had attempted a coup against Kiir, supported by his own ethnic group, and that its failure had led to harsh repression. This was not true. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Barack Obama, deserves credit for being the only member of a western government to deny that any coup had been attempted in South Sudan.
The real causes go back to British colonial policy in Sudan. The Arab population in the north received preferential treatment over economic investment and spending on education and infrastructure; the south remained underdeveloped and under-educated. After independence in 1956, the Muslim north began an internal colonisation of the animist and Christian south, which led to wars in 1956-72 and 1983-2002.
Almost all of the fighting during the first war was in the Equatorial states, in the far south. This conflict led to an administrative reorganisation, with the south gaining ‘autonomy’ under a regional government. But the discovery of oil increased the north’s eagerness to control the south. In 1982 Sudan’s president Gaafar al-Nimeiry dissolved the 1972 peace agreement, and war broke out again in 1984, led by Dinka and Nuer cattle herders in the Jonglei, Upper Nile and Bahr al-Ghazal states.
The people of Equatoria, exhausted by the first war, were reluctant to take part. Rebel leader Colonel John Garang, a Dinka, was a remarkable military commander and visionary political thinker, but he was also tribalist and authoritarian. Repeated betrayals and attempted coups from within his own movement — the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA, renamed South Sudan Defence Forces this May) — were brutally crushed. He died in an accident in July 2005 after signing a peace agreement that January, leaving the SPLA torn by power struggles and Dinka tribalism.
Kiir replaced Garang as head of the SPLA and president of the autonomous region of South Sudan; this also made him vice-president of Sudan, under President Omar al-Bashir. In April 2010 he was re-elected president of South Sudan with a substantial majority — and a mission to lead the region to independence.
In 2011 enthusiasm for South Sudanese independence spread to the US, infecting Democrats and Republicans alike. The international community hailed the prospective new state, but its confidence was unjustified: South Sudan was poor, uneducated (literacy was 20% among men and 2% among women), politically inexperienced and over-armed. It lacked administrative infrastructure, and relied on oil — to which only SPLA cadres had access — for 98% of its revenue.
After the independence referendum in January 2011, South Sudan seceded and Kiir became head of the newly independent state without being elected. Kiir’s vice-president, Machar, was higher ranked and better known among ethnic Nuer cadres. In 2012, when international pressure forced the government to plan elections for 2015, Dinka leaders panicked. Other than Machar, Kiir should have faced two heavyweight candidates: Rebecca Nyandeng, the widow of John Garang and also a Dinka though independently minded, and Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the SPLA, a Shilluk. Kiir’s close associates responded by establishing a Jieng (Dinka) Council of Elders, which in a climate of confusion was considered to be the real (if illegitimate) government. It was widely condemned, even by democratic Dinkas.
South Sudan has been self-governing since the peace agreement of 2005. But it has remained in the hands of the SPLA and has seen no economic upturn. Corruption is so bad that the president wrote an open letter to government officials demanding that they return the $4bn they had ‘stolen’ since independence; $22m was recovered. Nothing has been done to improve education, healthcare or infrastructure. Inter-ethnic clashes, usually linked to cattle rustling, have escalated to a point where the government can no longer control them. Worse, ‘national’ army troops behave like Dinka militias when they support the government, or like Nuer militias when they rebel.
In 2013 preparations for the 2015 elections and Machar’s announcement of his candidature drove Kiir to purge his government of all potential opponents and give army chief of staff General Paul Malong an increasingly important role. On 15 December 2013, when Dinka troops were ordered by Malong to disarm Nuer soldiers, the Nuers rebelled. The revolt was crushed, but ‘loyalist’ troops — from different ethnic groups, but the majority Dinkas — then massacred all the Nuers they found in the capital, Juba. Some 6-10,000 are thought to have been killed in three days.
Nuer troops stationed in provincial areas then rose up. Machar, who had managed to flee Juba, assumed leadership. During 2014, foreign observers, especially diplomats, explained the causes of the conflict as a combination of personal rivalry between Machar and Kiir, and ethnic rivalry between Nuers and Dinkas. But as time went on, nearly all other ethnic groups, especially in Equatoria and Bahr al-Ghazal, rose up against the government in Juba, and the Dinka monopoly on political power. The conflict spread, and the feeble structures inherited from the SPLA were unable to cope. The rebellion failed to organise itself, and what little government remained fell to pieces.
The international community did little to help. The UN and US continued to defend the legitimacy of the regime that had emerged from the SPLA. In May 2014 the Security Council decided to strengthen the UN Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss), deployed since independence in 2011, and send in more peacekeepers. The Unmiss mandate was reprioritised to focus on the supervision and protection of camps for the internally displaced; the existing camps were full, and no longer accepting newcomers.
In line with the new diplomatic approach that calls for ‘African solutions to African problems’, the response to the crisis was contracted out to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African organisation whose ability to manage problems is limited or nonexistent. Its members were either too weak to intervene militarily (Djibouti, Somalia, South Sudan), or had conflicting regional policies (Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda). After lengthy talks, a peace agreement was signed at Nairobi in August 2015.
Machar, fearing for his personal safety, demanded guarantees. In the end, he returned to Juba, where he barely escaped assassination on 8 July 2016. He survived by fleeing on foot to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, after wandering for a few weeks, was arrested in Addis Ababa, where he had gone in the hope of securing the intervention of the African Union. Machar is currently under house arrest in South Africa (but has never been brought to trial). One of his lieutenants, Taban Deng Gai, though repudiated by the rebel movement, was bribed to legitimise the August 2015 peace agreement, which the government in Juba says it is keen to uphold, though there has until now been no sign of its being implemented.
The international community remained attached to the myth of the failed coup, and continued to hold Machar responsible for the war. The US has considerable influence in Anglophone African countries, and John Kerry, as secretary of state, promoted this view.
Removing Machar was supposed to resolve the crisis, but had the opposite effect. Without a leader, the rebels broke up into a number of independent armed groups. Meanwhile the government in Juba tried to establish a national dialogue, though mainly with people who had links to the Jieng Council of Elders and were rejected by the churches, civil society and what remains of the media. The violence is now compounded by a famine, which the government officially declared on 21 February and which affects at least 100,000 in the north.
Today, even many Dinkas would like Kiir to resign. But the chaos is such that this would not be enough to restore peace. Given the catastrophic impact of the conflict on the civilian population, there is now talk of placing the world’s most severely failed state under UN supervision. This would be effective, at least in the short term, but expensive. And its opponents would probably reject it as old-style colonialism.
Daily Arabic Newspapers Headlines Sunday 23rd July, 2017Next >