South Sudan: A Road to Hell Paved with Good Intentions?

The youngest country in the world, born in 2011, has fallen into a cycle of violence that could lead to a civil war. The consequences would be devastating for the country and region. A fragile ceasefire agreement has been reached between the government and opposition forces that could (if respected) provide time for negotiations in Ethiopia. There are daunting problems ahead and the prospects are not good, but this may be a good moment for reflection on the past and the way ahead.

In short, the crisis erupted by mid-December as political rivalry and tensions at the highest levels of government and the South People Liberation Movement (SPLM). The dispute overlapped with previous ethnic and political grievances and evolved with armed clashes and target ethnic killings.

South Sudan faces a security and humanitarian emergency. Waves of violence throughout the country have left thousands dead. More than half a million people are fleeing violence as internally displaced and more than 80,000 are refugees. Nearly a half remain without humanitarian aid due to looting, fighting and lack of access.

How could this happen in such a short period? How in a country that fought a decades long civil war with Sudan to gain independence, and which received widespread international support to build a state and long-term peace?

Without the intention of being exhaustive, here are some the reasons that explain the descent into violence.

Internal and well-rooted fault lines and divisions

The immediate trigger of violence was the offensive launched by President Salva Kiir Mayardit against political rivals last December, after an episode of violence among members of the Presidential Guard. Last summer, Kiir had undertaken a cabinet change and Vice President Machar and other key officials were removed from office. After his incident, he ordered arrests.

Political infighting is not new. Deep divisions and splits affected the South People Liberation Army / Movement (SPLA/M) since the 90s. Prominent leaders mobilized constituencies and supporters along ethnic lines in their power competition (sometimes with support from the government of Khartoum), resulting in atrocities and human rights violations.

As a result of internal factionalism, the SPLM never developed cohesive institutions nor a social or political agenda for areas under its control. It was also prevented from transforming into a professional military army.

Reconciliation took place in the early 2000s but tensions remained, both among leadership and supporters. The rhetoric of external oppression contributed to conceal those facts.  But acute underdevelopment, limited institutional and human capacity and paramount pressures furthered stress after independence.

Political struggle in advance of the 2015 elections is now playing a role and making visible the fractures, divisions and grievances unaddressed during the liberation war. Ongoing is a political battle for control of the SPLM and power in South Sudan. Ethnic arguments are used to mobilize and gain political and military advantage, but this war is political more than ethnic.

Suffering a gun shot wound to his ankle, Diel, 28, is one of 144 Lou Nuer who were evacuated from Manya Bol to Bor hospital in Bor town, Jonglei state, South Sudan, Monday July 15, 2013. Fierce clashes between rival ethnic groups have again exploded in eastern Jonglei with aid agencies fearing more to come  © Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/IRIN

Suffering a gun shot wound to his ankle, Diel, 28, is one of 144 Lou Nuer who were evacuated from Manya Bol to Bor hospital in Bor town, Jonglei state, South Sudan, Monday July 15, 2013. Fierce clashes between rival ethnic groups have again exploded in eastern Jonglei with aid agencies fearing more to come
© Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/IRIN

International narratives… and actions

A widespread vision outside the region presented South Sudan simply as a victim of the Government (which is part of the true but not all the true). This narrative, promoted by international campaigns, celebrities and some NGO, helped to conceal social and political internal problems.

The US was a prime sponsor of the new state and a case in point. Supporters for an independent South Sudan included (for different reasons) an improbable coalition of human rights activists, celebrities, Democrats, Republicans, religious conservatives and African-American lobbyists around a simplistic narrative. There was also a post 9/11 component: Sudan is an Arab led regime that had harboured Osama Bin Laden.

To what extent international institutions (and donors) were influenced by those images is a question that remains open.

But there were warning signs. International donors made a great effort in South Sudan, taken as a test of international engagement in fragile states. But engagement was largely based in the assumption that delivery of basic services and development aid was the best contribution to conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The dominant ‘theory of change’ implied that the lack of development was a major cause of conflict.

Those assumptions were fundamentally flawed, as shown in the report Aiding the peace: a multi-donor evaluation of support to conflict prevention and peacebuilding activities in Southern Sudan 2005-2010, a multi-donor evaluation on external assistance 2005-2010.

Between 2005 and 2009, the donors analysed in this study provided 4.2 billion dollars (including humanitarian aid). Adding the budget of the UN mission to South Sudan (UNMIS), the total is above 8 billion. Between 65-85% was directed to economic development. Issues like government and civil society only reached a 27% peak at 2009, once the absence of government capacity was fully appreciated.

Security problems remained, including proliferation of small arms. The disarmament of civilians largely failed. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs were promoted but did not address fear and mistrust. The incorporation of former militia members into the armed forces oversized a military with no professional training or command and control.

The component of resources was not addressed, with violent cattle raids affecting agro-pastoralist communities, and tensions over the management and consequences of oil extraction and large-scale land acquisitions.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) lacked a robust mandate and the necessary resources to carry it out. It is only authorized to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence ‘within its capabilities and in its areas of deployment”. Initially planned with 7,000 military personnel and 900 police (not enough even in the best circumstances), only now additional personnel and resources have been authorized. However it will take long until they can be deployed.

As the conflict North-South was seen as the main threat to peace, the divisions in the South and the role of ethnicity and patronage were largely ignored. The aforementioned evaluation stresses that “neither the Government of South Sudan nor donors produced a convincing nor consensual model of what Southern Sudan as a ‘state’ would look like in say, ten years. From the donors, the reticence… reflected the tendency to approach the challenge purely as a technical exercise in capacity building and service delivery.” Recently the head of the UN Development Program, Helen Clark, has recognized the misjudgement of the international community.

Some important elements to keep in mind

Civil society was a ‘missing factor’, set aside before and after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the North was signed. As the analyst John Prendergast has stated, “we already know what doesn’t work. Too many peace conferences that kept civil society, religious leaders, grass roots activists and women out of the room have failed. Partial and non-inclusive peace agreements that are negotiated among only those with the biggest guns don’t lead to lasting peace.”

Important civil society sectors have made relentless efforts for peace, including relevant and influential religious leaders with credibility and public support (irrespective of ethnic divides). They have elaborated a detailed action plan for dialogue and reconciliation and lead a National Reconciliation Committee that builds upon South African experiences. Set aside during negotiations for the CPA and after independence, their voices would be better heard now.

In terms of the neighbouring countries, much depends on Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), for brokering dialogue and potential ways forward with support from the African Union. In a worse scenario, those more likely to intervene would do so pursuing their own interests and maybe aggravating the situation. Uganda has already done so, while Kenya has abstained (although Kenyan companies are among the greater investors there).

The African Union Commission has taken steps to start a Commission of Inquiry expected to address the responsibilities for violence and victims, as well as to contribute to a comprehensive strategy of conflict resolution and nation building.

Other key external partners include the Troika (US, UK, Norway) and China (main oil investor) that could support African-led mediation efforts.

This case should encourage reflection on to how to engage peacebuilding as a political (not just technical) endeavour, based on a profound analysis of power relations, local grievances and drivers of conflict. The immediate priority, however, is stopping violence.

Check here the latest humanitarian snapshot by OCHA (UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Appeals)